“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me” is one of the most dangerous, destructive ideas in all of human history.
Words are symbols, as are flags, songs, and gestures. And I’d be willing to bet 99% of the people who still preach the gospel “words can never hurt” are the same folks who get in their feelings over quarterbacks standing or kneeling before the flag or the cross.
Words, images, and gestures can and do hurt people. All of us. This fact is so obvious we can hold it to be self evident, an axiomatic truth not worth a second of breath more, and yet somehow we still desperately need to have this discussion as a society:
Everyone can be hurt by symbols.
But since symbols are more subjective than, say, the much more conspicuous and universally recognized pain that comes from a broken bone, it becomes all too easy to scoff at people who tell you which symbols are hurting them when those same symbols don’t hurt you, and this is the sort of problem that can lead to unnecessary human suffering all the way to full on genocide.
Humans need to teach and learn empathy.
People with congenital analgesia, who can’t feel physical pain, can still take it on the advice of others that a flame to the skin feels astonishingly painful. If we tell them knives stuck into our backs hurt us and cause harm, we can expect them to believe us.
Similarly, we can take other people’s word for it when they tell us things are hurting them, even when those things don’t hurt us the same way.
Even the act of silence, a lack of words, perhaps the most stealthy symbol of all, can be experienced as a jolt of physical pain. Anyone who has ever been ignored by a person or group of people you wanted to be close to knows the feeling. Even the most popular people have experienced some sort of social rejection in their lives.
Ostracism, the social kiss of death, is experienced like a kick to the gut at the physical level. That’s because as hunter gatherers, which homosapiens evolved into over millions of years, ostracism from the tribe meant you literally are being left to die. In the woods. Or the tundra. Or the savanna. Left to die. Alone.
That sort of silence can send shocks of real pain through the nervous system – the silent treatment, as we euphemistically say. This reaction is hardwired into our brains, a vestigial operating system that we can’t shake no matter how hard we try. As social creatures, even those of us introverts who choose to live solitary lives still experience the need to be invited to the party we didn’t want to go to in the first place.
Silence and ostracism are the stealthiest of painful symbols because it’s not about what’s said, but rather what’s left unsaid, that hurts so badly.
Which leads us to the least stealthy, most notoriously hurtful symbol in modern history – the swastika. No other symbol seems to wield the same power to invoke negative feelings, ranging from mild discomfort to full on panic attack (or, if you’re a piece of shit, blue balls from a fascistic hard on).
You know what a swastika is and what it means to you, in the space and time you inhabit. However, being an ancient symbol that existed thousands of years before Heinrich Himmler was a glare in his father’s eyes, its meaning can be subjective, dependant upon who you ask, and when and where you ask them.
If you asked a Boy Scout at the first ever national jamboree, held in 1937 Washington D.C. and attended by FDR himself, what the swastika on his tent meant, he would likely tell you it was an ancient symbol that symbolized well being and good fortune. He wouldn’t have been wrong, although if you tried to explain the concept of cultural appropriation to him, he likely would have called the cops on you. The swastika was, after all, official Scout shit.
Imagine seeing that logo slapped onto the packaging of thin mint Girl Scout cookies.
The reason it was used so loosely is because it’s been used in ancient cultures around the world for thousands of years, and the general meaning was universally positive.
In Asia, it was part of several religious traditions dating back to antiquity, including Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism. The word itself derives from Sanskrit स्वस्तिक, which translates to ‘conducive to well-being.’
Nobody knows precisely where and when it was originally created, but what is absolutely certain is that it spread across the globe and has been unearthed in archeological sites around the world, including in the Americas.
In the 19th century, white settler colonialists in Ohio plowed over and permanently destroyed one of the most significant archeological sites in North America, the Hopewell Mound near present day Columbus. They also unearthed copper swastikas under them dating back roughly two thousand years. The people who created them had vast trade networks all the way down to the Yucatan, where they traded for highly prized obsidian blades. Further west on the continent, the swastika appeared in Hopi legends and on Navajo rugs.
There are many theories about how the swastika originally came into use, ranging from the ludicrous idea that it represented Atlantis survivors breaking up and spreading to the four corners of the earth, to the much more plausible idea that it represents the sun and four seasons, or Ursa Major (the Big Dipper) circling Polaris (the North Star).
If we traveled to an early Mesopotamian city and asked a Shaman what the swastika means, he would probably tell us something about the stars and the sacred cycles of life, although this is merely educated speculation.
Despite being ubiquitous, the swastika’s meanings and origins seem to have been been largely lost on Western culture for quite some time.
In 1907, popular writer and white supremacist Rudyard Kipling won the Nobel prize for literature. Having grown up in India, he used the swastika as a sort of branding for all his books. Surely people saw the symbols, but likely had no idea what they were.
