White Supremacists Clash With Police in Charlottesville, VA on August 12th, 2017

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Monuments, Symbols, Words, and Meaning Making

How can a sociological perspective help us understand the recent events in Charlottesville? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explores how a symbolic interactionist perspective can be useful for understanding the meaning making of symbols and words. 

When I was a college freshman, I enrolled in introduction to sociology. In our sociology textbook, there was a pictures of this:

Students pledging allegiance to the American flag with the Bellamy salute

I was absolutely struck by this image. I had never seen a photograph of Americans giving the Nazi salute. Note, that I called it the Nazi salute. In my mind, and for most living Americans it is the Nazi salute because that is the imagery we are familiar with and we have less familiarity with the Bellamy salute. Upon closer examination, (i.e., a Wikipedia search) I learned that the Bellamy salute and the Nazi salute are not precisely the same. Regardless, they are close enough that in 1942, the Bellamy salute was replaced with the hand over the heart gesture Americans now use when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. The meaning of the Bellamy salute changed because of the Nazi use of a similarly styled salute.

Symbols & Meaning Making

The meaning of other symbols also changes and the very same symbol may hold different meaning for different groups. Let’s consider the Confederate flag. I grew up in the Midwest and I don’t remember folks in my hometown flying the Confederate flag or having any particular opinion on the flag. My only memory of the flag prior to attending college was a co-worker who chose to have the Confederate flag engraved on her class ring. She thought it was pretty. I thought it was a bit strange to put a flag of the Confederacy on a class ring, but she was originally from the South. As older teenagers we had different perspectives on the flag neither of which seemed politicized (to our knowledge, anyway). I suspect the Confederate flag also reminded her of home and helped remind her that she was Southern even if living in the Midwest. I suspect she could be a strong proponent of the “Heritage, not hate” meaning of the flag and other symbols of the Confederacy. Or she could be a strong proponent of the racist uses of Confederate symbols.

A sociological perspective can help us understand how different groups can apply different meanings to the same symbol. It can help us understand how these meanings also change over time. In particular, a symbolic interactionist approach is especially useful in understanding our current cultural context regarding symbols of the Confederacy and the use of other symbols by the so-called alt-right (with the term “alt-right” also symbolically meaningful).

Herbert Blumer (1969:2) described three premises of symbolic interactionism:

  1. Human beings act towards things on the basis of the meanings the things have for them.
  2. The meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with one’s fellows.
  3. These meanings are handled in, and modified through an interpretive process used by the person dealing with the things he [sic] encounters.

What Does “Alt-right” as a Symbol Mean?

The removal of one such symbol in Charlottesville mobilized members of the “alt-right” to protest the removal. Let’s focus on the term “alt-right.” The term is a euphemism that implies something different from what it actually is. Americans are familiar with terms like Nazis, neo-Nazis, the KKK, and white supremacists, but the term “alt-right” rebrands these hate groups as something different from what they actually are. While the term “alt-right” lumps together a variety of white supremacist, white nationalist, and other hate groups together, the use the term mnemonically splits them apart from their association with hate, racism, sexism, homophobia, and anti-Antisemitism. They are now the “alt-right”–something different from Nazis, neo-Nazis, the KKK, and white supremacists. But make no mistake, they are not different. The “alt-right” is white nationalists, the KKK, Nazis and all these other groups promoting variations of white supremacy.

Think about these potential headlines and consider the meaning of each:

  1. Alt-Right Protest Leaves Three Dead and Many Injured
  2. White Nationalist Protest Causes Three Deaths and Many Injuries
  3. Alt-Right Rallies to Preserve History, Resulting Violence Leaves Three Dead and Many Injured
  4. White Nationalists Rally to Preserve Racist Symbols, Killing Three and Injuring Many

Are any of the above potential headlines untrue? They all could be used to tell the story of what happened in Charlottesville and be somewhat accurate. However, the meaning of the terms used in each headline leads the reader to very different meanings of the events. Words matter and a symbolic interactionist perspective helps us to understand that not all words can be used interchangeably to lead to the same conclusions.

There is a reason that “Alt-Right” as a term has gained currency as a euphemism for white supremacy, but there is increasing resistance to the term. You can install a Chrome plug-in to replace the term “alt right” with ‘white supremacy,’ for example. The Associated Press has also clarified how the term “Alt-Right” should be used by journalists (which I followed in this post).

A symbolic interactionist perspective is useful to understanding the conflict in Charlottesville (and the US at large) because it helps us focus on the meaning-making of monuments, words, and symbols. It helps us to understand that the meanings can change and the same objective symbol can be used for various purposes and have subjective meaning.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Analyze another popular symbol in the United States using Blumer’s three premises of symbolic interaction. Describe how the meaning that is attached to that symbol is made (i.e. socially constructed).
  2. The author proposed four potential headlines to describe the Charlottesville events. Explain the meaning of each headline.
  3. Consider other sociological perspectives? How might a conflict perspective be useful in understanding the Charlottesville events?
  4. Consider other symbols, such as the US flag. What is the objective description of the US flag? What are the subjective meanings of the US flag (desribe at least two)?

Read More:

References:

  • Blumer, Herbert. 1969. Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Cover photo by Evan Nesterak via Wikimedia.
Bellamy Salute Photo by Unknown via Wikimedia