There was a story in the newspaper recently about a clothing store in India called Hitler. The name was displayed in large capital letters, and a small swastika dotted the letter “I”. The photo of the store was also posted on Facebook, and the comments ranged from dismissive to vitriolic. According to the newspaper article, the owner pleaded ignorance, and said that he wasn’t aware of the stigma surrounding Hitler’s name. However, as many commenters correctly pointed out, using the swastika to dot the “I” is evidence that he knew darn well what he was doing.
I think the store’s owner is being disingenuous, and I suspect that he did it deliberately to evoke an emotional response from passersby. As some readers noted, he really knows how to work the media, and he may also subscribe to the philosophy that “no publicity is bad publicity”. In response to the protests, he is planning to rename his store, but in the meantime, he was able to gain free publicity that spanned the globe – more than he could ever afford to purchase. I don’t buy his ignorance defense either – he knew exactly which of our buttons to press in order to best serve his own commercial interests. Personally, I’m not particularly offended by this sign, because I don’t detect any hatred or malice. I see it merely as little more than a sophomoric stunt designed to get attention, and raise the ire of those who react rather than think.
After witnessing the strong emotions evoked by this symbol, I can understand that some people may be affected by stimulus generalization, and feel offended at the mere sight of a swastika, in any context. Here are two examples:
Example #1: Back 2008, I read a bizarre letter to the editor in my local newspaper. A week earlier, the newspaper mentioned that the small, northern Ontario town of Swastika would be celebrating its centennial that year. This gentleman was horrified that any town would have this name, so he wrote to the editor to promulgate his utter disgust. News of his letter made its way to the town of Swastika, and two weeks later, the newspaper printed some letters from the town’s residents. They chastised the writer for being not only reactionary, but decidedly ill-informed. The town was actually named after the Swastika gold mine in 1907, and was incorporated in 1908. The name had been established well before Adolph Hitler bastardized it and associated it with Nazism. The residents knew their history, and had no objection to their town’s name.
While I’m sure the letter writer thought he was being politically-correct, I thought that he sounded like a sanctimonious twit. He wasn’t genuinely offended by the name; he was merely using the newspaper as a platform to tell the world how morally superior he was. He was saying (in so many words) “You, the unwashed masses of small-town Ontario, are a bunch of buffoons who need to be educated. You are clearly not sensitive or informed enough to be offended by this word. I am obviously more enlightened and refined than you troglodytes, and that is why such things offend me – and merely pass right over your collective proletarian heads”. He didn’t use those words, I felt that this was his holier-than-thou sentiment.
Example #2: A few years ago, while looking for interesting locations in Google Maps, I stumbled across the now-infamous “swastika building” in San Diego. It’s a barracks building on the Coronado Naval Amphibious Base, and was constructed in 1967. Here it is, in Google Maps.
According to a Search Engine Land article, the swastika shape was noticed after the groundbreaking ceremony in 1967, but no changes were made to the building’s design since the shape would not be noticeable at ground level. Since then, Google Maps offers aerial views of the entire country, and its distinctive shape can be seen by anyone.
Now, the Navy is going to spend $600,000 to modify the design and camouflage the building’s shape. The shape can’t be seen from ground level, and the building is not underneath any commercial flight paths. Why is this building suddenly so offensive? I’m not playing dumb – just bear with me…
The short answer is: because people started behaving much like the letter writer in the first example. They thought “Hey – I see a swastika! This is bad! I’m so offended!”.
As George Carlin said in his 1970s comedy album The Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television “There are no bad words – bad thoughts. Bad intentions”. In our inherently symbolic society, it is important to make a distinction between the symbol itself, and what that symbol represents.
In the first example, the Hitler clothing store, the owner was being boorish, and doing something deliberately inflammatory – all in the name of commerce. While there is no evidence that he shares any of Hitler’s values, there was a clear association between the swastika symbol on his storefront, and Nazism – something that’s universally reviled.
In the second example, the town of Swastika, Ontario, the letter-writer was uninformed and jumped to a conclusion. The town was named after the Swastika gold mine, in 1907, and had nothing to do with antisemitism. He didn’t think – he merely reacted.
In the third example, the Coronado Naval Base barracks, I have to speculate, since I obviously wasn’t there when the architects were designing the building, back in the mid-to-late 1960s. During that decade, with World War II a mere 20 years in the past, I imagine that the memories of the atrocities perpetrated by the Third Reich were still quite fresh in the American consciousness. It is inconceivable to me that anyone would deliberately design any building – especially a military building – as any sort of tribute to Hitler.
Take a look at the aerial photo of the building. Personally, I think that it was designed merely a symmetrical radial design that offered most of its occupants windows that looked down onto green space. A perimeter design would have an enclosed courtyard, but more windows would be facing out into the street. In this radial design, only four building walls face the street, and the remaining twelve walls overlook green space. Secondly, this design is also more open and appears inviting from the street (when compared to a perimeter design). A perimeter design makes the building function like a shield, or a barrier between the building’s occupants and the rest of society. This open, radial design looks more like a college campus dormitory. Finally, since the building’s shape is not discernible at street level, and was constructed at a time when the general public did not have access to satellite imagery, I doubt that it was designed to shock anyone.
In my opinion, there was no malice in the design of this building, and in the same way that George Carlin examines words, I evaluate shapes. In this particular example, there are no bad thoughts or bad intentions. Therefore, just like the town of Swastika, Ontario, there shouldn’t be any knee-jerk reactions.
In these three examples, only one was deserving of criticism. In the other two, people were simply reacting to a stimulus – like Pavlov’s dogs, who salivate whenever they hear a bell – and eliminating the all-important cognitive link in their decision making.
The next time you see something provocative, I’d like to urge you not to react. Animals react to stimuli. We humans – from our illustrious and coveted perch at the top of the evolutionary ladder – think, consider, evaluate and analyze. Then, when all of the data has been processed, we can either formulate a well-reasoned response or decide to simply ignore it.
The swastika is merely a single example that I used for this article. You will encounter, with some regularity, many other words, symbols, statements and images that others may consider provocative, inflammatory or even offensive. Analyze everything as George Carlin would: don’t react to the words (or symbols), but instead consider the thoughts and intentions behind them. If there was malice or hatred behind them, then you are justified in feeling offended. If not, then please don’t take offense where none was intended.
And finally, to those people who simply react to a shape, symbol, word (or any other stimuli) without thinking, and then complain to everyone that your sensibilities have been offended, I’d like you to consider a line from Macbeth, which I believe is an apt summary of your histrionics “It is a tale told by an idiot. Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.