Freedom of Speech does not only protect the spoken word, but it also protects what has been termed “symbolic speech”. Probably the greatest example of symbolic speech is the extension of the middle finger while all other fingers are tucked within the palm, otherwise known as “giving someone the finger”. It communicates sentiment just as profound as the spoken word. In that same light, the symbols themselves can evoke emotions and feelings that the words themselves even cannot.
Just recently, at Florida Atlantic University, a college professor was chastised, scorned and ridiculed nationwide because he had his class write the word “Jesus” on a piece of paper, fold it up, throw it on the floor and step on it. In actuality, all that was thrown on the floor was a piece of paper with some ink. Yet by taking the ink and fashioning it into a certain sequence of letters, that piece of paper became something totally beyond its original origin. The same is true of so many of the things we hold near and dear.
Sitting in a warehouse, as we speak, is a spool of thread and some fabric. The fabric is of many different colors and the thread is a standard white. From those spools of fabric red strips and white strips will be cut. A blue patch of cloth will be cut out and stars will be made from some of the other fabric. When all is said and done, an American flag will be fashioned and the scraps of fabric and thread will somehow become of such a great value that people will fight to protect it and others will have died in its name.
A couple of years ago a pastor in Gainesville, Florida, made national attention when he was going to have a burning of the “Koran” party, for lack of a better word. It was feared that by doing so our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan would come under even more intense hatred and danger. It was feared that Americans throughout the world would be subject to attack by Muslims, due to their outrage. Again, paper and pen. Again, the value and devotion to it far transcends the value of the paper and the pen.
The crucifix, the swastika, the Jewish star and so many other designs take that ordinary material, a piece of metal, a stick of wood, or ink, and transform them into symbols of respect, love, hate, or even a branding of others. Sometimes the symbolic speech is actually speech itself.
Last month Tiger Woods, hardly a sympathetic figure, had a golfer who is not fond of him, Sergio Garcia, comment that if he was going to have dinner with Tiger, it would be “fried chicken”. Immediately Sergio Garcia received public condemnation and he quickly apologized for the comment. The comment was not based upon a disliking of fried chicken. After all, who could dislike fried chicken? But rather, the comment somehow was to be a slur that Tiger Woods is black.
What is surprising is how that has become a slur. As said above, fried chicken is great. Tiger Woods knows he is black and although we have not spoken to Tiger, we suspect that he is very proud of his ancestry. So how can a comment involving a delicious meal, that informs someone of his heritage that he already knew about, be derogatory? The simple answer is not what was said, but the intent of it. The intent to somehow belittle someone because of their heritage or at least the intent to tell someone that I think you are beneath me because of your heritage.
So to that F.A.U. Professor, who had his students stomp on a word on a piece of paper trying to teach them that these things are only symbols, he probably had the greatest lesson taught to him. He was right, it was only a piece of paper with ink on it. He was right in teaching them that it simply is a symbol. Yet, he was wrong not to realize that we, as human beings, cherish symbols, cherish symbolic speech, and cherish all that these things stand for. Yet, maybe that is exactly what he was trying to teach.