This week’s presidential inauguration is a reminder of the power of symbols. Not only was the inauguration (albeit the second) of the nation’s first black president held on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the swearing-in ceremony at the Capitol was itself largely symbolic; the President and Vice President officially took their oaths the day before, on the date specified in the Constitution. The public spectacle was only that.
And there was plenty of symbolism to be found in the pomp and circumstance that accompanied the public ceremony. Obama swore his oath on two Bibles, one that had belonged to Martin Luther King, Jr., himself, and the other was the famed Lincoln Bible – the latter upon which he took his first presidential oath in 2009. The invocation, another largely symbolic gesture in a country with no Constitutionally-endorsed religion, was given by Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers. In all, the symbols of freedom and equality – certainly two of our nation’s most cherished values – were hard to miss, and that was the point.
Philosopher and rhetorician Kenneth Burke keenly observed that humans are “the symbol-using animal.” Certainly we are aware of some of the more common symbols that surround us – such as those at the inauguration, the American flag, the cross at the local church, and the pink and yellow ribbons we stick to our cars to show support, respectively, for breast cancer research and our troops. As public relations practitioners, we work daily with symbols as well: every brand is a symbol of a promise, a product and an experience. We strive to ensure that the ideas behind brands are both positive and consistent.
But we humans also use symbols that are much less glamorous, and use them much less glamorously. After all, language is nothing more than a set of symbols that likewise represent ideas. Of course, some of the word symbols we use refer to concrete and discreet objects, such as chairs, dogs, cars, water and so forth. But others refer to abstract thoughts: imagination, friendship, civility, etc. Democracy is another of these abstract thoughts. We all know what it means, at least we think so, but it’s not an object, hence, the use of symbols – an oath, a public ceremony, the Color Guard – to remind and reinforce.
The fact is: symbols are important to us as humans, which is why we use them. The ability to use symbols easily in language has allowed us to advance as a species, while our ability to define symbols to represent our principles has allowed us to advance as a nation. The peaceful transition of power, even when it’s not a transition per se, is perhaps one of the most important symbols of America.
Look around and you’ll see symbols everywhere. It’s an interesting exercise that is sure to open your eyes and inspire some compelling observations.