Productive Questions as Critical Thinking
1. What function do symbols serve?
2. Are words any different from a flag in serving as shorthand forms of meaning?
3. What would the world be like with no symbols?
When I first thought about writing this post, I felt I needed to think aloud about my predominant distaste for symbols. Consider flags for example. They are a visual image representing a country---just a piece of fabric or a photo. But no, they are so much more, aren't they? Some people say they would give their life defending their flag. Others want to bludgeon those who would place a flag on their jeans and then sit on it. Why?
I do not place a flag in my yard; I do not get excited when I see our university mascot headed in my direction. What am I missing? I most certainly do not experience a frisson when I pass a brightly-lit store heralded by a picture of a well-known Apple with a bite missing from its right side.
The more I thought about symbols, the more I realized I was painting with too broad a brush when I derogated symbols. Symbols are quick, a shortcut, a doffing of the hat to efficiency. A road sign with a large H usually tells us with rapid-fire immediacy that we are in the vicinity of trained medical personnel. There is no need for an essay or even a sentence to communicate this useful message.
Symbols do several things for us. They have the possibility to inspire, manipulate, becloud our judgment, identify tribal membership, and save us time, inter alia. Some of these functions have merit; others caution us to consume symbols with caution. That caution can result from an awareness that many important symbols, flags for instance, have quite different meanings to different people. Hence, a symbol may be more an invitation to a conversation about its meaning than a universal call to act in a particular fashion. Then, given the cognitive bias of believing that THE meaning is MY meaning, symbols can be stimuli for dramatically divergent messages. In short, they are potentially a communicative pollutant.
It is hard not to notice that words, our primary tool for communication have the same potential merits and demerits as symbols for each word is similarly a short-hand chord struck on our imagination. But symbols, like high-sounding abstractions, are especially powerful because of their vividness. Therefore, they deserve our special attention as they are bandied about as if their meaning is transparently clear.
I cannot imagine a world without symbols. Can you? As long as they have the capacity to perform the functions enumerated above, they will be our constant companion, whether invited or not.
1. Do we have any measurements of the extent to which people are guided by symbolic clues to desired behavior?
2. Are most humans so lonely that they would feel adrift without their treasured symbols of group identity?
3. Is it at all possible to hope that humans would move toward clarifying the meaning of specific symbols FOR THEM so that the rest of us can better understand their behavior?