A symbol is something that stands for something else- usually something abstract.  So, in an algebra problem, x stands for the number of miles between ‘here’ and New York.  The drawings that we see on traffic signs and in airports are also symbols for such things as “No Pedestrian Crossing” and “No Smoking.”  Carl Jung wrote at length about the symbols in our dreams, which he thought were shared among all humankind through what he called the collective unconscious.  He was particularly interested in a symbol called a mandala, which he found in many, diverse cultures throughout the world, and which he thought added credence to his theory.

Humans are symbolizing animals.  Our whole lives, no matter how conventional, are a constant stream of creating and interpreting symbols.  Our appliances have symbols called icons which tell us how to turn them on and off.  In the U.S., if we go to a ball game or a community meeting we may pledge allegiance to a symbol: the flag of the United States of America.

Truth is unaffected by opinion, no matter how many people hold that opinion.  We do not elect truth.

As pervasive as these kinds of symbols are, our lives are even more affected by another kind of symbol: words.  Words are our ultimate symbols.  Words, by there very nature, stand for things.  And, although we may think that the words we use are very concrete, they are always used to express abstract thoughts.

Think for a moment: who among us has ever seen dog?  I’ve seen my dog – but I have never seen dogDog does not have physical existence; it is a category – an abstraction – of the concept of what attributes every animal who is in the category shares.  The word dog is a symbol which stands for all dogs, just as an (actual, physical) flag stands for a whole nation, and the word flag stands for all of those things which have the aspects attributed to flags.

funwithflags

Symbols lose their meaning once the abstraction is taken too far.  This is why many people have trouble with advanced mathematics.  The level of abstraction becomes so great that they become entangled in the symbols and are unable to derive any meaning from them.  On a more everyday level, words lose their meanings when they become substitutes for thinking, as happens when we decide about particulars too quickly from generalities.  This is the essence of racial and gender prejudice – by assigning an individual into a category designated by a symbol, then attributing characteristics to the symbol, we make quick (usually incorrect) determinations about individuals from the symbol.

However, it is important to recognize the distinction between prejudice and discriminationPrejudice involves this kind of mistaken lumping together of people or things into symbolic categories; discrimination, in it’s original meaning, is a positive thing.  To be discriminating used to mean to show good taste – to be careful in one’s selections.  For example, a discriminating wine drinker would only drink the best wines.  Unfortunately, over the last thirty years or so, we have been conditioned to believe that we not only should be unprejudiced, but that we should also be indiscriminate.  So, it is not enough that we not make choices by incorrectly categorizing people, we must now accept any thing, any idea, any person, no matter how vile, obnoxious, or ridiculous.  There is no worse sin, we are told, than being judgmental.

Many, if not most, of us walk around in a fog of words.

It is a short leap from a society being nonjudgmental to a society full of people who don’t give a damn what they do or think.  When we give up our ability to judge, we give up our ability to be fully human.

If objective truth exists, which I am here taking as a premise (see this post), then it is incumbent upon us to begin to differentiate things that have a high probability of being true from the stuff that is clearly false.  If we can begin by at least learning to dismiss the truly ridiculous, we will at least be moving in the right direction.

It is a short leap from a society being nonjudgmental to a society full of people who don’t give a damn what they do or think.  When we give up our ability to judge, we give up our ability to be fully human.

Even if we are careful and try not to make prejudicial distinctions about people, we are still at the mercy of words as symbols.  Whenever we use a word for something, we are abstracting out a large portion of it’s essence.  Reality is an actual slap on the face – anything else (“anger,” “indignation” – even the word “slap”) is just our symbolization of the event, and is necessarily only approximate. I may feel a slap, but, no matter how good my descriptive abilities, I can never make another feel the same slap.  (Of course, I can make them feel a different slap, but this is probably not the best form of communication in most cases!)

