Symbolic Interactionism; A Battle of Little gods

11 06 2009

I hear people say that they’re not too big on symbols.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The irony is that the word, “symbol,”  is, itself, a symbol.  A person cannot claim to reject all use of symbols without using a symbol to say it.  All words are symbols, whether spoken or written.  All text is a series of symbols, whether multiple symbols are used for a single word, or a single symbol is used for a hugely elaborate concept.  All communication is through various forms of symbolism.  However, it doesn’t stop there.  All human thinking also involves symbolism.  The idea in your head of an object that is not immediately available is a symbol of that object.  The idea of the object stands in the place of the actual object, and you manipulate the image or the sound or the shape of it, not really thinking about the fact that you are utilizing a conceptual substitute.  You think that you are thinking about the object, but you’re not.  Instead, you’re really thinking about the mental symbol of that object.

Symbolism goes beyond mere words and mental objects, though.  It’s fundamental to all human interaction.  In truth, we don’t get angry at people for what they do to us.  We get angry at them for what they say to us.  Let’s say you’re driving down the road and a rather large tree branch falls in your path, right at the limit line of an intersection.  You try to change lanes to get around it, but the traffic is a little heavy, and you miss the light before you can make the maneuver.  You’re a little annoyed, but you’re not mad at the tree branch.  It’s just a dumb piece of debris.  It’s a little inconvenient, to be sure, but it’s no reason to honk your horn and wave an obscene gesture.  Well, I’m hoping you wouldn’t do it to the tree branch, because it certainly doesn’t care.

Let’s change a few details in that story.  You’re waiting at a light and the woman in the car in front of you suddenly realizes that she was supposed to turn left, but she’s in the lane to go straight.  As she sharply angles the car into the other lane, you see the cause of her absent-mindedness.  She’s holding a cell phone to her ear, despite the fact that state law forbids it.  The light turns green, and she’s now blocking two lanes with her askew car, content with making you miss your light so that she won’t have to miss hers.  You try to change lanes to get around her, but the traffic is a little heavy, and the light is again red before you can make the maneuver.  You honk in frustration.  Maybe you yell and make rude gestures.  Let’s say you make some comment about getting her rotten hunk of junk out of the way.  There’s something different about this lump of debris than there was about the previous one.  The difference was not in what she did to you.  Both the tree branch and the driver accomplished exactly the same thing, except that the driver succeeded in arousing quite a bit more anger.

You see, it isn’t what she did to you that made you mad.  It’s what she said to you that really peaked your ire.  By using her cell phone when she wasn’t supposed to, she said, “Laws are for everybody else.  I’m above the law (and, therefore, above everyone else).”  The implication is that she valued herself as better than you.  She could have taken responsibility for her mistake and gone straight, thusly missing her intended turn, but she chose not to suffer the consequences of her own bad decisions.  Rather, she let you suffer the consequences instead.  It was her mistake, but you got stuck with the inconvenience.  Effectively, she was saying, “My mistake is your problem, because I’m too important to be inconvenienced (and you’re not).  What’s important is not justice, but that my interests be served, even at your expense.”

A fallen tree branch says nothing.  Did it make poor growth decisions?  Maybe so.  Did it leave someone else to suffer the consequences of those decisions?  You bet.  What did its act of falling communicate?  Nothing.  A piece of tree sits in your way and you drive around it.  A human sits in your way, and you get angry, because for the human the act was a symbol that sent a message that you really didn’t like.  What was that message, in a nutshell?  She said that she was more important than you…way more important.  This shouldn’t come as a surprise, though.  Every single person has a somewhat elevated view of themselves.  Even the man who gripes and complains about how worthless he thinks he is…only complains because he hasn’t achieved enough  to convince himself that he’s at least as good as you are.  He’s just upset that he’s having trouble worshipping himself.

Yeah, well, it’s easy to get a little irate at people who worship themselves.  It’s even easier to get fuming mad when you, yourself, have an ego the size of Jupiter.  The first person to complain about another person’s arrogance is an arrogant person.  Pride is, essentially, self-worship.  It’s like getting mad at someone for not only worshipping the wrong god (themselves), but also disparaging the right one in the process (you).  How dare you worship yourself!  You’re supposed to worship me!

Yeah, well…I hope you don’t get angry at that tree branch, because God may have sent it your way.  He may have sent the other driver, too.  Now, what did he mean by that?

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