Also in 1907, Mary Ogden Vaughan wrote a piece for the San Francisco Caller titled The ‘Swastika: The Most Widely Diffused Symbol in the World,’ in which she stated:
“In view of the widespread interest shown during the last few years in that oldest of all known symbols, the swastika, it is somewhat astonishing to learn that its very name was so comparatively unknown a little over a decade ago that it did not appear in Webster’s or Worcester’s dictionaries, in the Encyclopedia Britannica or in a dozen other standard works of reference by English and American authors.
Neither was it in works on art, archaeology, mythology, folklore and antiquities, where the student might naturally expect to find allusions to it.
And yet the symbol itself is found wherever the foot of man has trod, throughout the civilized and uncivilized world. Generally speaking, there is no nation and no tribe in the world around which has not made use of the swastika at some period of its history since the recorded beginnings of time–be those records in stone or clay, in base or precious metals, in pigment, papyrus or parchment, woven in tapestries or wrought in basketry.
The swastika is at the same time the oldest and the most widely diffused symbol in the world, and an interest in it once awakened one need never lack a fascinating object of study and pursuit. As a hobby one may ride it to the ends of the earth and back again without exhausting it, and a catalogue of the places visited on the way would be a geography of the earth’s surface.”
Ogden Vaughan’s words read cryptically today, like foreshadowing in a grisly true crime novel.
Near the end of the article, she writes:
“A few years ago I mentioned the swastika to an American dealer in oriental wares–a student and a man of education–and, to my greatest surprise, he confessed that he had never heard the word and did not know the sign. In a few moments I had pointed it out to him on a dozen different articles on his shelves, and thus there was opened to him a new field for research: a field in which he tells me he has since delved with the greatest zest.”
Implied in her framework is the notion that something acted as a catalyst for this new awareness of and appreciation for the swastika.
Enter Heinrich Schliemann, German con man and archeologist who successfully sold himself as the man who had finally uncovered the legendary city Troy, of Homer’s Iliad fame. Although the guy was a real piece of shit, I’ll refrain from unloading a fuselage of bullets into his character here, for the purpose of brevity. What’s important is that in 1872 he found what he claimed was Troy, people believed him, and under that top layer of earth in a remote spot in Greece, he found ancient terracotta swastikas.
Schliemann’s Discovery found its way into the hearts and minds of white folks across the globe, giving us an origin story as ancient as the Hindus, the Zoroastrians, and to some, connected to them as well.
Certain European thinkers began linking modern Germany to ancient India, with ancient Persia, Greece, and Rome as the middlemen, and thus was born the concept of an ancient Aryan race. Because there are linguistic connections between ancient Sanskrit and modern European languages, the swastikas found buried in Greece gave these thinkers a symbolic representation of this connection. They took it and ran with it.
Proto-Nazis in the 19th century German ‘volkisch movement’ used the swastika in their pagan festivals, which gave way to full blown Nazis in the 20th century, who used the swastika as their calling card, the symbol of all symbols, which to them stood for the very future of humanity and civilization itself.
If you took the boyscout in 1937 Washington D.C. and sat him next to a German Youth that same year, they would disagree about the meaning of the same symbol. The Nazi boy would argue the swastika symbolizes the great Aryan race, the master race, which stretches through recorded history going back through ancient Rome and Greece, all the way back to the Aryans of ancient India, each group carrying the torch of civilization itself.
He’d say the Nazis were simply carrying the ancient torch into a new and better future, and if that meant they needed ‘lebensraum’ (living space) in the Studentenland, then who was the little American boy to tell him otherwise? He was, after all, living on space his white ancestors had taken from Indigenous people at gunpoint. The entire concept of lebensraum was largely conceived from Hitler’s study of American history.
The American scout would have had little ground on which to stand, morally.
The Nazis put a lot of money and energy into their racist pseudoscience
They sent so-called scientists into the field to study humans beings and separate them into separate racial categories, similar to how we separate species of animals.
When Dr. Eva Justin was working on her thesis for her PHD, she was able to keep some Romani children from being deported while she studied them. She made sure to measure their skulls and their teeth and all that good scientific stuff, and when she was done with her research they were shipped off to Auschwitz where Dr. Mengle had his way with them.
Part of the methodology involved making plaster casts of human heads and teaching ‘racial hygiene’ in schools, precursors with direct links to the horrors of the Holocaust.
The Nazi machine even sent representatives to Tibet on a pseudoscientific expedition to find links to the Aryan race in the mountains.
And of course, they needed more measurements.
If you asked these doctors what the swastika meant to them, they might have said knowledge, efficiency, the glory of career exploits that further our knowledge of the world we inhabit.
These people were true believers, and the same cold, bureaucratic approach they took with their line of work here was amplified exponentially through the millions of Europeans who bought what the fascists were selling, loyal customers of the Nazi brand, whose logo was the swastika.
And we all know how this brand did its business.
