The terrible news of the Arizona shootings quickly spawned a large number of articles and posts about gun control, political wrangling and the current harsh political climate of our era. But to me, it's all about a sign and a symbol.
When a vice-presidential candidate uses crosshairs on her website to call out political “targets” and couples them with the rhetoric of war, we read her meaning clearly, because we have been taught, by endless repetition in movies, advertising, cyber-games and TV, to understand that the drawing of a circle with crossed lines as an iconic sign for “gun sight.” When that sign is placed on a map-- itself an iconic sign for “location”-- the layering of the two signs becomes a “code,” a sort of sentence of signs, that tells us, “Target this for destruction.”
As the news spread about the Arizona killings, Palin’s web staff responded quickly, erasing the “”crosshairs” mark on her website’s map of “targeted districts.” One can see how a flustered webmaster would have tried to remove anything potentially harmful to Palin’s reputation. But signs and symbols don’t work that way. Set the semiotic train in motion and it takes it a while to slow down. When we have been taught to see “target for destruction, “ the removal of the crosshairs becomes a code for “target that has been eliminated.” The metaphor of erasing a target mark looked as bad for Palin as had the original sign of the gun-sight.
After this error and the furor engendered by it, some bright Palin aide-de-camp, in a quick bit of research, found that the circle and crossed lines appear as a sign in the arcane language of surveying. Instead of owning up to an inappropriate use of loaded symbols on her web site, Palin defended her use of the mark as referencing this language of surveying. Not smart.
Once you’ve taught people to see a sign a certain way, they will always see it that way. When you see a swastika, you don’t think “relic of Indus Valley civilization.” When people see crosshairs, they don’t think “surveyor’s mark.”
Palin’s use of such a widely-understood symbol and her failure to own up to its conventional meaning says a lot about her. But it also says a lot about us as a people, a lot about what we would probably not like to know about ourselves.
Writing is a more complex expressive medium than is the use of pictures. When a politician relies on showing loaded symbols-- like crosshairs— instead of on articulated writing, he tells us that he wants to communicate with people who are not interested in following all the twists and turns of a complex written argument. For much of any populace, simple signs trump logic. When we are not able to follow complex arguments, when we believe that complex arguments hold traps-- are suspect, are rigged, are not genuine— we tend to hold to the single sign, to the symbol, to the one-shot deal.
The kind of person who invests in single signs is the kind who wants a complex world to be simple. He wants his President to be like him. He wants a feeling of warmth, of reality, of genuine expression from his politicians. He desires the immediacy of simple solutions to complex questions. Oddly, in seeking genuineness, this kind of person is swayed by the emotional value of sign, prefers it to logical argument and thereby underwrites an ignorance of either side of the true case, becoming the real sponsor of violence.
Left and Right both participate in this violence. If we decide that these “targets” prompted the Arizona gun attack, and we blame Palin, make her a symbol for the Unthinking Right, we are doing as much sign-making as her webmaster ever did in putting cross-hairs over maps. If we say to ourselves, “She provided the impetus, she provided the rhetoric, she provided the framework in which this pathology could flourish,” we have found a way to control our fear, our terror that America is now a place where crazy people with semi-automatic weapons open fire on nine year-old girls. Symbols comfort us: they make the irrational world controllable. They make the complex argument simple. But simple is not always true.