Reluctance to Bear a Symbol

Reluctance to Bear a Symbol

19 Sep 2021

I feel uncomfortable with many symbols. I might have opinions about a subject, but there’s rarely a camp that has some symbol, flag, slogan, etc. that I’m comfortable with adopting because that camp does not accurately reflect my opinion. All too often, a slogan takes on more than its surface meaning, and that can make using that slogan tricky.

A simple example is with politics. On certain topics I agree with whatever happens to be defined as the “conservative” viewpoint. On other issues, I favor the “liberal” opinion. I like some libertarian ideals, but I can’t agree with all of the “official” ones.

Every party, movement, or group comes up with some slogans that are either catchy or hard to refute. But these phrases are just symbols for broader ideas. An article from Persuasion summed it up nicely:

Take, for example, Black Lives Matter. The slogan itself is (or at least should be) obvious and uncontroversially true. But there’s also a more substantive movement and political program behind BLM, which is rightfully more controversial.…
Whether or not you agree with these goals, Black Lives Matter clearly means more to most activists than “black people’s lives matter.”

The danger with using slogans as “reasoning” is that they’re shallow: they’re inherently short, snippy, and difficult to attack. Arguing with a set of slogans is like trying to fight an image projected on fog. There’s no substance to meaningfully engage with, and then proponents of that movement will call you out for fighting against these “uncontrollably true” ideas.

Besides, it’s way better to agree with ideas, not parties. Picking a party based on a few things you like about it, and then agreeing with the rest is like saying you like a particular food you’ve never eaten before, just because it has one or two ingredients that you like. I like mustard, but I’m not going to eat a cake that includes mustard.

Ideas don’t compress well, if at all. Ideas can be simple, but trying to compress simple ideas leads to simplistic understanding. Life is inherently messy, and slogans and memes are simplifications on top of that messiness.

In place of a well-reasoned argument, political activists can lean on pithy memes to demonstrate their political allegiances. But when people use memes as a shortcut, they sacrifice the process of testing and inspecting their opinions. Insight comes from challenging ideas, and memes allow people to skirt this process.

I recommend reading that Persuasion article. Don’t let slogans and memes be an intellectual shortcut. Embrace the nuance and messiness of this world, and learn to come to terms with it.