The importance of symbols and cultural artifacts

I was watching a video about the use (or misuse) of the Confederate flag, especially here in Virginia. Since I was born and raised in Venezuela, I’m not familiar with the history in the United States, so it took me a while to do my research and get contextualized regarding the meaning of the Confederate flag, that for sure it’s very controversial.

Again, since I’m not citizen of the United States, I don’t want to make a strong opinion on this matter, instead I would like to talk about my experiences with cultural artifacts, and the powerful meaning that symbols can have in the development of a culture.

I spend some years doing research on Institutional culture at my hometown university (UNET). I started with the research because there were things that always caught my attention at that institution and no one was able to explain them to me. For example, UNET is a small university, the campus is conformed by 4 big buildings, 3 of them are academic buildings, and one is an administrative building. One of the things that I noticed when I started there as an undergraduate was that in the 3 academic buildings, there were no trash cans in the entire building. For me that was concerning, I couldn’t understand how in the most important University in southwestern Venezuela there were no trash cans. When I started doing my research about institutional culture in my University, most of the things took me back to institutional values. The people in the University acted according to the values that the institution has. When I went looking for the origin of the values I found that most of the institutional values at UNET came from his founding Rector Dr. Lorenzo Monroy. Since he was the first leader the institution had, he decided to use his personal values as the institution’s values. One thing that most of the people don’t know about him is that he was a clean freak. He took about 6 showers a day, he washed his hands every 20 minutes, and he changes three or four times clothes every single day. When he created the academic buildings at UNET he purposefully didn’t put any trash cans in the building because he argued that people in Academia wasn’t supposed to produce filth or dirt, he used to say that Academics could only produce knowledge.

What impresses me the most is that 60 years later, there are still no trash cans in the building, and people never ask why, they just adapt to the institutional culture and see things attached to a culture as “normal” even if they are not. We have a say in Spanish that is “a donde fueres haz lo que vieres” that I believe in English is used as “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Cultural artifacts and symbols are very powerful since they can dictate what is adequate in a particular culture, even if is not making any common sense.

The confederate flag despite its origin and initial meaning is directly related to racism, and that is something we can’t deny. Therefore, I think that is really important that measures are created to minimize its use despite the debate on it, because since is a cultural artifact, even for people that is not racist, they might be accepting racism at a subconscious level.

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1 Response to The importance of symbols and cultural artifacts

  1. Jude C Chris says:

    Without these artifacts and symbols it would have been more difficult for the current generations to survive and create new technologies. Also they will be helpful in the future generations too.

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