Concepts and Symbols. Flags and Hashtags. This separates us so often that I have found myself discussing it with two of your own in the last week. Millennials flocked to the hashtag. It has become the craze of everything trendy and trending. It changes every day. The #hashtag promulgates concepts, irony, satire, commentary. Often the hashtag is the best part of a tweet or an Instagram photo. I still get lost in the hashtags, my friends. I am not sophisticated enough to put them together in paragraphs as you all do. Effectively, I might add. The idea of “trending” was a data concept and not a social media one until it became popular with you all. Many of my own friends have mocked the hashtag, and the excessive use of them. Many of my own friends have picked up the practice of using them – effectively- for business development. There is no universal #hashtag. But there are some universal symbols. They can mean the same; they just speak differently.
My friends, before hashtags, there were symbols. And in particular, symbols that stood for the concepts that are now explored with hashtags. Recently, on Veteran’s Day, I took note of the hashtags: #thankyou, #VETS, #sacrifice, #homeofthebrave. These are wonderful! But they are also expressed in symbols like the US Flag. This creates a similarity of thought but a difference of expression. I remember my grandmother talking about how my generation was disrespectful to hers because we didn’t put the same emphasis on the symbols she found important. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand her cause (I’m a Southerner, so of course, it was Civil War and Southern Culture); it was that I didn’t feel the need to express the same love, the same devotion, the same opinion. I learned that to disagree was, in her eyes, disrespectful. It was because of the love she held for her symbol. But I was in college and had learned what that same symbol represented to my black friends. And I was more interesting in the concept of inclusion, diversity and moving past the Civil War. She wasn’t a bad person, my grandmother. But she loved her symbol and wanted me to love it. Back to that same line of thought, aren’t we? That the generation in front of you isn’t bad. They just want you to love things, learn things, accept things the way they did. That isn’t a Millennial problem, my friends. That has always been so.
Symbols represent something to many people. But concepts represent a great deal as well. You are, and have been your whole lives, bombarded with advertising, print media, images. It’s on your phones, your email, your t-shirts. Symbols, and pictures, are everywhere. That means that often these symbols, these pictures, can become commonplace. In order to give something significance, then, you find a way to move it out of the common and into something all its own. Like a #hashtag. But concepts- big ones- are open discussions of the very things symbols often represent.
I am not asking you to stop using #hashtags. Far from it- they are incredibly effective. I am asking merely that you start seeing the differences not as oceans separating continents of differences, but as small streams separating humans. We get a lot wrong; but we also get a great deal right. And in this time of uncertainty, this time of confusion, we start to see cries for silence, ceasing of protests, calls for trust and calmness. None of this will lead us to the world that I know you want. We must instead speak. We must not be silent in the smallest storm of indifference or in the tornado of racism. Instead, I beg you to listen, to not dismiss a symbol but use it as a way to ask what it means to that person, to challenge the old thoughts by seeking new answers. I ask you to help us learn that someone’s love of one symbol doesn’t have to subtract from the love we have for our own. This is a lesson we need you to help us re-learn. If someone loves something, your love of another thing does not detract. I am an idealist and I hope that you help us move past being offended when symbols are no longer championed. I hope that you move us into the acceptance that if you love this country, the symbol of that love cannot be merely a flag- cannot be a just a symbol (See The American President, an old movie, from the 1990s for that whole quote). I hope you help us move from celebrating symbols to celebrating concepts like human dignity, love for all, safe places for all citizens, fixing our broken planet, and creating inclusivity within the workplace. I truly hope you help move out of our social preoccupation with symbols and old ways and into the solutions for the really tough problems like poverty, rape culture, rising temperatures, the need for renewable energy. I hope you #hashtag yourselves in the history books. I am going to help you. But it always starts with understanding how we are different, and why, so that we can find and celebrate and connect the ways in which we are so very similar. Find the bridges across the streams, seek to understand. Ask reflective questions, challenge each other and us, get involved, and… take over the world.
I love you so-