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Sunday, March 28, 2010
Institutional symbolic counter-speech

Sport represents the only occasion in which adults regularly participate in patriotic symbolic rituals and ceremonies, such as the singing of the national anthem. I have written a great deal about the free-speech liberty to engage in patriotic symbolic counter-speech--declining to participate or engage with the symbol or its associated rituals or otherwise using (or not using) the ritual to protest the symbol and its message.

An interesting twist on symbolic speech and counter-speech is playing out at the institutional level at Goshen College, an Anabaptist-Mennonite liberal arts college that plays in NAIA. For years, Goshen has not played the national anthem before home sporting events, believing that the song conflicts with the Mennonite traditions of pacifism and anti-militarism (the lyrics celebrate a war and a military battle) and objections to excessive nationalism or pledging allegiance to anything other than God.

But the school has spent more than two years rethinking and debating that policy, ultimately which has drawn criticism from some visitors to the school. The school finally decided to play an instrumental version before home games, beginning with a baseball and softball game played last week. The decision continues to provoke discussion, disagreement, and debate among college administration, alumni, and faculty.

This is an interesting resolution--in part because no one is quite happy. It seems to address the pacifism concerns, excluding the militaristic lyrics, but not necessarily the nationalism concerns, which would seem to reject any song honoring country, regardless of lyrics. I presume this is why playing an alternative song--America, the Beautiful (Ray Charles version)would be my preference--never has been an option and was not the chosen option now.

By agreeing to play the song at sporting events that it sponsors and hosts, Goshen as an institution is engaging in symbolic speech--promoting the symbol and its meaning through the pre-game ceremony. Goshen's message is slightly altered by using only the instrumental version and not associating itself with the lyrics. Now we see what (if any) symbolic counter-speech follows in response. Interestingly, in this case, it could come from both directions. Those who disagree with the new policy may refuse to participate in the symbolic ritual by refusing to stand during the song or by turning away from the flag. Those who believe the new policy does not go far enough may take it on themselves to sing the lyrics as a way of both giving a fuller endorsement to the complete patriotic message (whatever additional meaning comes from the lyrics) and of protesting Goshen's decision not to go farther with the anthem.


Ok. Well, could the real issue here be money and not have anything to do with symbolic speech at all?

Anonymous Anonymous -- 3/29/2010 12:21 PM  

It could be anything. But what in the story suggests this has anything to do with money?

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 3/29/2010 1:13 PM  

hmm! I do agree!

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Anonymous Anonymous -- 3/29/2010 11:39 PM  

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