On the power of symbols and their contested meanings.
Symbols are important. They are ubiquitous, they are charged, and they are powerful. And yet, in ordinary circumstances rarely do we articulate in our own mind, let alone communicate with other members of our social group, which meaning we derive from a particular symbol in a given context. In ordinary times the cherry blossom in Japan signals positive meanings including the celebration of life, love, and reproductive energy—meanings that would change during the country’s military period. One of the flower’s symbolic meanings—pathos over the brevity of life—was transformed into a military dictum: “Thou shalt fall like beautiful cherry petals after a short life for the emperor-cum-Japan.” It became the Japanese state’s major trope of propaganda during its quest for imperial power, though few of the soldiers who were sent to the front were cognizant of this symbolic reassignment.
The Confederate flag controversy demonstrated in no uncertain terms how dramatic expressions of symbolic power do not happen in a vacuum.
The important dynamics of symbols came to the fore in a most dramatic way when the mass killings at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, triggered an intense public debate over what the Confederate flag stood for. Dylann Roof, the young white man who espoused white supremacist views, went on a rampage, shooting and killing nine people—all African American—during a Bible study meeting this past June. It took place in a historically important black church—the Emanuel A.M.E. Church, which survived antebellum laws barring worship by blacks, an angry white mob that burned down its original edifice, and the execution of its founder and dozens of others condemned for planning a slave revolt.