If we asked the Nazi company CEO what the swastika symbolized, he would have likely said the same things as the Hitler Youth. Nationalistic drivel for the media to spit back into the frothing fascist masses.
But in practice, the swastika symbolized Hitler himself wherever he couldn’t be in the Third Reich. The ubermensch savior of all things holy to the Aryan race, the first heart throb, before Elvis, The Beatles, Justin Bieber, the man who could step onto a stage at any given moment and mesmerize the crowd into rabid, raving superfans, the CEO and rockstar and god of the future of civilization. Omnipotent. Omnipresent.
What does the swastika mean to a Jewish person in the year 1900? In 1940? In 2020?
What does it mean to a Romani person, or a Slavic person, or an autistic person, or for that matter anyone with any sort of special needs in any of those three years? The symbol presided over mass murder and genocide of not only Jewish people, but any group or individual not approved of by the machine.
We now know Hans Asperger, even as he championed the cause of high functioning autistic people, also signed off on sending more severely autistic people to be exterminated.
The horrors wrought under the swastika escape the confines of language.
How could any of us who didn’t live through it ever understand what it meant to those who did?
Which leads is back to the original point about symbols.
The swastika did not physically jump off the page and commit genocide, any more than a green light physically put pressure on the gas of your Ford Taurus.
But Henry Ford did use symbols to promote anti-Semitism by physically printing copies of his racist newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, during the 1920s. And he sure did push anti-Semitic conspiracy theories through that paper, which reached almost a million people every issue, because he made Ford dealers sell it and meet quotas for promotion within the company. And Hitler sure did get inspired by Ford, so much so that he had a picture (read: symbol) of him at his work desk, and ultimately took the assembly line concept and applied it to the goal of genocide.
And the Nazis sure did give him their most prestigious award, the grand cross of the German eagle, and that cross sure is surrounded by swastikas.
None of these symbols literally killed people.
All of them contributed directly to the killing of people.
Charles Manson used his vocal chords to make sounds that other people heard and processed to mean specific ideas, and then they acted on those ideas. Did he not murder anyone? Is he not responsible for the murder of anyone?
It has been said there’s no evidence of Hitler ordering the specific murders of anyone, and this will be the first line the neo-Nazi speaks into the ear of the impressionable youths he seeks to recruit. “Can you show me where he ordered anyone to murder a single Jew?? If you can, I’ll give you my car and my savings account,” or some such bullshit.
And this is precisely where the asshole needs to be chopped down:
If symbols don’t cause human actions, then why are you using them right now to try to get this kid to become a Nazi?
He won’t have an answer, of course.
Which brings us to the final point…
Like all symbols, the swastika means different things to different people, in different places and times. So what *should* the swastika mean to us, today?
If you’re in Asia today and you see an ancient swastika, it means what it’s meant there for thousand of years. If you’re in Germany today and you see one, it is likely evidence of a crime. After the war, the German nation decided the symbol is so powerful that they outlawed it.
During the 1930s and 1940s, various groups in the United States and elsewhere decided to stop making new materials with swastikas on them, out of respect for the millions who were being persecuted and slaughtered.
The Boy and Girl Scouts of America discontinued its use. Rudyard Kipling stopped printing them on his books – white supremacist though he was, he didn’t stoop to the level of genocidal maniac.
Even the Navajo stopped making blankets with the symbol on it, which they didn’t even call a swastika – they called it a whirling log.
With that said, should Native Americans have censored their art to this degree?
As a white person it’s not my place to say.
I will add that art can be powerful swinging in good and bad directions, and it is possible to use the swastika against itself.
Swastikas made for the purpose of promoting Nazism are immoral to create and use. Swastikas made for jokes at the expense of anyone other than Nazis and other white supremacists are immoral. The swastika is not a toy to play with.
Swastikas made during the Nazi era were made and used immorally, but they should not be destroyed. To the contrary, they ought to be preserved with care, and kept in museums where they can be used as a case study in how low human behavior can go, so we can hopefully avoid a repeat of that history.
We must recognize that words, images, ideas, can and do hurt, even if we don’t experience the pain others tell us they feel from these symbols. If people don’t want to look at Nazi swastikas, they shouldn’t have to.
Lastly, I’ll leave you with a photo of something I have mixed feelings about. It’s an advertisement in a New York Subway for the television series ‘The Man in the High Castle’ which portrays a United States controlled by fascists in an alternate reality where the Nazis won the war. The series is decidedly not pro-Nazi.
The advertisement utilizes Nazi iconography but avoids the swastika.
People spoke against it.
It was pulled.
Did this advertisement go too far? A cheap marketing gimmick to get people talking about the show, at the expense of people who might not feel comfortable surrounded by it?
There are few clear answers with these things. But hopefully after reading this little piece, you have more symbols about this symbol within your range of vision.