By Jose Leonardo Santos
Jose Leonardo Santos is an anthropologist and assistant professor of social science at Metropolitan State University.
Imagine a newborn baby. Your baby. The most precious thing in the world. Now imagine the neighborhood bully. He walks up to this precious baby. He leans in close over the stroller. He spills a soda on your baby. He laughs, then walks away. Would you be angry?
Well, why? It's just a soda. Can't really hurt. Wasn't enough to drown your baby. Didn't get in the baby's eyes. What's to be upset about?
The scene is upsetting because it is rude. Because babies are precious. Because we know the spill was an insult. We know the laugh mocks us. The spilt soda, the laugh: They alone are not insulting. Their meaning is. Why did he do it to the baby and not to you? Because he knows the baby means so much. The soda, the laugh, the baby have powerful symbolic meaning.
Clifford Geertz wrote that religion is a system of symbols. These symbols are so powerful that they affect our moods and motivate us to action. Have you ever seen an old veteran cry before a flag? Same thing. She's not crying because she likes cloth. She's crying because the flag is a precious symbol.
Recently someone in the United States released a film. It mocks the Prophet of Islam. Throughout the Islamic world, riots have broken out. Fury has broken out. People are dead. The Prophet is the central figure of the faith. Then a French magazine released a cartoon that also mocks the Prophet. The response is predictable.
Many in our culture don't "get" religion. And of those who do, many don't get Islam. But all religions hold something sacred. Religion, to many, is as precious as a newborn child. You don't need to get religion to understand that.
We play with symbols every day. We give our loved ones roses. People burn flags. This symbolic play is potentially dangerous. Being unaware of what symbols mean can lead to death. Attacking another person's dearest things is a mistake. There will be no peace if we spit on babies. Want peace? Learn the other guy's symbols. Learn what is precious to him.
It's something we call cultural competence. You want to be respected? Figure out how others show respect. Then show them that respect. Then they might feel you are worthy of respect, too.