Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Needing a Springbok

Quite often philosophical discussion descend into semantics. Saying a disagreement is semantics normally means you are saying it is petty. But words and symbols only have meaning based on the way they understood. The meaning they carry is more important than the meaning they intend. Words change meaning over time and languages are living things. The languages that get codified are normally the languages facing extinction. They get rules. Languages that are alive and well live through ideas and ideas develop. So the English we speak today is not the English of Shakespeare. In fact, part of Shakespeare's fame came from how many words he made up. There is no committee in charge of English. Check out Rebecca Davis' 'Best Whites and other Anxious Delusions' for a  funny first-hand word lovers account of how things at the venerated Oxford Dictionary work. It is the ultimate form of democracy. A balance between seeing how the best users of the language use words and how they are understood. The Dictionary is a mirror of meaning and effective communication rather than a bible. American English with 'color' and less 'ph's and silent letters is because English became more French after the Americans left for New England. They wanted to be more fancy. Not even the Queen's English gets to say what is right or wrong. BUT there are certainly rules about how the company the Queen keeps will expect to be spoken to, and how you should speak if you wish to be clearly understood by them.

So when we end up having discussion about controversial topics like belief in God or what that means for behaviour and morals, it is not enough to know someone is Christian/ Muslim/ Hindu/ Buddhist/ Atheist. There is no Pope of Islam. The recent vote in Ireland shows that even in a Catholic country, the church is part of the conversation rather than the deciding force. Hindus believe that you (/we) are God, you just have to realise it. Protestants believe the ultimate source of truth is a direct relationship between you and God. You can't assume by a label you know what any of these people believe. If you really want to know, you have to dig deeper. Ask what the word means?

This means we don't get to fully rely on what a word means when we communicate. We don't get to assume that the way we string words together will convey the meaning we mean. The only way we get to figure out whether we are communicating clearly is by listening. Monologues aren't communication. Dialogues are a dance of meaning.

What is true for words is true for symbols. The old South African flag has the same connotations as the Confederate flag. It became a symbol for racism. Ironically, it was only around from 1928-1994 and was intended as a way of symbolising a union of independent countries that had been brought together through British force. It was supposed to be a symbol of unity. But unity of the Cape Colony, Natal, the Orange Free State, and the South African Republic (Transvaal). Britain was trying to impose the successful Federal model of Canada and the United States. The old South African flag was the stars and stripes of the USA (Union of South Africa). The difference being that the majority of the United States were white. The majority could be a part of the nation building. In South African, the majority were excluded from the nation building. The symbol took on a different meaning. The old South African flag is now a symbol of Apartheid.

The LGBT community are famous for 'reclaiming' words like pervert and owning them. The African-American community have done the same with the 'N' word (although not so that everyone can use the word). South Africa's equivalent to the 'N' word, the 'K' word was never reclaimed, and in South Africa is far more inflammatory than dropping the 'C' bomb. The oppressed get to reclaim words... if they want to. The oppressors don't. It is true that the Confederate States of America was not solely defined by racism. There would have also been a lot of good stuff. But that flag became the symbol of racism in the same way the old South Africa flag did.

South Africa was incredibly lucky. We had Nelson Mandela who riskily extended his own brand, part of the oppressed, to a symbol that could have gone down with the old South African flag. He recognised the importance of symbols. He recognised that people will fight if the only thing they are seen as is evil, racist, homophobic, sexist, xenophobic, etc. etc. Mandela helped reclaim the Springbok. It was symbolic, but it was enough to recognise that we are more than our prejudices and we get better by releasing them. They don't define us.

The American South needs a Springbok. Then the work of making sure that symbol signifies the good stuff starts.
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