Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Symbolic Life

I've been having a long conversation with my fiancee about an idea that has been stuck in my head for years.  She suggested that I do a blog post about it in order to put it down on paper and see what other folks think about it.

I first thought about the way people's lives can become symbols that result in societal change as a result of doing some pretty intensive research about Mohandas Gandhi for a course I was teaching called "The Activist Toolbox".   One of the things that really struck me about the guy was the way every aspect of his life seemed to be geared towards projecting a specific image.

Most people have seen pictures of Gandhi spinning yarn.  What they don't know is that this was an act of political theatre designed to mobilize the people of India to support home rule.

When the English first took over India, it had a thriving textiles industry based on handicraft production.  Ordinary people spun yarn during their spare time.  In turn, Cloth was woven from it by agricultural labour during the rainy season when no work could be done on the fields.  Under the exploitative system created by the English, both yarn and cloth was being created by English factories which out-competed with the work done by these men.  As a result, they were being driven into utter destitution.  (Gandhi refers to the poor of India as "the skeletons".)  Gandhi believed that the answer to this rural poverty was for people to go back to spinning their own yarn and sell it to the rural poor, and then buy the cloth for their clothing.  The cloth is known as "kadhi".  Gandhi was dead serious about this idea----to the point where when he was president of the Congress Party of India he once devoted an entire forty minute talk to silently spinning cloth.

Spinning cloth to help the poor was one part of this project, but I suspect that it wasn't the most important. The British Empire was a tremendous "wealth pump" that sucked money out of India and into the home country.  One of the ways it did this was through enforcing an empire-wide "free trade" zone that meant that existing (English) businesses always had a competitive advantage against emerging (colonial) ones.  This meant that money was constantly bleeding out of India to buy cheap cloth from England.  And this constant flow of capital out of the country meant that there was no money to invest in Indian factories for not only cloth making, but anything else.  This kept India undeveloped and poor.  (At the same time, America had strong import duties against England that allowed an indigenous industrial base to be built.  This decision to create a trade wall was one of the reasons for the American Civil War---the South wanted to have free trade with England so it could sell its cotton there and buy cheap goods;  the North wanted trade barriers that ensured that Southern cotton went to New England mills and the South bought its goods from there too.)  The independence movement in India decided that one of the best ways to wean India off the Empire was to convince large numbers of people no longer buy English cloth.  To that end, the Congress Party organized demonstrations where people burned their English clothing and pledged to only wear Indian-made cloth.

For an entire generation in 20th century India, khadi was the only mode of clothing 
This happy convergence of poor and upper class concerns over cloth allowed the Congress Party to create an important symbol for independence.  People who supported independence could identify each other through their clothing of choice.   When people complained that this cloth was too expensive (because it was hand made), Gandhi decided to wear only a Dhoti  to show that even the poor could take a visible part in the independence movement.  The importance of cloth to the independence of India is shown by the law that says that the only cloth that an Indian flag may be made from is khadi.

A side of Gandhi people rarely see!
Wearing a dhoti made of khadi wasn't the first time that Gandhi tried to make a point through his clothing.  Earlier in his life he was a supporter of the British Empire.  He felt that if Indians made a sincere effort to adopt the British worldview that they would eventually become "citizens of the empire" and have the same rights as Englishmen.  To that end, he traveled to London and studied to become a lawyer.  In the process, he studied how to dress and act like a proper English gentleman.  Part of this involved adopting English clothes.

Not only did Gandhi attempt to make himself into a model Englishman, he also demanded that his wife and children did too.  In My Experiments with Truth he writes, if memory serves me right, that they complained bitterly about this.  For example, the socks and shoes made their feet sweat and smell bad, but he was convinced that it was necessary.  This was part of an entire agenda that also included things like working to recruit Indians to serve in the British Army during various wars.  Eventually, it was his experience in South Africa that convinced him that Indians could never be equal partners in the Imperial system so the only option was home rule.  At that point he decided to give up his Westernized clothing and adopt Indian dress.
No dhoti, but a turban!

I've made a big deal about Gandhi and khadi because it is a clear example of how the symbolic can work in social transformation.  It isn't as if symbols don't regularly exist in our society, but they are so deeply embedded in it that people usually have a hard time seeing them.  It's like a fish not being aware of water or us not thinking about the air.  They surround us, yet they are invisible.

USA (Basic black!)
When you start thinking about people living as symbolic representations of specific social values, they seem to be everywhere.  Consider, for example, a judge presiding over a trial.  Let's look at some of the robes used by judges around the world.


Canadian Supreme Court Judge
French Supreme Court


Why exactly do judges wear robes?  The more formal robes of the Canadian and French judges hearken back to the court robes worn by the aristocracy.  These were worn not just because the gentry were rich and wanted to show off.  They were designed to show the status of the individual and thereby assert dominance in a very stratified and class dominated society. The founding fathers of the USA wanted to break from the aristocratic idea.  But they didn't discard the use of robes altogether, because they still wanted judges to project a sense of "gravitas" and authority, so American judges tend to wear simple, black gowns.  

Another example of "life as symbol" comes from the way people exhibit sexual dimorphism.  In animals this sort of differentiation between the sexes comes from "locked in" genetic characteristics.  In human beings the same process is at work, but it is mediated culturally.  In contrast to mallard ducks, female humans tend towards showy display and men tend to be drab.  

