Reacting against symbols

This last week Dean Landsman wrote about a business meeting with a person, a long-time associate and friend, who during a heated discussion resorted to religious epithets. Dean wrote:

What shook me was the attitude as much as the epithets. I haven’t dealt with this sort of bigotry in over thirty years. And all this time, the nearly ten years I’ve been jovially interacting with this fellow (sending ribald or funny e-mails, sharing jokes, hanging out at professional meetings, and so forth) this was never even near the surface.

Calmly sitting at my desk and looking out at a pleasantly sunny day, it’s easy to wrap my mind around the complexities of the world we live in and to be able to see beyond the angers to a the core of what we can be. Yes this person said this, but here’s why. And yes this person did this, but there’s more to the story than first appears.

However, when faced with troubling times, when filled with doubt, fear, or uncertainty, our minds seem to shut down our ability to differentiate between stereotypes and reality, between symbols and people. Dean’s associate’s stress leads him to focus not on the deal, not on Dean, the man he knows, but on symbols associated with Dean – reducing the situation to a primitive state and then reacting based on this. To Dean’s horror and, understandable, confusion and hurt.

Yesterday, Israel’s ambassador to Sweden experienced a reaction similar to Dean’s associate – shocked at an art exhibit featuring a photo of a Palestinian suicide bomber in a pool of blood red water, at a conference on genocide, he reacted by throwing an exhibit spotlight into the water, temporarily damaging the exhibit.

His reasons for doing so was that he considered the exhibit a glorification of the suicide bomber in defiance of the pain of the families of the dead victims of the attack. However, according to text associated with the exhibit, the art didn’t seek to glorify the actions of the bomber; rather it sought to open the doors to a discussion about why acts such as this happen. You don’t have to condone these acts in order to want to understand them, and hopefully, find a permanent and peaceful end to them.

Unfortunately, the artist used a symbol almost guaranteed to generate reaction. But then, that’s what artists do, agree or no.

It doesn’t end by destroying art, but begins by not reacting violently to symbols. It begins by not reacting, and that’s not always easy. Or as Dean wrote:

I have decisions to make as a result of this. I will take my time, consider my options, and come to my course of action after some deliberation. At this moment the thought is to complete the one deal, and never associate with this fellow again. But it isn’t that easy.

Its never that easy. Broad strokes don’t do the job, that’s just talk and showboating.

In real life there are harder choices.

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