Whether symbolism is worthless.

By symbolism I mean words, gestures, acts that by themselves don’t achieve much of real value.

I’ve never cared for symbolic things – pledges, rituals, ceremonies, gatherings, motivational speeches and the like.

When I think about why that’s so, the first answer that comes to mind is that they’re useless.

But that’s not entirely true, and that’s not the only reason either.


Utility is usefulness, value.

The utility of the laptop I’m using, the clothes I’m wearing, the food I eat is evident to me.

The utility of many intangibles – speeches, reports, presentations, courses, books is much less so, if one judges by the ratio of the volume produced and impact created.

The opposite of utility is formality, that which benefits no one and exists only to comply with meaningless diktats.

Somewhere in between the spectrum between formality and utility lies symbolism.

Symbolism ranges from the utterly useless to the immensely useful.

An oath, a pledge, a speech – how often does this change anyone’s behaviour or have any real effect?

It’s usually a ceremony with lavish decorations and a fancy setup – with a lot of effort put in.

Few things bring more sadness (and amusement) than to see how so many people put so much time, effort and money to do something of no use to anyone.

And how seriously they take the whole thing, as though it were a matter of consequence, as though it really mattered to anyone, as though it wouldn’t be forgotten in a few minutes.

It’s usually the case that the more symbolic, and the more useless, the more people are impressed by it. And that’s how symbolism seduces – through the reward of adulation, from others and oneself.

I’ll admit though, that not all symbolism is useless.

To market, to persuade, to sell – few things succeed better than symbolism.

To convince people, whether it’s employees to work harder or soldiers to give up their lives – maybe symbolism works, although I’d imagine anyone with an ounce of cynicism wouldn’t be moved.

Even here though, it’s only the ‘movers and shakers’ who can afford to indulge in symbolism; it wouldn’t work for others.

If I went around donating money to noble causes or reducing my carbon footprint and asking people to emulate me it wouldn’t be any use.

You’d need fame or influence to affect anyone through symbols, but when these conditions are met, you often do see a huge mass of people contribute money / time or change their behaviour.

And that does bring about an impact that a single person would otherwise perhaps not be able to achieve.

It’s through the symbol that a lot was achieved.


Accepting that symbolism can, though perhaps not usually so, be useful, doesn’t make me any better disposed to it.

The reason lies in the very symbolism of a symbolic action.

It’s only ‘symbolic’; it doesn’t really do anything, and not just that, it doesn’t require anything.

There’s no credibility in a symbolic action – because there’s no skill and no sacrifice.

You don’t need any knowledge or skill to take a pledge or light a lamp – in short, to perform a symbolic deed.

Which means that pretty much anyone can do it.

And then you wonder why you’re needed for this, if anyone could have done it.

Your skills, education, knowledge – all of no use here.

You could be replaced by anyone, and it would make no difference.

Not only is there no skill, there’s also no sacrifice, because the action is only symbolic, not real.

No sacrifice means that it’s easy to perform.

Sacrifice is the truest test of genuineness, of credibility.

Whether it’s academics or hobbies or skills or work – it’s easy to talk, but it’s what you sacrifice – time, sleep, effort, money – that tell you if it’s genuine.

Volunteering for social work is a sacrifice of time, money, energy.

Playing a sport requires physical exertion.

Reading requires mental effort.

Producing art takes skill.

But a symbolic act – whether it’s consuming a food item or reading out a text, is no sacrifice of anything.

When you combine the two, you end up with something that anyone can do – and do easily.

Can you then take any pride in doing something anyone could have done with ease?

Whether it impresses people, whether they find it prestigious, whether they think it’s important – and they usually do – is irrelevant.

And that’s why, no matter how useful it might be, symbolism has such little worth.