A Philosopher's Blog

Symbols & Facts

Posted in Aesthetics, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 29, 2014

After the murderous attack on the school in Peshawar, Pakistan an image of a child’s blood-stained shoe began appearing in the social media. While the image certainly fit the carnage, the photo was not taken in Peshawar. It had, instead, been taken in May of 2008 in the Israeli city of Ashkelon. Such “re-use” of images is common, especially in social media.

As might be imagined, some took issue with people claiming (wrongly) that the picture was from Peshawar. Others took the view that it did not matter since the image was an appropriate symbol of the situation.

A somewhat analogous situation to the “re-use” of photos is the reference of incidents in protests that some regard as not being “suitable” for the protest. For example, in response to the protests about the deaths of Brown and Garner some critics have asserted that the protesters have the facts wrong and that Garner and Brown were not exactly innocent angels. The idea seems to be that the protests can be invalidated by disputing the facts of a specific case or by questioning the suitability of the people used as focal points for the protests.

In response to such criticisms, some defenders of the protesters assert that they do have the facts right and contend that even if Garner and Brown were not innocent angels, injustice still occurred.

The general issue in both sorts of cases is the importance of the truth and purity of the symbols used—be the symbol a photo of a shoe or a black man killed by the police.

As a philosopher, I am initially inclined to come out in favor of the strict truth. Even if the shoe image fit the situation, it is not a picture from the actual event and knowingly using it would be an act of deception. This would certainly seem to be morally wrong. In the case of symbols used in protests, the same reasoning should apply. If the symbols represent the situation incorrectly and those using them know this, then they are engaged in deceit. This would, on the face of it, be wrong.

The “purity” of the people used as symbols is somewhat more complicated. In the case of Brown and Garner, the protesters do not (in general) dispute that these men had broken the law and they do not claim that they were innocent angels. Those critical of the protests sometimes claim that the use of these “impure” symbols somehow invalidates the protest to some degree. Looked at from a purely propaganda viewpoint, innocent angels as victims would be “better”, but injustice does not require that the victim be such an angel. It just requires that a wrong occurs. There is still, however, the moral question of whether or not Garner and Brown were victims of injustice. If they were not, then the protests would be legitimately undermined—after all, a protest about an alleged injustice requires that the injustice be real. If they were victims of injustice, then the protests would obviously have a valid foundation—even though the men were not angels.

As a philosopher who teaches aesthetics, I am willing to consider the possibility that the “factual truth” of a symbol might not be as important as its “symbolic truth.” This, obviously enough, opens the door wide to numerous accusations about my integrity and commitment to the truth. Despite this risk, this is certainly an avenue worth strolling down—though I might not wish to take up residence there.

The reason that I mention aesthetics is that one of the most plausible lines of justification for the use of such “untrue” symbols can be found in the realm of art. As philosophers have long noted, art is a beautiful untrue thing. As such, factual veracity is usually not of critical importance in art. Despite (or perhaps because of) this, works of art can present general truths through what might be regarded as specific untruths. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not a factual documentary on slavery, Lord of the Flies is not a report of real events, nor is Romeo & Juliet a factual account of a real tragedy. Despite this, these and so many other works convey general truths or make moral points using untrue things.

Assuming that works of art can legitimately use untrue things, it can be argued that the same can be said of symbols, such as the image of the shoe. While the picture of the shoe was, in fact, taken in 2008 in Israel and not in Pakistan, it still serves as a true symbol of the event. That is, it powerfully conveys a general truth about the slaughter of children that goes beyond the specific facts. To dismiss the symbol by saying “why, that is not a picture from the event” is to miss the point of its use as a symbol. As a symbol it is not being presented as a factual representation of the events. Rather, it is being presented as standing for a general truth. Thus, while the symbol is an untrue thing in one sense (it is not a photo of that actual event) it is true in other senses. It symbolizes the killing of children in political struggles and captures the horror of the slaughter of innocents.

Naturally, it is perfectly reasonable to point out that such symbols are not accurate reporting of the event. It is thus completely legitimate to claim that such images should not be used in news reports (except, of course, to report that they are being used, etc.). After all, the true business of news is (or should be) reporting the cold facts. However, there are contexts (such as expressing how one feels on social media) when symbols are appropriate. As long as these are kept properly distinct, then both seem to be legitimate. To use the obvious analogy, the fact that clips from fictional films should not be used in news stories does not entail that fictional films have no place or use in making statements.

