Bryan Caplan  

Lessons of the South Asian Swastika

Other People's Money... David Beckworth interviews Dou...
swastika.jpgWhen he was living in Burma, graphic novelist Guy Delisle noticed quite a few swastikas.  Indeed, much of south Asia is full of swastikas.  It's not because they're Nazi sympathizers.  The swastika was a south Asian symbol until the Nazis ripped them off.

Now imagine you're visiting south Asia and see a group of natives strolling around in swastikas.  How should you react - and what should you do?  There are two main routes.

Route #1: After a swift negative visceral reaction, you remind yourself that they're not Nazis and mean no offense.  So you calm down and keep your complaints to yourself.  Eventually, you hedonically adapt: swastikas stop bothering you, and the swastika-wearers live in happy ignorance of your initial offense.

Route #2: 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?!"  In all likelihood, they'll be taken aback.  After all, you're just a stranger freaking out over a symbol they enjoy wearing.  Maybe they'll go out of their way to defy you.  But even if you successfully shame them into burning all their swastikas, you had to badly upset a bunch of people who meant you no harm in order to get your way.

Which is the better route?  It's partly a numbers game.  If there are a million Holocaust survivors and one oblivious swastika-wearing south Asian, expressing a little anger goes a long way.  The complainer feels extra anger and the target feels extra shame, but 999,999 people have a more pleasant day.

If the numbers are more evenly matched, however, Route #1 is clearly superior.  Why?  Because it is a less circuitous, more reliable route to social harmony.  In Route #1, people who take offense quietly calm themselves.  In Route #2, people who take offense give into anger, which inspires conflict with the accused, who in turn feel some combination of sad and angry.  If the sadness dominates, they probably stop; if the anger prevails, they probably escalate.

Couldn't you say the same about murder?  Absolutely not.  Murder is intrinsically bad.  Swastika-wearing, in contrast, is only bad because it's currently a symbol of intrinsically bad things (like murder).  We can easily imagine a world where the swastika is a symbol of maternal love.  But we can't imagine a world where murder is good.

So what?  Especially on social media, I often encounter people who decry novel offensive symbols and promote Route #2 as the appropriate response.  I hereby urge them to reconsider.  Yes, we have a few symbols closely identified with heinous evils: swastikas, klan outfits, blackface, the hammer-and-sickle.  Since almost everyone in our culture who brandishes these symbols intends to insult innocent people, flipping out at those who so brandish has little collateral damage.  But if a symbol is not yet closely identified with heinous evil, we should strive to not only leave well enough alone, but deescalate.  Indeed, in the best of all possible symbolic worlds, fans of heinous evils would have no well-understood symbols to concisely express themselves.  They'd have to spell it all out in longhand.

As usual, I'm not saying this to favor any prominent political faction.  If you want to "raise awareness" about offensive Halloween costumes, you should stop.  The same goes if you want to rally fellow patriots against football players who take the knee during the national anthem.  If a symbol is ambiguous - as it almost always is - fomenting anger is just childish.  But the other side won't extend you the same courtesy?  Take comfort in the fact that anger is its own punishment - and be the change you want to see in the world.

COMMENTS (8 to date)
Charley Hooper writes:

It's also a Native American symbol. My friends have a beautiful blanket made by some Indian tribe, probably in the late-Nineteenth Century, and it prominently features the "swastika" symbol.

TMC writes:

1a. Reverse the order; you know it not a NAZI symbol so skip the swift negative visceral reaction. Like a grown up would. Not everything requires over acting.

RPLong writes:
If the numbers are more evenly matched, however, Route #1 is clearly superior. Why? Because it is a less circuitous, more reliable route to social harmony. In Route #1, people who take offense quietly calm themselves.
I'd argue that Route #1 is the superior response regardless of the numbers, because it is a mentally healthy response. Taking offense to other people's symbols is futile because you cannot control what other people do, think, or like. It's fair to express your feelings in an effort to persuade another person to think or act differently, but emotional outbursts aren't persuasive and sometimes you can't persuade people out of their symbols anyway.

So we're all just better off quietly calming ourselves.

Chocolate Seller writes:

A side note about the Swastika symbol in South Asia - It is considered a holy & sacred symbol by many hindus, somewhat like how the Cross is for christians. Also, the hindu swastika is usually the mirror-image of the nazi swastika (and of the Burmese symbol shown in this post).
This was probably the original "cultural appropriation".

A good post, we all need to learn to "de-escalate".

Elijah Eby writes:

I like this post a lot because it seems to me that rituals and symbols only mean what we intend them to mean.

Yet every year there's debate about the "true" meaning of Christmas. Are the atheists cutting Jesus out of Christmas? Or is Christmas actually an anti-christian pagan holiday?

Many evangelicals who are fine with celebrating Christmas despite its Pagan routes, reject Halloween for that very reason. The "true" meaning doesn't equal the historic meaning. Meanings change.

Or arguments about the confederate flag. Is it about hate and racism? Or about Heritage? If a bunch of conservatives want to fly the confederate flag it seems clear to me that they don't mean anything like hate or racism by it. But if you're on the left you might convince yourself that it's a secret conservative conspiracy.

The American flag might be the biggest one. It's a symbol, for what? We're pledging allegiance to it so it seems like we should have an answer.

Brian writes:


I've got to agree with you on this one. There is never a justification for response 2 over the mere display of symbols. Let people enjoy their own symbols, whatever personal meaning they have. And even if you wish to point out that the symbol offends you, seething resentment is never an appropriate response.

Of course, it's a different matter if the person is using the symbol to purposely harass you, like the KKK burning crosses in people's yards.

R.L. Styne writes:

Elijah Elby,

Well, to get really technical about it, the term "Christmas" means literally "Mass of Christ" so its actual original meaning is quite a bit different from the way most people use it. Does that mean "Atheists are taking the Christ out of Christmas?" Yes, but only to the extent that the Protestants are too.

Note that this is different from the South Asian vs Nazi swastikas. The swastika is just an arrangement of lines, but "Christmas" refers to something specific in its original context.

Miguel Madeira writes:

«Well, to get really technical about it, the term "Christmas" means literally "Mass of Christ" so its actual original meaning is quite a bit different from the way most people use it.»

Only for the English word (and in some other languages; the worst case are the nordic languages, where the word for Christmas - "yule" - is the same for the generic pagan celebration of Winter Solistice); in Portuguese is "Natal", in Spanish "Navidade", in French "Noel"... all words connected with "nascimento" (birth).


Return to top