Symbols are powerful. Hundreds of millions of people venerated Mao while he was alive, though they knew next to nothing of his real character and motives. The power and import of Mao was that in China he was the image or symbol of what the ideal of communism was meant to be.
Yet surely, we don't need the freedom to show a crucifix immersed in urine? What possible good is there in such blatant and crude blasphemy?
My thesis is that sacred cows are dangerous.
It is easier to perceive their danger if we look at societies less tolerant than our own. We can look at Iran, China and Saudi Arabia. Looking back in our own history, there was the trial of Galileo, the witch burnings, the Crusades, and the uproar over Darwinism. There have been many hurt feelings during the long history of our society's emergence from the dominance of Christianity and medieval thinking.
Our society is tolerant and democratic precisely because it is not subservient to any religion or ideology. Because it has no officially recognised holy cows.
It is true that the wilful desecration of a Christian symbol hurts the feelings of Christians. I submit, however, that part of the price we pay for living in a free and tolerant society is that peoples' feelings can and will be hurt. It is far better that their feelings be hurt than that people be imprisoned, tortured and murdered with impunity, as happens in many parts of the world where symbols command more authority and respect.
Respecting symbols inevitably devalues human beings, for the abstraction is given value at the expense of the person.
What is a tolerant society? It is one that lives by the principle of allowing differences to coexist. Censorship inevitably makes a society less tolerant.
If we worried about the feelings of every religious group then we would cease to be a tolerant society, as there would be an ever-expanding store of sacred symbols deemed to be untouchable. Take for instance the Islamic prohibition (which derives from the Bible) on the depiction of any living things.
I believe it is actually one of the necessary conditions of personal growth that our feelings be hurt at times. The same applies to the feelings of a society: if it is to grow then it has to face certain painful realisations about itself, such as the prevalence of paedophilia, homophobia, racism and so forth.
Not only sacred cows, but symbols in general are dangerous. Take the flag. One man insults another's flag, the other kills him. This futile loss of life happened in Cyprus recently.
Symbols are so dangerous because it is a tragic feature of the human condition that we are in constant danger of mistaking our symbols for the reality that they stand for. Religion and the fanatical excesses it has given rise to are the most obvious example. Nationalism is another.
Nationalism is the real cause of the unspeakable events in Bosnia. The members of the various groups (Bosnians, Serbs, Croats) valued their symbolic belonging to a sub-culture more than something far more real and important - the fact that we and they are all equally human. To put it simply, symbols divide humanity. Unfortunately, division leads to intolerance and fear. When fear is combined with power (arms) and instability, butchery is sure to follow. This pattern is evident when one reads the reports of Amnesty International from various hot-spots around the world.
No symbols have caused more trouble than those we call words. The trouble with words is that they are so flexible, so easy to play with, giving one the impression of actually doing something real, of working with truth, rather than just manipulating conventional symbols. Words are only symbols, ones which imperfectly and imprecisely try to capture and express what is in our minds. I distrust the conclusions that even my most careful thinking arrives at.
War is impossible without symbols, ie without words, simply because it requires organisation of large numbers of people.
Pol Pot's reign of terror, resulting in the deaths of millions of innocent people, was made possible by the power of the symbol-system called communism as this was interpreted in Cambodia.
The horrors of Nazism were fostered and deepened by an elaborate system of symbols, of which the swastika was only the most obvious one. There was the symbol of "The Fuhrer", the jackboots, the high-swinging legs while marching, the distinctive uniforms, songs, and the Nazi salute, among others. All these inspired fear in those under threat from Nazism and a feeling of solidarity and power among the Germans.
Likewise, the symbol of the star of David exerted power over Jews and anti-semites alike. To the Nazis, not only the star, but the Jews themselves were a symbol of all that was wrong in Germany and the world. It is precisely because they managed to completely lose sight of the obvious fact that Jews were as human as anyone else that the Germans were able to behave with such monstrous cruelty towards the Jews. The Jew was the pre-eminent symbol of the feared and hated Other.
Symbols are subliminal and appeal to emotions, just as music does. They hold an irrational power that reasoning cannot touch. They are powerful triggers, eg all these Muslims hell-bent on murdering Rushdie have not even read a word he had written. So one of the great dangers is that symbols can be manipulated to control people.
Neo-Nazis around the world now use the symbols that one would have hoped had died 55 years ago. Perhaps they only partially understand what they are doing. In any case, symbols last a very long time and have a life of their own.
In Saudi Arabia the chador is a powerful symbol of male supremacy. Any threat to its mandatory use is seen as an assault on the fabric of society, ie on the absolute male monopoly of power.
Has religion been the cause of more good or evil? Has it caused more bloodshed and misery or more love and peace? I don't know the answer to this question, but I think it is a valid one to pose.
What is clear is that every religion is potentially dangerous because it divides people into those who believe in it and those who don't. Each one implicitly or explicitly gives rise to the myth of God's chosen people. Religious differences can easily lead to bloodshed, as history shows abundantly.
It may be objected that religion was not the actual cause of most of the conflicts it is alleged to have instigated. That it was only a pretext conveniently used by people who were actually motivated by power-politics, greed, colonialism and so forth. Even if this is so, the fact remains that religion served to divide humanity in such a way that wars were easily justified. Almost every imaginable crime has been committed in the name of Almighty God, as we are currently seeing in Algeria. So even if religion was not the true cause of a conflict, it certainly helped to prolong and intensify it, by drawing up clear battle lines between 'us' and 'them', between the true believers and the satanic infidels.
It is also important to realise that when each religion arose in historical time, it tended to either destroy or absorb the symbols of the religions that preceded it. For instance, the early Christians tried to destroy all the remaining symbols of the Roman religion.
Furthermore, religions enslave human beings to ideas, ideas which are taken to be more valuable than human beings themselves. This is an essential point, as putting ideas before people can give rise to every form of evil.
We cannot return to a world without symbols. The best we can hope for is to neutralise some of their more dangerous effects. Denying them reverence and respect is one useful way to do this.
The Dada movement of the thirties (eg presenting a urinal as an art-work) was not innocent and without social import. What Dada succeeded in doing was to implant a thoroughgoing scepticism in our society. A scepticism before all symbols, all forms of received knowledge, respect for authority, and so on. While this scepticism has many negative consequences, it has made modern Western society what it is, ie pluralistic, tolerant and liberal.
I believe that living in peace and freedom is dependent upon scepticism. In short, on treating symbols with disrespect.