Swastikas aren't just for Nazis

A temple in Korea
The swastika has existed for 5,000 years in Asia as a symbol of good fortune. It's a very common religious symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Placing the swastikas on the doorstep is a way of extending good wishes to all who come through our home.

In East Asia, the swastika is prevalent in Buddhist monasteries and communities. Many Chinese religions make use of the swastika symbol, including Guiyidao and Shanrendao. Among the predominantly Hindu population of Bali, in Indonesia, the swastika is common in temples, homes and public spaces. Similarly, the swastika is a common icon associated with Buddha's footprints in Theravada Buddhist communities of Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia. In Japan, the swastika is also used as a map symbol and is designated by the Survey Act and related Japanese governmental rules to denote a Buddhist temple.

When blogger Bryan Caplan notes the widespread use of Swastikas, he offers two possible reactions. The first option is to recognize that the symbol is not the reality and get over it. The second is the kind of reaction applied way too often:
"You allow your swift negative visceral reaction to blossom into seething resentment. Even if they’re not Nazis, they’re negligently hurting your feelings. With anger as your muse, you shame the swastika-wearers: “Do you people have any idea how offensive that is?!”
Unless you yearn to get offended, the first option seems like the appropriate response.

A swastika is no more inherently evil than any other symbol. When a group uses the symbol to express adherence to an idea, it doesn't make the symbol synonymous with the idea itself. Context reveals what the symbol means in any particular usage. We usually understand this, but when our outgroup uses a symbol that can be interpreted badly, tribalism kicks in and we seize the opportunity to accuse them of sin.


This post is about my society's relentless confusion over symbols and reality. Other examples like this include:

1. "What are you, Gay?" (and tiny American flags falling on the ground)

1 comment:

  1. I'm enjoying this series. These days, the symbol/substance confusion/outrage effect is so strong that there's a backreaction effect: you can use the symbol intentionally as a generator of outrage, as an internet troll. So now a nonracist can use the swastika in a racist way to get a reaction, perpetuating the problem. This seems like further reason to care about intentions and to separate symbol from substance.