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Our Hazy Perceptions

Our Hazy Perceptions

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Published by zelienople
editorial for the Norman Transcript by Lloyd P. Williams, Professor Emeritus, University of Oklahoma
editorial for the Norman Transcript by Lloyd P. Williams, Professor Emeritus, University of Oklahoma

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Published by: zelienople on Oct 30, 2009
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Our hazy perceptions
The Norman TranscriptDecember 01, 2007 12:23 am— Poets often see what many of us miss. The 19th century symbolist Charles Baudelaire speaking with theperception worthy of a psychologist observed that humans live in "a forest of symbols" and thesedissolve intoa "dark and confused unity." This accurately describes our condition. So our daily existence is passed movingfrom one bundle of symbols to another, always assuming the world is as the symbols suggest. We useimagination and reason to manufacture signs and symbols and live with them for several reasons. They helpus maneuver through our complex existence, they disguise the unpleasant, they promote happiness andsecurity, they foster profit and they sustain the illusion that we know what we don't.A symbol is a sign -- a design, an animal or a verbal badge that stands for a large body of ideas, habits orinstitutions. "Higher education'' is a symbol covering numerous complex realities -- scholars, administrators,professors, teachers and a sea of support bureaucrats. A tiger in Baton Rouge is a symbol of a football team,libraries, laboratories, degrees, professors and students. A lion does the same for Penn State just as a bearstands for the some in Berkeley or a trojan in LA. A Latin cross, signifies 2,000 years of Christian history,clerical bureaucracy, Scripture, saints and martyrs and the hope of millions. For the Nazis the Swastikasymbolized the eminence of der Fuhrer, the absolute authority of the Third Reich and the superiority of German nationalism. In all these and in similar cases the symbols are easier to understand than the realitybehind them. Like symbols everywhere they stand for the unseen world, the hidden world -- the loyalities,values and institutions -- both implied and covered by the images.Our lives are a complex of institutions, habits, emotions and rituals guided by symbols. Terms like "freeenterprise'' and the "market'' stand for the business world. Here stores, banks, sales people, consumers andmoney control our behavior. Other symbols manipulated through advertisements, radio, television andreiterated mottos direct us from morning to night. Our social world and where we stand in it is defined bysymbols -- houses, cars, furniture, clothes, country club memberships and professional credentials. Tuxedosand swimming pools are likely signs of status. In the world of jurisprudence "the Constitution'' and "the ruleof law'' are symbols covering massive legalities --laws, judgments, courts, procedural rules and statutes. "TheDefense Department'' -- a pleasant euphemism for a sophisticated killing machine -- is a symbol standing for acomplicated array of soldiers, sailors, airmen, guns, tanks, guided missiles, ships, airplanes and an endlessarsenal designed to exterminate the "enemy.'' Failure to see through the ethical and economic implications of this symbol is a major explanation for our present difficulties. "The Flag'' and "the American Way'' aresymbols for a government and society so complicated they all but defy comprehension.Reflect on some of the consequences of living in a world governed by symbols, a world of ever shiftingimages. There is irony in this circumstance for we are taught from childhood that the American-social-religious perspective is founded on permanent truths. Yet the world of images in which we live is foreverchanging, guided principally by ambition and gain. Too often we fail to see that images are fantasies,illusionsdesigned for some worldly purpose. We see the images and think they are objective and factual. We confusetheir artificial nature with something real. Whatever else the "real" is it is not a symbol or sign cooked up bypoliticians or promoters for their special ends. The absence of critical habits of mind leads us to attributeunjustified meaning to symbols. Not all who affirm the virtues of democracy, for example, really mean it.Stealing elections, manipulating votes, perverting the truth cannot be reconciled with a genuine dedication todemocracy. The same holds for religion; those who really believe it practice it. The widespread evil andselfishness in society suggest the authentic believers are few and far between. A principal reason forneglecting religion is the searing demands it entails. Much the same holds for economics. Manipulating thestock market, corrupting the law or false advertising may makemoney for the entrepreneur but this runs

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