Today I saw something on the sidewalk that made me stop. Somebody had etched a small swastika in the concrete.
I wouldn’t say it exactly upset me, but it got me genuinely curious… who did that?
Presumably, some kid stumbled across a rare chance to immortalize himself in unguarded wet concrete, and this was his choice. Did he really subscribe to Nazi ideology, or was he just experimenting with shock value?
The sidewalk bordered a park, beside a high school. Did he go to that school? No, he was probably younger. Did he scrawl that symbol in an effort to prove his badness to his friends, or was he alone when he did it?
It couldn’t possibly be a girl.
A rather definite picture of him formed in my head: grade 5 or 6, white, a little bit fat, buzzed brown hair, and his eyebrows come to rest in a scowl. He picked on smaller kids in younger grades sometimes. He hangs around with two kids who are smaller than he is, and they look up to him. He isn’t aware of it, but he speaks with authority when they are around, and at no other time.
I pictured the three of them, crossing the park after school. When they reach the sidewalk, our anti-hero notices the tell-tale dark patch on the sidewalk: freshly poured concrete, and nobody watching. All three are excited, but the two smaller kids wait for the big kid to do something.
He pushes his index finger in, and is disappointed to find it’s been drying for a while — he can’t make a mark. Determined, he grabs a stone, and gouges a vertical line, then crosses it with another. Still not entirely sure what he’s aiming for, he scores the four remaining lines, and sits back to look at it. The other two don’t know what to make of it, and aren’t sure whether to be impressed. But they are most comfortable saying nothing, as is the main kid. The trio gets up and leaves, vaguely disappointed in their first vandalism experience.
That’s when I realized I had become completely carried away by my thoughts. I had sat down, without really noticing, on the slope overlooking the field. I took a photo.
Now, I’ll admit, I’m in the twilight phase of my overseas trip and I do have a lot of spare time on my hands. On a different day I might have just carried on walking. Pretty much anybody would have (although in the photo you can clearly see that somebody has tried to scratch it out — who?) But today, evidently I was affected by what I’d seen. Not distraught, just intensely curious about the moment it appeared there.
In reality, I wasn’t affected by what I’d seen. I was affected by my thoughts. All of that imagery was completely my own work — everything other than the six scratches in the sidewalk. Human motives fascinate me, but if I had not learned to associate that particular symbol with certain human motives, it would have just been a simple little doodle on the sidewalk. The symbol itself is inert. It is not harmful. We react to what we infer from it. So ultimately, I reacted to a part of myself.
As I edit this post here in a Brisbane Public Library, I notice that I’ve been careful not to let the photograph of the symbol sit prominently on my screen too long. I scroll by quickly because I know it triggers powerful reactions in people. Hiding it is almost an automatic reflex.
Yet it has no meaning but what one gives it. The meaning you give it must be something that is already in your head, and what’s in your head depends on your experience in life. So far.
It reminded me of something that happened when I was in elementary school.
Now, one of the primary concerns of a grade three boy is protecting himself from cooties.
The first line of defense against cooties, of course, is to avoid touching girls, because everybody knows that’s where cooties come from. If you are ever unfortunate enough to touch a girl’s bum — the source of all cooties — you instantly die.
Other than that we were never really sure what would happen to you if you got cooties, except that everyone would make fun of you, until they forgot you had cooties.
Just as medieval peasants did with the black plague, some of us began to experiment with superstitions, to help improve our odds. One day, during playtime, two of my friends showed me they had drawn a symbol on their wrists and on their schoolbooks, which they claimed protected them from cooties. Each assured me it was true.
It looked like this:
They took this advice to heart, and during the next play time, one of them showed me their revised symbol, etched in red pen on his forearm. It looked like this.
Being the learned boy I was, I already knew that symbol, and what it represented. It represented the bad guys in Indiana Jones. They all wore it on their arms. I decided I was better off risking cooties than having to align myself against my hero, so I voluntarily went without its mystical protection.
Soon enough (perhaps at the teacher’s encouragement) the symbol evolved again, this time like this. And of course we eventually forgot about cooties anyway.
Grade Five, for me, coincided with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and we learned a bit about the history of Germany in social studies.
It was then that I learned the bad guys in Indiana Jones were actually real — and I learned what they did. It was only then that their curious logo took on the meaning it has to me today.
World War Two was pretty much the biggest news story of all time, so most people eventually come to make the same inferences from a sighting of the swastika — namely the intentions and beliefs of the person who drew it there. Yet theoretically, anybody who had somehow missed every chance to learn about the war could still conceivably see it only as the plain, inert symbol it is, free of all our learned associations about it.
It is so hard for us to see something without presuming that it is what it represents to us in our thoughts — in the case of the swastika, that it is hatred, is genocide.
During a class discussion about Nazi Germany, one of my friends, a Canadian-born girl from an Indian family, said she had only ever been taught the symbol is a good thing. The class was aghast, yet most of us had only known about the Nazis for less than a week. Some people called her a Nazi. Later we learned why she said that, but her nickname stuck.
The swastika did not originate with the Nazis. It’s a pretty obvious design, and it’s been used for over seven thousand years, inherited as a religious symbol by Hinduism, Buddhism, Native Americans and a host of other spiritual and social institutions. Hitler was a very late adopter. But for most of the people reading this, it means genocide, fascism, murder — and little else.
Those are the connotations each of us adopted from our own haphazard combination of history classes, war documentaries and Indiana Jones movies, and those are the meanings we now give it when we see it.
So symbols of any kind (which include art, as well as words and phrases) can’t actually be offensive. We can be offended, but what offends us are the thoughts we have about it.
It sounds like a pointless semantic distinction. But think of it this way: every connotation a given symbol seems to carry is actually information that we add to it, as a mental reflex — it is not information we derive from it.
We see some familiar characteristics, and link them up in our minds with what they’ve represented to us in the past, then we project it on what we see.
I am not saying we should avoid doing this. In fact, you’d find it pretty much impossible to stop. This is how judgments are made, and obviously judgment can be useful. Your mind is just giving you its best guess at what you should make of what you see, based on similar past experiences. But it is only a guess.
Though we can’t always discern our inferences from what we actually see, it pays to simply be aware of what’s actually happening, by learning to monitor our reactions as they happen. If I find a certain song to be “annoying,” I’ll respond to it differently if I’m aware that the annoyance is not a part of the song, it’s a part of me. That way I can anticipate and account for my reaction, knowing that it’s all my doing, not the song’s.
A casual awareness of this sort of projection can help you employ one of life’s most useful truths: most of what you see is really just what you think about what you see.
It is possible for humans to see things just as they are, without getting lost in their connotations. You just have to remember that they’re always at play, and remember which way they’re going.
A Happy Swastika
The proud mining town of Swastika, Ontario is often pressured to change its name. During the war, the provincial government sought to rename the town to avoid an uncomfortable association with the Nazi party. Their suggestion was “Winston.”
But the residents refused. They love their Swastika just the way it is.
Swastika photo and artwork by David Cain, all others public domain.