[Warning: this post contains images of swastikas, as used in Eastern cultures.]
Bit of a thoughtful and possibly contentious post today, following on from a chat with my husband yesterday. As I've said, he's away in India at the moment, on another two week business trip. He's currently staying in a business district of Hyderabad, in a hotel used mainly by Westerners. He wasn't working when I spoke to him, as his colleagues in the office out there all had the day off to celebrate Diwali.
My husband is Jewish. He's culturally Jewish, rather than religious, as is the case with most of his immediate family. We live in London. He has friends and colleagues of all kinds of religious and ethnic backgrounds and he travels a lot as part of his job. He is well aware that the swastika is an ancient religious symbol, derived from Sanskrit and denoting 'good luck', and that it's used extensively in Buddhist and Hindu parts of the world; as well as by the Native American people. He is also well aware that it was misappropriated by Hitler and his Nazi party, and that the swastika on the Nazi flag has been tilted 45 degrees. It is also missing the dots which would often sit inside the open areas. He knows all this, yet it still felt 'like a kick to the gut'
to walk out of his hotel room and see this design in the lobby:
Happy Dewali sign made in coloured stones - hotel lobby, Hyderabad
What are your immediate thoughts? I am not Jewish, but like anyone brought up post 1940s Europe - and who doesn't have fascist leanings - the flag of the third reich inspires nothing but revulsion. Whilst it is not strictly illegal to display Nazi memorabilia in the UK - unlike in Germany, France, Italy, Hungary and Israel - it is widely considered to be in extremely poor taste. We do
have laws against 'incitement of racial hatred', so wearing swastikas or painting them all over your house would have you on shaky legal ground. However, all this applies to the flag
itself - the swastika within a white circle, on a red background. [I would rather not have a picture of it on my blog, we all know what it looks like.] To me, that stylised version above is quite far removed from that on the Nazi flag - and clearly there was no intent to offend - Diwali is a joyous occasion, as important culturally in India as Christmas is here. However, Ben saw it immediately. The connections made in his brain inevitably lead him to the missing branches of his family tree. Those who came from Poland, not Latvia. The cousins of his step-father who never made it out of the camps. I am never going to have the same gut-clenching personal
To many, that swastika is a similar to Hitler's as this Letterman's jacket is to the anarchy symbol - the same root, but signifying completely different things:
Suppose violent anarchy took off again in the UK - the return of the riots
we saw in the Summer of 2011, but this time leading to millions of deaths and the virtual collapse of society - would the symbol on the left seem as innocent? Or would it be tainted forever? Like the yellow swastika above, it might seem cuddlier looking to those who weren't directly affected, but for others the association would be immediate and inherently negative. [Likewise, it would be terrible but fascinating from a theoretical standpoint to wonder what would happen if a terrorist group committed atrocities using the Star of David as their 'stolen' symbol. Would it be given up by the Jewish faith as a result?]
Of course, context and background are everything. You can accept that the only place the swastika denotes fascism is on the Nazi flag - but how about if you see it spray-painted on a wall as you walk through an unfamiliar part of town? If it's carved into the table in the pub you're sat in? Your first thought is probably not going to be 'Buddhist temple nearby', as it might be if you were in Japan. [See flickr picture here
- I don't have rights to use the photo]. If in the UK,
I see a swastika in one of those scenarios, I shudder. I walk a little faster, or I finish my drink up quicker than I'd planned. That spindly graphic design, even divorced from the flag which attempted to 'trademark' it, still hums with menace. It says aggression - and even if you're not Jewish, or black, or gay, or a gypsy, or any other arbitrarily decided minority, the threat of violence is tangible.
"A boot stamping on a human face forever"
George Orwell, 1984.
That's the most perfect description of fascism I can imagine, and it's the line that comes to mind when I see 'that' swastika.
I am educated enough to realise that if I saw it on a poster advertising yoga classes at a Buddhist centre (for example) that the intent
would not be the same, but I think that sad though it may be, a socially conscious yoga teacher wouldn't use the symbol anyway.You can argue until you're blue in the face that language changes and 'mong' just means a foolish person, but you just don't use it in front of a Mother of a child with Down's Syndrome unless you're an unmitigated git. [or Frankie Boyle]. Ditto using the word 'gay' to mean stupid or pointless - why use a word in a way that can hurt someone when you don't need to? Maybe I'm too old to have picked up this particularly uncharming bit of slang, but at least I don't have to spend my time going 'Oh, sorry, haha'
in front of certain friends. Explaining that someone's visceral reaction to a word or symbol is wrong doesn't make them feel better. Just apologise. Or better yet, think and don't use it.
I rang my friend Sunita earlier, and asked her whether the swastika spoke more to her as a Hindu symbol, or whether her immediate thought was fascism. She was more easily able to disassociate the two because of her family's cultural background, but as she is British - and the Holocaust is a vital part of our secondary school curriculum here - she agreed that seeing the swastika alone would still signal racism to her. I realise this 'evidence' is merely one person's opinion, but I do think that rehabilitation of the symbol is impossible in Europe and the Western world.
[This has turned into an essay, sorry].
Anyway, if you agree with my points above as they relate to the UK, shouldn't the same care for people's feelings - on both sides - apply in India? My husband is not one of the ranks of the 'professionally offended'. He does not make a fuss. We know that the symbol does not carry any of the same connotations there - however he did have to explain to a friend and colleague who had taken him to a market why he could not possibly buy any wooden goods decorated with swastikas. His colleague was somewhat bemused, the cultural significance of the holocaust being almost zero to him. It would be pointless to see a swastika on a building - as a personal attack. If this was a house in the UK - it would be easy to justify refusing an invite. Who but a racist would decorate their home in such a way? But if this were a friend's family home in India, is it worth risking giving grave offence when none was meant?
I can't speak for Ben as we didn't discuss this scenario, but I would consider it rude to bring up the the cultural resonance it has for us, unless I was directly asked why I looked uncomfortable. Of course, I will say again - I am not Jewish.
Sunita - my friend - agreed it was a different matter when it comes to the hotel. Given that their clientele is almost exclusively Western business travellers, should they perhaps be a little more circumspect in deciding what are appropriate symbols to use? The sign was after all in English - so not aimed at locals. The intent was good, but the execution could be improved. I know that horrible racism and intolerance is experienced in the UK every day, but our I believe our basic tenets of law and government are good. We're against 'honour killings' and female oppression, but we have freedom of religion and know better than to decorate hotels with cartoons of the prophet Mohammed - to give a crazy example. The world is getting smaller - our global village has never been more crowded. Tolerance means understanding - not that we should tolerate hurting each other when it could be avoided.
What are your thoughts?
There is an interesting article and comments in the Jewish Week
here, if you want to read more opinions.