Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Power of a Symbolic World

By Clay Routledge

Why burning the Quran is such a symbolic threat?  

Many philosophers, anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists have pointed out that humans are uniquely symbolic creatures. We are chained to a physical reality, like all other animals. But we also have the capacity for imaginative and symbolic thought. The anthropologist Ernest Becker nicely illustrated this with the example of water. Water is part of the physical world and a critical component of our physical existence. But humans are the only animals that symbolize water with a chemical symbol of H2O and, critically, the only animals that magically empower water by blessing it and making it holy.

Look at the diverse tapestry of human cultural life. We go to great lengths to fashion a symbolic world. If you don't believe in the power of symbols, try attending a local sporting event wearing the jersey of a rival team. In certain places, this little experiment could be a rather painful lesson in how important the symbolic world is to humans.

But the question is still unanswered. Why is the symbolic world so important to us? Many scholars have argued that the symbolic world is critical to humans because we are smart enough to fully understand the implications of being physical beings. We understand that life is fragile, we often have little control over it (e.g., I could be hit by a bus tomorrow or a tumor could be growing in me right now), and, critically, it is finite. However, the same advanced intellect that allows us to contemplate the grim reality of physical existence also allows us to construct a symbolic world.

With the construction of a symbolic world we can ease the pain of understanding our physical limitations; that we are merely, as Becker asserted, worms and food for worms. That is, we create a cultural world of meaning in which humans are not merely animals, but are symbolic entities. We are part of something larger and more enduring than our physical existence. In other words, in the symbolic world we can be immortal. Each of us will die, maybe even tomorrow, but our religions will live on. Our nations will live on. Even our favorite sports teams will live on. If we are lucky, our names may even live on through enduring societal contributions. In short, we invest heavily in the symbolic cultural institutions and identifications, in part, because they help insulate us from basic fears about our mortal predicament.

As discussed in some of my previous posts, there is a very large body of empirical research in support of this basic position. When people are reminded of health vulnerabilities and physical limitations, they cling to the symbolic world. For example, they become more religious and patriotic, engage in efforts to feel more socially significant.

Considering the specific issues of the Quran burning, in 1995 Jeff Greenberg, a professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, and colleagues published a series of experiments testing specifically this idea that cultural symbols are important because they help us cope with our awareness of physical vulnerability. In these experiments, participants completed some questionnaires that they were told measured personality. In one of these measures, they were asked to write down their thoughts about death or a control topic (a non-death related topic). Then they were given a problem-solving task. Successful completion of the task required the inappropriate use of a cultural symbol. For example, in one task, participants had to hang a picture on the wall but the only object in the room that could be used to hammer in the nail was a crucifix. Participants who had previously been asked to write about death took longer to resort to using the crucifix as a hammer than participants who did not write about death. These participants also tried to come up with more alternative means of hanging the picture and expressed more reluctance about using the crucifix in that manner. In another study, similar findings were observed when participants had to damage an American flag to resolve the presented problem.

Cultural symbols provide psychological security. And when we feel insecure, we are more sensitive about these symbols. Thus, it is not surprising that when someone threatens these symbols, the people who value them take offense. This was the goal of Rev Jones. He wanted to take a symbolic stance against Islam. The problem is that too often wars fought in the symbolic world bleed over into the physical world, and real lives are lost.

About the author:
Clay Routledge, Ph.D. is a social psychologist at North Dakota State University. He studies the various ways people defend themselves from psychological threats. His research touches on many topics of social life such as prejudice, personal relationships, self and identity, social cognition, attitudes, culture and belief systems, and health and well-being. He regularly publishes in the top social psychology journals.

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