The recent kerfuffle regarding the non-burning of the Koran is an object lesson in the more depressing aspects of human nature. Ironically, one of the very things that makes us human and distinct from animals that simultaneously makes us intolerant and aggressive. That’s the ability to use symbols.
In modern usage, the OED defines a symbol as:
Something that stands for, represents, or denotes something else (not by exact resemblance, but by vague suggestion, or by some accidental or conventional relation); esp. a material object representing or taken to represent something immaterial or abstract, as a being, idea, quality, or condition.
Language is an example, par excellence, of symbolic behavior. When we use the word “dog” to stand for a four-legged animal that barks and wags its tail when happy, the word itself is just an arbitrary collection of sounds. There’s no inherent relationship between the word and the object it represents, which is why different languages can have different words for the same thing. Thus, the French have a “chien, ” the Spanish have a “perro,” the Turks have a “kopek,” and the Chinese have a “gau.”
In a different example, very young children play with boxes and use them as cars, boats, houses, hats, and any other number of objects, simply because they can. Little Frank can use a stick as a sword, an airplane, a wand, or a guitar; a chimp uses a stick as… well, a stick. Some folks might want to debate this on the basis that some studies seem to suggest that chimps demonstrate evidence of symbolic understanding, but it’s hardly overwhelming and of limited magnitude when compared to the almost limitless symbolism that rattles through the brain of homo sapiens.
As an extension of the ability to use objects symbolically is the tendency to create taboos – and more specifically, taboo objects. This is no more obvious than in religious mythology. For Christians, a small piece of bread – called a “host” – can be magically transformed into the body of Jesus Christ. For Catholics, abuse of a consecrated host is viewed as being a mortal sin, which ranks as an 8 or 9 on the “Sin Scale” and can lead to the desecrator ending up spending the whole of eternity burning in the flames of Hell: All for messing with a piece of bread. In less enlightened times, offenders could be tortured and beheaded for host desecration – which is relatively mild when compared with eternal damnation.
And pity the poor pig, an animal that for no particular reason whatsoever is shunned by Jews and Muslims as being unclean. Not for them the guilty pleasure of a freshly made hot bacon sandwich with a dash of Worcestershire sauce. Meanwhile, for Hindus, anything that comes from the humble cow is to be avoided. Other taboo foods include bats (non-kosher), cats (too cute), fungi (the International Society for Krishna Consciousness say they “excite passions”), rabbits (OK for Sunni Muslims, not for Shias), lettuce (according to one branch of Islam, the lettuce is evil), and humans.
The thing about taboos is that they carry with them an awful lot of emotional baggage. Not only do humans have the capacity to create symbols but they also imbue them with powerful feelings. Symbols are also, for the most part, culturally specific, and difficult to understand from an outside perspective. Although it’s easy to pass them off as “primitive” or “stupid,” even the “sophisticated” cultures have their quirks. Your average American would almost choke if you suggested putting cat or horse on the menu at the local bar, yet other countries have no taboo against it. After all, what’s the difference? Why should we be OK to eat pigs and sheep and cows but balk at horses?
And how about flag burning? Take a large piece of cotton, paint some stripes in red and white across it, and them dab some stars in the corner. Now set fire to it. It’s just painted cloth, right? But it was only four years ago that there was a vote on whether or not to criminalize the burning of the US flag. So how “civilized” or “sophisticated” is a country that wants to lock people up for setting fire to something akin to a bed-sheet? And next time you’re on a trip that involves flying to a hotel, try asking to sit in seat 13 or book a room on the 13th floor. There’s a good chance you’ll be unable to do either of them because even in the 21st century, the number 13 is taboo in many countries.
It’s really, really, really hard for people to see past symbols. Once a symbol takes on a taboo status, all reason goes out of the window and the emotions take over. Be it a piece of colored cloth, a collection of pieces of paper bound together, or a ham sandwich, someone, somewhere, is going to hold it in reverence and even be prepared to kill others to maintain that sacred state.
In fact, the word symbol was originally used strictly in a religious sense to refer to;
A formal authoritative statement or summary of the religious belief of the Christian church, or of a particular church or sect; a creed or confession of faith, spec. the Apostles’ Creed.
This use can be traced back to Saint Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage, who was born around 208 CE. He used the Latin word symbolum to refer to the baptismal creed. This was because accepting baptism was a mark that differentiated a Christian from a heathen, and the word symbolum means “mark.”
In fact, it can traced further back to the Greek σύμβολος meaning “mark,” “ticket,” or “token.” This in turn comes from the prefix, sym-, which means “together” followed by bolos meaning “a throw.” So the underlying notion is of things thrown or put together, which can then be compared using a token. This evolved over the centuries to refer to a token (or symbol) that can be compared with another object (or sign).
In 1590, Spenser used the word in The Faery Queen in its current sense of a representation:
That, as a sacred Symbole, it [sc. a blood-stain] may dwell
In her sonnes flesh.
Shakespeare also used it in Othello in the sentence, “To renownce his Baptisme, All Seales, and Simbols of redeemed sin.”
Yet paralleling this was its continued use to refer to any object regarded as sacred, especially the bread and wine of the Christian eucharist as representing the body and blood of Christ:
After the prayer..the symbols become changed into the body and blood of Christ, after a sacramental, spiritual, and real manner. (John Evelyn, 1671, Letter to Father Patrick).
And from 1620, the word was already being used to refer to any “…written character or mark used to represent something; a letter, figure, or sign conventionally standing for some object, process, etc.” (OED). Certainly in the worlds of physics and mathematics, the prime meaning of symbol is as an element in an equation.
Bu the psychological reality of symbolism is so ingrained into ourselves that we forget it’s there. Part of the reason it’s so difficult to identify something as symbolic is that symbols can become transparent and, in a sense, disappear. And when a symbol is also taboo, it is extremely hard to see past it, which in turn makes it almost impossible to diffuse the emotional component. Knowing and understanding that the “Old Glory” is in reality a bundle of colored threads doesn’t stop some people from feeling angry when it’s burning. And knowing that a Koran is just a bundle of printed pages doesn’t stop some people from going on a riot and killing people.
But cheer up! It is possible – with a little willpower and perception – to see through symbolism, and even ignore it altogether. Once, when asked about what his The Old Man and the Sea “meant,” Hemingway said;
There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The shark are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit.
And Freud came out with the classic;
Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.