Power of symbols: respecting the community and thinking before we speak

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The definition of a symbol is “something used for or regarded as representing something else.” A symbol can be a sports jersey signifying a lucky game. It can be a special piece of jewelry handed down from an ancestor. It can also be a flag of religious or ethnical importance.

A symbol can be something simple, but it can also be something complex with a deeper meaning. The most important thing to keep in mind is what we choose to do with these symbols.

Like anything in life, we need to take a minute to think before we act. It might seem like a harmless idea in the moment to display a symbol that we identify with or that contains an inside joke, but not when that same symbol offends someone else.

On-campus Incident

There was a recent incident which involved a student displaying a flag containing a Swastika on Nov. 9. The flag was deemed offensive by many members of the FSC community, including students and faculty, many of whom are associated with the Jewish Student Association in particular. The student acted out of spontaneity, not intent, but some students became concerned for their safety because of the symbol’s connection to anti-Semitism.

Sophomore Alyssa Pueretz, also a member of the JSA, was not happy about the incident.

“It hurts me to know that people can judge us without even meeting us,” Pueretz said. “We are a very caring and kind group of people. Just because we are Jewish doesn’t mean we are any different than anyone else.”

The timing of the flag was especially significant. It was displayed on the night of the 75th anniversary Kristallnacht.

Kristallnacht, also known as the Night of Broken Glass, was a series of attacks against Jews that took place on Nov. 9 and 10, 1938.

Nazi paramilitary forces and non-Jewish civilians carried out these attacks in Nazi Germany and areas of Austria, destroying synagogues, homes and Jewish-owned businesses. About 91 Jews were killed in the attacks. 30,000 Jews were arrested and then incarcerated in concentration camps.

There were many complaints and questions as to what the student’s intent was when the flag was put up, especially because of its connection to Kristallnacht.

“The timing of this is particularly apropos,” Dr. Catherine Eskin, associate professor of english and co-advisor of the JSA, said. “I don’t want to vilify the person who put up the flag. What I want to do is make sure that our campus is well-educated on the issue.”

Eskin believes that the power of symbols should be used to provide a positive message.

“Symbols are powerful. We need to keep in mind how to use symbols in a powerfully kind or helpful way to make people feel comfortable rather than upset,” Eskin said.

Another student, junior Jeremy Bixson, felt that the Swastika flag reminds people of the genocide and should not have been displayed.

“The symbol would be remembered as a symbol of oppression, violence, ignorance and genocide,” Bixson said. “It reminds many people of their friends or family members who were mercilessly killed.”

Dr. Kyle Fedler, provost, says symbols should be controlled in a way that it does not jeopardize the respect or safety of another student.

“It’s important that all students feel safe, feel appreciated and respected,” Fedler said. “At the end of the day, we need to have an environment where people feel respected. We want to make sure that harassment ceases and anyone who is targeted understands that’s not who we are as a community.”

Rules and Regulations

The Student Handbook states in Section II. Cornerstone Code of Conduct, B. Tenet Two, 1. Obscene and Indecent Behavior states that “Showing or displaying obscene, pornographic, or inappropriate material is a violation of College Policies.” The statement goes on to say that the College has the right to decide what is considered abusive, obscene, pornographic, or inappropriate.

B. Tenet Two, 2. Assembly addresses a similar issue in that “the College recognizes the right of students to have freedom of expression. However, participation in a campus demonstration which disrupts the normal operations of the College…on campus is prohibited.”

This section mentions that any activities that disrupt members of the FSC community or activities which are considered to be “normal” are not permitted. In this case, the student disrupted the normal functioning of the campus by displaying what is considered to be an offensive flag due to its symbols.

Getting Along as a Community

Students could argue that it is their right to display whatever they like in their room. However, just because we have rights does not make it right to offend the FSC community. Once we sign off to go to college, particularly at a private institution, we are signing a contract that we will abide by the college’s policies and adhere to its principles, whether we agree with these or not.

When we join a community, there is an agreement that we will all try to get along, regardless of disagreements or differing views.

Dr. William Quilliam, associate professor of accounting and co-advisor of the JSA, believes that certain symbols may be misinterpreted. He says that harmful symbols which represent negative views should not be tolerated.

“I think it’s important to make people aware of certain symbols that cannot be tolerated,” Quilliam said. “We just can’t have symbols associated with hate on college campuses.”

When displaying such symbols, especially on the campus of a private institution, we have to take into consideration the consequences of these actions.

“It can cause a whole lot of pain in one symbol,” Quilliam said. “Sometimes people don’t think the full consequences through.”

There have been other incidents across the country, such as displaying a burning cross or burning the American flag. Not knowing something is offensive is not an excuse or an apology for these actions.

It is our responsibility to know what our actions mean before carrying them out. We must educate each other, and learn more about the history of things, such as the Holocaust, so that these incidents aren’t repeated.

Whether that means sitting down and reading, taking a class, or being more open-minded to different views, we cannot let lack of intellectual knowledge be an excuse for when we make a mistake. Symbols are powerful, and knowledge is powerful. We should have a balance of these powers to have the right tools to make better decisions in the future.