I heard a story the other day that kind of set my head spinning. Terrell Owens, who is apparently a mildly annoying football star, was playing against the Dallas Cowboys on their home turf a some time ago. After a touchdown, he took the ball and ran out to the center of the field to attempt a celebratory spiking on the huge star. One of the Cowboys, incensed by this lack of respect, tackled him.

Now having seen the footage, the hit was far less violent than I had been led to believe by the storyteller. Wearing that much protection, it was little more than rough-housing. Still, the tackler had to be pulled away from Owens, presumably because he wanted to inflict some more damage.

Apart from the idiocy of getting that worked up about a game, I was struck by the sheer number of levels of symbolism and misplaced understanding at work here, mostly from the fans who were booing Owens.

When discussing this with someone more sport-savvy than me (i.e. someone other than me) I was told, in effect, “That’s something you just don’t do.” The subtext was that violence was a valid response to spiking a ball in the center of the Dallas Cowboys Stadium field. And, trying to wrap my brain around that got me thinking about symbolism.

So, when Owens spikes the ball on the Dallas Star, his action symbolizes disrespect. (It also symbolizes jubilation, but that’s irrelevant to the Cowboys fans.) But, technically, at this level, it is only disrespect to the Star itself.

At the second level, the Star represents the Cowboys. A team of however-many football players, and the attendant staff. But really (and this is where things get a little muddy) the symbolism also extends to the entire history of the Dallas Cowboys, back through the mists of the last half of the Twentieth Century.

But why would the fans care? Because the Dallas Cowboys function as a symbol of Dallas, and to a lesser extent, all of Texas. (A case could be made that they symbolize the entire USA, what with the talk of them being, “America’s Team”. But that’s not going to sit well with fans of… well, any other NFL team.)

Still, why would the fans care if Owens disrespects a graphical symbol of a team which is a symbol of a city? Because they see the city as a symbol for themselves. “I am a Texan, therefore disrespecting that Star means you’re disrepecting me!”

So, my question is, how is it reasonable to have such a deep emotional reaction, to the point where violence is not only indicated but desired, when the only thing happening is a symbolic gesture (spiking) against a three-times-removed symbol of a person: Star->Team->City->Me? This is a remarkable example of a large group of people each confusing the symbol with that being symbolized. If someone wants to spike a ball into your head, yeah, I’ll condone the use of violence to stop that action. If someone spikes a ball into a star that’s a stand in for a team that’s a stand in for a city that’s a stand in for you…? Not so much.

What’s more amazing is how often this kind of thing shows up. How much better would the world be if people stopped confusing symbols with that which is symbolized? No more fights about burning a flag. Also, no more flag burning. No more calls for the killing of cartoonists who dare draw an unflattering depiction of Muhammad. No more cross burning. No more outrage at cross burning. No more Twitter explosions when a young man of questionable musical talent steps on a picture of a Native American that’s been plastered onto a high traffic parcel of floor.

I wondered, then, if I am simply being a hypocrite. I don’t care about football, so there’s zero chance I would care about symbolic gestures that disrespect a football team. On the other hand, what do I care about?

I care about movies. But if someone writes a bad review of a film I really like, I don’t feel compelled to punch them. I feel compelled to argue with them. I feel compelled to respond in kind. If someone were to stage a public burning of posters of the Lord of the Rings films, I would not vow to bring them to justice. I would actually find it funny.

In a less trivial example, I care about my country. I could not care less if someone burns a flag. I suppose I might care if that’s an indication that they want to do something actually damaging. But fire-roasted colored cloth does little to move me.

The 9/11 attacks were a great example of something which was both a symbolic and a real attack on the US. The symbolic attack is irrelevant, at least when it comes to the use of force. The actual attack is what’s important. The actual attack started a war, and got lots of people (including the guy who ordered the attack) killed. That’s rough justice, but in the arena of global terrorism, that’s really the only justice to be had. The symbolic attack required a symbolic response. We’re building an even taller building on the site. We’ve created a memorial. These are absolutely the right responses to the symbolic attack on our nation and its institutions.

Hopefully, if the 9/11 plot had been to toilet paper the World Trade Center, America would not have expected the government to hunt anyone down to kill them.

I just wish humanity could pull themselves out of this sort of caveman thinking that pictures can have as much meaning as people.


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