Friday, February 08, 2008

Cultural Signifiers

The main reason I engage in this activity at all -- reading news on the innernets and blogging is that -- frankly, I'm really not that eloquent.

I look better in writing because I can edit what I say before anybody "hears" it. But I'm looking for words that communicate my ideas better than I can. Words that distill an idea I have that can come out of my mouth and "zing!" people get what I'm trying to convey. Well I found some today in an editorial by David Brooks in Pravda The New York Times. (Well they do have some "rebel" columnists these days, such as Mr. Brooks and I think Bill Kristol now? They're trying. Circulation is in a nose-dive, they had to try something.)

Educated people get all emotional when they shop and vote. They want an uplifting experience so they can persuade themselves that they’re not engaging in a grubby self-interested transaction. They fall for all that zero-carbon footprint, locally grown, community-enhancing Third Place hype. They want cultural signifiers that enrich their lives with meaning.
The whole quote there is pretty good, but it's that last sentence that has the gold in it.

They want cultural signifiers that enrich their lives with meaning.
Little symbols that others can see that on the surface tell others what the person wants them to see, want them to believe about them. "Cultural signifiers." That's a term I need to file away.

I read a funny story today (ht Morgan/Kate) that gives a little illustration of what I'm talking about. This girl got a tattoo -- some Chinese characters on her arm, thinking it means "Inner Peace." The tattoo itself is kind of a cultural signifier that is supposed to tell you "I'm outside the mainstream. I'm a non-conformist." Although that is less and less true these days as it's all the rage to be non-conformist. Still. I'd lay odds that that's one of the main reasons most people who get them -- get them. You're supposed to see the tattoo and think "that person's not a follower." That's what the wearer wants. And I've got nothing against tattoos, really. They're fine. Not the "my body is a canvas" type. But little symbols -- I've considered one myself. And my belief about the general motivation stands.

The second "cultural signifier" is that it's in Chinese. It says to people "I'm worldly". Not in the materialistic sense, but in the cultural awareness sense. It says "I know and respect things outside of my own culture." It suggests a bit of mystery. It also provides little moments of superiority when people have to ask you what it means and you know and they don't. Plus it's cool because it probably means something profound and the asker has to acknowledge your spiritual depth.

Someone looked up the characters on this girl's tattoo and found out it really means something more like "Strong Woman". This is another thing getting it in Chinese helps with. Our culture is an English-speaking culture. Many of us know some other relatively modern European languages. Getting the English words "Strong Woman" or "Strong Man" tattooed on our arms isn't nearly as cool -- as a matter of fact it would be kind of un-cool because it looks like we're bragging on ourselves. And outright bragging isn't cool in traditional western culture. So you get to subtly brag a bit, and you get the added fairy dust kudos from the additional cultural signifiers discussed above.

But the deal is, it's just symbols. You can go get a crucifix or a Buddha tattooed on your arm, but it doesn't make you a Christian or a Buddhist. It doesn't even really make you a rebel. It might make you feel like one, or make you feel like others will see you as one. But it's just some ink in your skin cells.

The most telling thing in that story about the bean curd girl is that she didn't even really know what it meant. It apparently didn't matter enough for her to ask. What was important was what other people could be persuaded to believe it meant, from having a tattoo in the first place to what the symbols actually meant and what it all said about her. Whether any of it was true or not. She was briefly persuaded that it did not, as the tattoo artist had told her, mean "inner peace", but that it meant "bean curd" instead. And of course ironically in the end it turns out that it doesn't mean either. At least it doesn't mean anything bad or stupid.

And so it goes with voting. One can get up in the morning in their 3,500 square-foot home with a hot-tub on the deck and electrical appliances everywhere and drive their 14 mpg SUV (but I bought it to protect my children!) with the Greenpeace bumper sticker to to the polling place, get out, and vote for the progressive candidate because he's "for the environment". He's "environmental". Then you can go to work and brag to your friends and co-workers about how you voted for this person and why. Or simply slap another bumpersticker proclaiming your support right next to the COEXIST sticker. But it's no different than the Chinese symbols on "bean curds'" shoulder.

Like I said, I've got nothing against tattooes.

And I've got nothing against energy conservation, wilderness preservation, and minimizing pollution as much as is reasonable. I'm for all those things. And I'm considered hard right. Which means according to progressives I'm against all those things no matter what I say. I'm a constitutionalist so I'm against "the environment"? Like I said in the last post, never let your opponents define you.

Brother jeffmon sent me a link to a Depleted Cranium article that people should read.

Here's another one talking about Human CO2 sources and what's plausible to do about them -- but before you read it, keep in mind that human-generated (anthropogenic) CO2 accounts for only a single-digit percentage of the earth's total carbon budget.

And think about that when you drive your hybrid with your "Don't Blame Me, I Voted for Gore" bumpersticker past Walmart to Target, instead, to buy your compact flourescent light-bulbs -- your cultural signifier that you're environmental.

note: we've replaced most of our bulbs with CF's. It saves us about 10% on our energy bill. But ... I hope we come up with a good disposal plan in the next 5 years for all of the mercury-laden bulbs that will be wearing out over that time period. I'm more worried about mercury in my water than I am about CO2 in the air.

1 comment:

Lindsay said...

Hey Phil,

I linked to this post on my own blog, because I needed an explanation of what a cultural signifier is that was both simple and thorough, and yours is the best I found in my admittedly not exhaustive Google search.

So if you see a slight increase in hits on this page, that's probably what it is.