Iconoclasts in glass houses

The statements from the Vatican I linked to last post include a comment from Cardinal Achille Silvestrini that’s worth highlighting:

The cardinal said secular societies should not assume a right to offend religious sentiments. He noted that many countries consider it illegal to offend their national flag and asked, “Shouldn’t we consider religious symbols on an equal level with the symbols of secular institutions?”

This is a good point; it is far to easy to defend the right to satire or denigrate the other people’s images while holding that our own images and ideals should be off-limits. However, I take away a different lesson than he intended, namely that we all must be wary of the power our own symbols have over us.

If I may stereotype the argument as religion vs. secular culture, both sides of have blind spots when it comes to our symbols. We secularists are so invested in the myth that we are rational beings that we are blind to the very real power our icons and our media have over us, and that blindness makes us vulnerable. The result is Madison Avenue, Hollywood and politicians who can play us like a musical instrument. Religion, on the other hand, is so aware of the power of icons that they have become hostage to the defense of their own. The result is hair-trigger sensitivity, where a simple cartoon or perceived slight in the wording on a greeting card can spark boycotts and even violence.