Turning to the matter of protests, the matter is somewhat different from that of the image. An image, such as the shoe, can be taken as expressing a general truth. Though the shoe belonged to an Israeli child, it can stand in for the shoe of any child who has been the victim of a terrible attack and it expressed the general horror of such violence. Saying “that picture is not from Pakistan” does not show that the wounding or slaughter of children is not horrible.

However, the truth of the symbolic cases used in protests does seem to matter. As argued above, if the symbolic cases used by protestors turn out to be factually untrue (that is, the narrative of the protesters does not match reality), then that is a problem. For example, if protesters use the killing of a specific black man as a symbol of injustice, but it turns out that the shooting was morally justified, then the protest is undermined. After all, if there was no injustice in a case, then there is no injustice to protest.

One counter to this is that even if a specific symbolic case has been exposed as untrue, this does not discredit the other symbolic cases. For example, the revelation that the Rolling Stone rape article contained numerous untrue claims does discredit that symbolic case, but does not disprove the other cases—they stand or fall on their own merits or defects. This is quite reasonable: the fact that one example is not true does not prove that the other examples are untrue (though it can, of course, raise concerns). So, even if a symbolic case embraced by protesters turns out to not fit, this does not show that the protest is rendered invalid. Using the specific example of campus rape, the fact that the Rolling Stone story unraveled under investigation does not, by itself, show that sexual assault is not a problem on campuses.

But, of course, a claim can be undermined by properly discrediting the supporting examples, be they symbolic or not. So, for example, if it is claimed that the police treat black citizens differently than white citizens and it turns out that this is not generally true, then protests based on this would be undermined. Facts, obviously enough, do matter. However, the weight of each fact must be properly considered: as noted above, showing that one symbolic case is untrue does not discredit all the supporting examples. So, for example, if it is shown that a specific symbolic case does not match the facts, this does not show that the protest is unwarranted.


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37 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on December 29, 2014 at 8:20 am

    Yikes. Joseph Goebbels could not have said it better.

    • wtp said, on December 29, 2014 at 10:10 am

      “Yikes”? You are surprised by this? Humor me. What is your account?

      • T. J. Babson said, on December 29, 2014 at 10:23 am

        I guess I believed that Mike, as a philosopher, valued truth above all other things.

        • wtp said, on December 29, 2014 at 10:27 am

          So are you convinced now or do you think you will go back to believing? You do understand he is a sophist and pretty much always has been, yes?

        • T. J. Babson said, on December 29, 2014 at 10:42 am

          I must say that if philosophy is not in search of truth it does become a rather pointless exercise in sophistry.

          • wtp said, on December 29, 2014 at 11:58 am

            The sophistry isn’t pointless if it pays your bills. I would argue that in the agrigate it is worse than pointless for society as a whole.

          • wtp said, on December 29, 2014 at 1:08 pm

            Thoughts, TJ?

            Although Orwell made few direct references to philosophy, much of his later and better writing amounts to an attempt at working out the political consequences of what are essentially philosophical questions. When and what should we doubt? When and what should we believe? Questions like these are particularly important in Nineteen Eighty-four. In that novel, the official philosophy of the fictitious Oceanian regime is a sort of global scepticism while everyday common sense has been made a heresy. It is common sense that triggers off Winston Smith’s illfated rebellion, a rebellion against the kinds of thing that put Orwell off philosophy.

            “They were wrong and he was right. The obvious, the silly and the true had got to be defended. Truisms are true, hold onto that! The solid world exists. Its laws do not change. Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall towards the earth’s centre.”

            Later, therefore, when the novel describes the State’s attempts at ending Smith’s dissent, it details a process whereby common sense is undermined by sophistry and scepticism. The operation is supervised and, in its later stages, performed by O’Brien, the ruling Party’s agent provocateur. Re-educating Winston, he remarks:

            “You are here because you have failed in humility, in self-discipline. You would not make the act of submission which is the price of sanity. You preferred to be a lunatic, a minority of one. Only the disciplined mind can see reality, Winston. You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right. You also believe that the nature of reality is self-evident. When you delude yourself into thinking that you see something, you assume that everyone else sees the same thing as you. But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind which can make mistakes and in any case soon perishes: only in the mind of the Party which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be the truth, is the truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party.”


            • TJB said, on December 29, 2014 at 3:17 pm

              Brilliant exegesis.

            • wtp said, on December 29, 2014 at 4:26 pm

              Did you read the whole thing? Of course, Orwell is very low-brow, you understand. Shouldn’t take such common sense too seriously.

