The meaning of a communication depends on its context. “How are you doing?” has one meaning when you greet a friend on the street and another if your friend just lost a loved one.
The cultures in which we live are vital contexts for communication. One way to define culture is a shared system of symbols. Semiotics, the study of symbols and signs, describes how these enable diverse individuals to share common meanings.
A fascinating aspect of semiotics is how signs evolve over time. The hit 1970s ballad about a man returning home from prison, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree,” became in 1979 a symbol for the return of American hostages held in Iran. Today, ribbons of many colors are symbols for scores of causes.
Recently, a 2018 Supreme Court ruling, Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd., v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, turned on the symbolism of a wedding cake. The case involved a Colorado baker who, for religious reasons, refused to create a wedding cake for a gay couple. For the couple, their wedding cake symbolized acceptance and equality. For the baker, a wedding cake symbolized a divinely created order of male and female. Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled for the baker on narrow technical grounds.
Many conservatives who cheered the Masterpiece decision fear that the Bible is being marginalized, transformed by American culture into a symbol of bigotry. They worry that believers will become socially excluded, second-class people. If you fear this scenario, then perhaps you can also imagine another.
Imagine you are a person of color in the Virginia where I grew up—where I attended Stonewall Jackson Elementary School and Washington-Lee High School, where our school colors were blue and gray, where our main thoroughfares were Lee Highway and Jefferson Davis Highway. What meaning would you take from these symbols of the majority culture? Would these meanings make you feel marginalized, socially excluded, a second-class person?
The saying goes, “It depends on whose ox is gored.” If you fear that cherished symbols are being “canceled,” pause for a moment. Yes, culture is deeply felt. Its symbols give meaning to our lives and shared contexts for our communication. When traditional symbols are questioned, we naturally react. But try to see it from someone else’s point of view. Step outside your media bubble. Talk to someone with a different perspective.
If you can’t discuss issues, if you can’t be civil, then you turn competing symbols into a zero-sum game. Once that happens, once you force only a win-lose outcome between tradition and change, there will inevitably come a time when your ox is the one that’s gored.
Two years ago, the school board in my hometown voted to rename my old high school. A group of alumni sued the board, publicly attacked its members in personal terms, and filled social media with hymns to General Lee.
In the end, the board approved the name Washington-Liberty High School. Though it will never satisfy diehards, it’s a good name, a proud name. We alumni can still wear our “W-L” memorabilia, sing our “W-L” fight song, cheer for our W-L Generals. And we can all share a symbol—liberty—that marginalizes no one, that unites rather than divides us.
Those with whom you disagree are not your enemies. The school board members who renamed my high school are people of goodwill. They strove not to “cancel,” but to preserve the best of the traditions that we all share.
The same is true of those who call on Americans to reexamine the monumental symbols of our culture.
It is also true of Victorians who ask about the symbolism of the Confederate memorial on our town plaza. Talk to them. Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine how you would feel if the symbols of culture excluded you.
Through dialogue, you can find common ground. Why? The best American traditions include us all.