Zen masters are renown for physically pushing their students into an enlightened state.  They realize that one can not know something without experiencing it first-hand.  Despite Carol Burnett’s pointed description of childbirth (“Take hold of your lower lip and pull it all the way up over your head”), is it really ever possible for a man to know what it’s like?  (The same thing can, of course, be said for certain aspects of what it’s like to be male…)

Many, if not most, of us walk around in a fog of words.  We have a constant barrage of words chattering in our heads, we hear words constantly on the radio or television, and we can’t even eat lunch or use the toilet without reading something!  It seems almost inescapable. We may sympathize with Eliza Doolittle from My Fair Lady when, exasperated with the inability of the men in her life to act, she says: “Words, words, words – I’m so sick of words! I hear words all day through – first from him, now from you! Is that all you blighters can do?”

As Alan Watts has pointed out, if we are always thinking and talking, soon we run out of things to think and talk about. The art of meditation is a method of learning how to turn off the incessant chattering in the skull, so that we can open our minds to experiencing the world as it is, not as we symbolize it.

The fundamental insight into democracy is that the majority rules – but it is not necessarily right.

Our proclivity toward stuffing things into neat categories too quickly is the cause of much of the miscommunication and pseudo-debate which characterizes modern social interaction.  “You’re wearing clothes sewn on Waponi Wu (A fictional south sea island from the wonderful, totally underappreciated movie Joe vs The Volcano)?” someone says to us.  “Don’t you know how oppressed those people are?  They only pay them twenty-five cents a day for that work!”  What do we (or the person speaking) really know about the situation?   Certainly, twenty-five cents a day is not a living wage in the United States at this time – but what is the cost of living for the average Waponi?  And, even granting that this amount is not sufficient, it may be worth noting that going from twenty-five cents a day to fifty cents a day is only a 100% increase; going from nothing to twenty-five cents is an infinite percentage increase.  Personally, I’ll take an infinite percent increase over a lousy doubling of my money any day.

The point is that the person admonishing us was probably too quick to swallow words and mistake those words for knowledge.  Knowledge would come from, for example, living on Waponi Wu on twenty-five cents a day and experiencing what it is actually like.  Anything else is hearsay.

That we love to plop things into categories is further evidenced by the public’s quickness to judge the guilt or innocence of a person accused of a heinous crime.  At any moment there is bound to be at least one sensational trial which is being covered 24/7 on some cable “news” channel.  The fact is that it is difficult enough for someone on the jury – who has heard both sides of the argument at length – to decide the guilt or innocence of the defendant.  It is virtually impossible for someone not immersed in the proceedings to have even the faintest notion of the truth.  But this does not stop everyone from having an opinion on the matter.

As an undergraduate philosophy major, I was fond of debating points in class.  At one point during such a debate with a professor, he said something which I will remember for my entire life – he said: “You don’t know enough to be having this conversation.”  Although I was thoroughly annoyed at this statement, it turns out that he was absolutely correct. His delivery was perhaps a bit suspect, but the message was clear: A worth-while opinion is based on knowledge as well as intelligence.  Mistaking a reasonable amount of intelligence for knowing what you’re talking about is a common error.

People often confuse having a right to an opinion – which is a legal statement – with a moral responsibility for others to take that opinion seriously.  Truth is unaffected by opinion, no matter how many people hold that opinion.  We do not elect truth.  The fundamental insight into democracy is that the majority rules – but it is not necessarily right.

People often confuse having a right to an opinion – which is a legal statement – with a moral responsibility for others to take that opinion seriously.

So, most of what we call knowledge is not knowledge at all, but simply oversimplified, discriminatory, bigoted opinion.  That we do not really know what we think we know is the first step toward seeing the world clearly.

That we do not really know what we think we know is the first step toward seeing the world clearly.

Image sources: 
Watts: http://www.alanwatts.org/ 
Jung: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CGJung.jpg (public domain)
Fun with flags: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g7masCHZxWI

 

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