When Symbols Aren’t Agreed Upon

A few years ago, I made a choice to live alone. I was grappling with my relationship to gentrification, the emotional labor inherent in crisis response, and needing less stimulation. It was a big shift from living with five roommates and growing up in a large family. When I moved, I didn’t invest in WIFI, a personal computer, a home phone, a television, cable, anything that would make it harder to learn to disconnect from work. I can still count on two hands the number of visitors I have hosted. I found myself needing to moderate how much access things had to me, and how much money I needed to spend on monthly bills.

When I think about the government shutdown, the first thing I consider is financial insecurity, a loss of control of your time, a lack of information on what to expect and if you need to worry, bills that come every month, people you can and can’t choose whether or not to engage or rely on.

Not that long ago, more than half my monthly income was spent on my health and mental health. When as a high school graduate, it became clear that I would need regular emotional support, panic was the first thing I felt. Panic in large part because of the related cost. I felt that same panic when my physical health was met with complication after complication, each requiring a wraparound set of services.

There is an important link between economic security and mental and physical health, and the link isn’t a subtle one. It’s also not just a symbolic one, though the symbolism of the government shutting down is significant. It’s also not a colorblind one, which creates friction in how we see ourselves as affected or supported by the actions of our government, as we regularly downplay the inherent racism in capitalism, a minimization that is by a portion of government both predicted and counted on.

In the show Madam Secretary, the incumbent president is trying to win a reelection. His chief of staff regularly scrutinizes international policy to anticipate how it will blowback on domestic politics, specifically on the president’s favorability polls. There’s a memorable scene in which he interrupts a meeting between the Secretary of State and her staff in order to make his outrage known about one such example of blowback. China has threatened to remove its pandas from the DC zoo. When asked, what’s the big deal, the staff receive an earful. “Elections are about symbols, and the Chinese know that.” Symbols introduce the context that links an action and how it will be interpreted and reacted to. They illustrate the attributed meaning an audience uses and a leader evokes intentionally once they understand that meaning. Symbols are a culture’s shorthand for practicing and making values visible.

What is significant about democracy as a symbol can be thought of on a lot of different levels, but one of those levels has to do with stability, and sovereignty. In the plainest sense, what control do I have over my personal security; can I meet my needs? There is a suggested transference of individual autonomy to collective autonomy, a belief that individual leaders can be counted on to prioritize the good of the whole. This “good” is typically defined in terms of financial security, and job security. The irony in this symbolic social contract is challenged by the practical implications of a shutdown, specifically the intended impact of leveraging and spreading environmental degradation, border surveillance, homelessness, job loss, poverty, a lack of social support as a tool for first, forcing a decision, and second, reestablishing people’s trust in government. The tactic is specific to its goal if effective — reinforce the fears people have, and further confuse them about what contributes to making those outcomes happen, and happen on large scales. Nationalism intends to subdue all of these unleashed harms, and deny responsibility for what happens in the meantime.

I saw If Beale Street Could Talk for the second time last night. I’d been rereading James Baldwin’s novel in between, seeing repeatedly the theme of connecting racial and economic injustice. You can’t watch that film and misunderstand the indictment being made on white violence directed as antiblackness. You can’t ignore the related costs building up; legal fees, medical bills, rent for a vacant loft. Incarceration highlights the non-metaphorical forces breaking apart families, and the grief present. One of the first lines in the film is a direct quote from the novel, “I hope no one has ever had to look at someone they love through glass.” Those words are thought by Tish as the setting shifts to a jail. Within the first forty-five seconds the strongest image communicated is one of physical estrangement met with disparagement.

This visual within a movie theater comes at a time where children are still being kept apart from their parents at our border, and where we have shutdown the federal government to garner support for building a wall to keep our borders safe. It comes at a time where we cannot get our government to mobilize to respond to a climate crisis enough of us have chosen to deny, against once in a life time storms coming more than once a year. This visual indicts the use of economic insecurity to control and intimidate communities of color, and explicitly connects it to our narrative of ongoing structural racism.

There’s an assumption in our rhetoric that if we can agree on the important information, we can therefore agree on what’s important about it. There’s a related assumption that providing additional facts can upend conditioned myths tugged on strategically as fears and anxieties. And yet what is most apparent is that urgency is both a reason to manipulate outcomes and a reason to feel out of control. Time against urgency can only mobilize you if you are not connected to the manipulation apparatus. Time exaggerates who has security and who is in control of whose insecurity, and it fuels stressors that are in need of benevolence to overcome the structural inequities that are presented as unyielding.

Stress works on a number system in which an amount is manageable up to a certain threshold. After that threshold has been exceeded, the need for wrap around support becomes insatiable, because the feared for outcome has already happened. The feared for outcome is a loss of autonomy or control, which in order to maintain requires security and sovereignty. It requires you to be able to meet your needs, whatever that includes. When anxiety is found to be rational, and predicated on things that have already and are continuing to happen, it can’t be relieved unless that stressor can be removed.

What if the symbolism tells a story of two related threats — a stress that isn’t getting resolved, and a growing indifference to how that will impact many. What if the symbolism dangles the carrot of benevolence only when you surrender to its unrelenting violence toward you? What if the social supports you are estranged from deny your anxieties and traumas as unrelenting? What if your mental and physical health are antagonistic to your security based on how the choices are being presented? What if collectively we are negating the control being seized from us, and that we are being pressured to hand over to avoid additional harms? What if sustainability is at adds with security, and collectivism at odds with whiteness? What if the violence is just getting started, and the crises are intentional?

Structural forces accumulate for three reasons — linked underlying beliefs, linked ways of operating, and linked histories. It is important to orient to government as a structure, and its shutdown as amplified by what kind of entity it is. We run the risk of being further dispossessed by forgetting how decisions are made and the symbolic meaning every action and inaction carries. People are not just people — they are the roles they carry out within our enacted structures, and those structures retain their meaning unless they’re dismantled. What we are witnessing is the flexing of muscles meant to curb resistance to white nationalism, and entrench us in the personal and collective consequences that deplete our resources and corrode support systems. What we are duplicating is a symbolic view of what is happening that negates accountability for any of it. If you do not see racial animus present in our government shutdown, you have not understood the relationship between economic and racial violence. If you do not see a government shutdown as violent, you have the privilege of reserves of personal security. If you think there is a just choice between submitting to building a wall so our government can reopen, then you underestimate the calculus that goes into choosing symbols. If you can’t see the symbolism, then you’re probably more influenced by it then you realize. Your personal security may even depend on it.

It’s tempting to remove the ethical questions that we are wrestling with, and the stakes attached. It’s tempting to hold onto symbols that hold us and the people we have given power to in the best possible light. And, those symbols are being challenged by practical community questions about what we are accountable for, who we are accountable to, what can and can’t sustain us, and who gets sacrificed and preserved in the meantime. The big picture is the practical picture, and it is as grave as it feels. It’s grave because not having power and control is something to fear, and something that when denied to someone is done purposefully. Each of our thresholds for stress is being purposefully strained, and that will ultimately become more unmanageable in time. It was always designed to.

Writer. Thinker. Facilitator. Advocate. Invested in accountability for power based violence, creative initiatives, and meaningful, nuanced dialoguing.