This dimorphism is certainly on display weekend nights in my home town where it is not uncommon to see hordes of very drunk young women wearing flimsy dresses that barely extend beyond the crotch and  tottering on stiletto heels.  The reproductive drive is genetic, but the form that the sexual display takes is culturally mediated.  And as a culturally-mediated phenomenon, it has led to the use of clothing as a symbolic tool in social transformation.  

A scene from a "slut walk"
A couple years ago a police officer in Ontario made a stupid comment to the effect that fewer women would get raped if they didn't tend to dress like "sluts" when they go out at night.  This so outraged the community that women pretty much spontaneously started to organized "slut walks" all over the world in an attempt to pound it into the heads of authorities that women have the right to dress as they please and to mock the idea that rape is caused by how women dress.

I've offered all of these examples as a means of explaining why it is that I think that it would be a tremendously useful tool for environmentalists if people were willing to take on the task of becoming "living symbols" in the same way that supporters of Indian independence, judges and "sluts" do.  There are already a fair number of people who are willing to undertake a significant personal commitment in order to help build a sustainable society.   For example, there is a group called "the compact" who have decided to refuse to purchase any new capital goods for a set period of time.  Here's a blog by a woman who has made it her goal to try and live her life totally without the use of plastic.  Here's a website that allows people to make public declarations about how they are going to help "green the planet".  

My suggestion is that the environmental movement should do something like the Indians did and develop some sort of symbolic representation of their beliefs in order to identify to all and sundry exactly how they feel about Mother Nature.  It could be a piece of clothing, a symbolic piece of jewelry, a tattoo, or maybe just a symbol that everyone could adapt as they see fit.  But to wear it would be to express to everyone that sees them that the bearer is serious about sustainability and they are living their life in specific ways in order to promote it.  

I'm not about to make any suggestions about what this sort of symbol would look like, simply because if it is to mean anything and have any sort of legitimacy, the process of creating it will have to be one that involves a great many people.   

I would suggest, however, that if the symbol was going to accomplish anything, it will have to be understood that anyone who takes it on has taken a pledge that identifies a "bare minimum" necessary to honestly wear it.  If the token just because "aspirational" instead of identifying a serious commitment, it won't be anything more than the various ribbons people are supposed to wear in order to show support for things like curing breast cancer or supporting the troops.   I think that the symbol should be like the uniform of a Marine----something that is not worn lightly and really means something.  

Again, I won't suggest what the pledge should entail, as anything that people will adhere to must be the result of a collective process.  If people are involved in creating something, they "own it" in a way that they do not if it is just an option to accept or reject lightly.  In my conversation with my fiancee, for example, I suggested that pledging to have no children should be one element.  She responded by suggesting that the pledge be to only have one child, which would bring the population down and allow these people to continue to exert direct influence on future generations through their children.  I countered by suggesting that people who choose to remain childless will not only help with over-population, but they will also free up time in their life that they can use for activist work.  (I don't have an answer to this particular issue, but I think that our short talk illustrates the sort of informed discussion that would need to go into creating a pledge list that people would be willing to commit themselves to following.)  

I'm tossing out the idea on the Internet now.  What do readers think?  Do you see some value in environmentalists consciously living their lives as symbols?  If so, what form could the symbol take?  And what sort of pledge do you think people should have to take in order to be able to wear it?

3 comments:

Amy Putkonen said...

Wow, what a beautiful post you've written here. I love this idea of creating a symbol. Not sure what mine would be. Right now, I think something about fitness or the environment. Another thing that I was thinking would be to buy less stuff.

As I was reading your story of India, I had so many thoughts of what the breakdown is for our country. One has definitely been the consumerism. It has made us more poor as we rack up credit card debt to pay for lifestyles that really don't mean anything. We buy stuff that doesn't mean anything and then toss it to the curb. I like the tiny house movement. My home is small, less than 1000 square feet, but large in comparison to the tiny house movement and I sometimes find myself with lacking space for all the stuff that I am always managing from so many years of being an unconscious consumer. But this struggle for lack of space makes me more conscious of what I bring home rather than making me want to go out and buy bigger. I think if we buy less stuff, we might be able to afford luxuries such as buying local fresh organic food or buying from our local hardware store instead of driving into the big city to buy at the big box stores. Using less gas and time and having more time for our friends and family.

Thanks for a lovely post.

Trey Smith said...

I don't know about a universal symbol, but in my neighborhood in South Bend, Washington, my wife & I utilize several symbols to show our commitment to sustainable living.

For one thing, we're slowly ripping up our lawn without the use of pesticides or insecticides and without the use of machines. In place of grass, we're planting ONLY native species of plants.

We've made a pledge not to employ the use of toxic substances on our property. This has angered a neighbor or two as we have opted out of our town's mosquito abatement program.

And we have a large wrought iron peace sign standing in our front yard! Now there's a symbol!!

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Amy and Trey:

Yes, having a small home and naturalizing your yard are both really good symbols. I had another yack with my fiancee last night and we were talking about clotheslines. Last year I helped her put one up in her yard and as a result, she's weaned herself off the dryer at the laundry mat. She wondered if some people resist using clotheslines because it reminds them of poverty. I suppose that's a symbolic thing too.