            • wtp said, on December 29, 2014 at 4:59 pm

              Also, just verified…that was written back in 1996. 18 years ago. Just thought the context was relevant and worthy of mention.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 30, 2014 at 3:54 pm

          I do value truth, which is why I considered the possibility of symbolic truths. There certainly seem to be legitimate uses for symbols that are not actually true. For example, the story of Othello is not true (being a fictitious play) but it still serves admirably as a source of symbols for making points. Art is, in general, untrue in the strict sense of corresponding to specific facts in reality. Yet it also seems to present symbolic truths by its beautiful lies.

          So, I think we can say that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not factually accurate (it is fiction), yet it is also true.

  2. ajmacdonaldjr said, on December 29, 2014 at 6:56 pm

    You should analyze your own use of words Professor. For example, twice (that I can remember) you wrote: “A grand jury failed to indict…” in an article about Ferguson. This sort of writing show extreme prejudice, because you make it sound as though the jury failed to uphold justice. You could have written “A grand jury found insufficient evidence to indict…’ which would have communicated the facts of the matter better, as well as showing the jury did, in fact, uphold justice. Today you write: “Brown and Garner were not exactly innocent angels…” which betrays your extreme prejudice. You could have written the truth instead: “Brown and Garner were criminals…” I guess the truth doesn’t fit the narrative you’ve chosen to adopt.

    • nailheadtom said, on December 30, 2014 at 12:05 am

      “You could have written the truth instead: “Brown and Garner were criminals…”

      Since both Brown and Garner were being arrested as suspects of a specific crime, their history is of no consequence unless you believe that anyone convicted of a crime is forever to be treated as a criminal under any and all circumstances. While it’s been said that Garner was well-known to the police that killed him as a loosey salesman, the same was not true of Brown.

      A few days ago the European Space Agency publicized the orbiting of the Rosetta spacecraft around a comet about 250 million miles from earth and the deployment of a landing craft to its surface. While we have the technology to perform such incredible feats at the same time we still use the medieval technique of combining elements with explosive characteristics to drive a lead pellet through the body of fellow humans that disobey the instructions given them by “public servants”. Aliens might very well conclude that humans in general, and Americans in particular, actually favor, if not enjoy, taking the lives of their fellows, since it’s such a common occurrence. Dropping atomic weapons on Japanese schoolgirls and using unmanned drones to incinerate Arab wedding parties would seem to be more evidence of this characteristic.

      • T. J. Babson said, on December 30, 2014 at 9:27 am

        Sorry to hear that you don’t like living under Pax Americana, NHT. No matter. Soon you will experience the Chinese version of the Monroe Doctrine. Let me know how that works out.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 30, 2014 at 4:02 pm

      A reasonable point. I used the phrase “failed to indict” mainly because that is how it was reported, which could be a mistake on my part. That is, I figured that was the standard phrase used to describe it (like “failure to yield”) but it could be a contentious phrase.

      As you note, the “failed to indict” could be taken with the negative connotation of “failure”-that the jury should have indicted, but did not do so. To be neutral, it would seem better to say “did not indict” since that reports without implying judgment.

      They did both commit crimes (robbery in one case, selling loose cigs in the other). I went with “were not innocent angels” mainly because the “ideal” would be just that sort of person.

      • ajmacdonaldjr said, on December 30, 2014 at 5:54 pm

        There is no neutrality. The best we can do is recognize and acknowledge our presuppositions. When it comes to the media and the news I have made it a habit to re-title news headlines. Headlines communicate the gist of a story and reveal the presuppositions of the news outlet. Many people read only headlines, since they communicate the gist of the story. Hence, a properly worded headline will communicate the message the news outlet wants readers to unthinkingly imbibe. For instance: “White police officer kills unarmed black teen”. This headline indicates the news outlet’s presuppositions, and what they wish their readers to believe. If the news outlet were interested in the truth, as opposed to propagandizing the public, they could have written: “Robbery suspect killed during attack on police officer”

  3. TJB said, on December 29, 2014 at 9:53 pm

    “Symbolic truth” is nothing more than propaganda. You have sinned against philosophy, Mike.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 30, 2014 at 4:04 pm

      Not at all. You know that symbols can express truths, even when the symbol itself it not factually accurate. For example, you made use of the symbols in Othello to make a point and, you’ll note, that I did not dismiss this by saying “that is just a play and hence a lie.”

      • wtp said, on December 30, 2014 at 4:20 pm

        TJ, were you as confident as I that in at least one of Mike’s replies on this subject he would use the phrase “Not at all”? Were bowl games as predictable I’d be a very rich man.

        Mike, you are nothing more than a bullshitter. I think “sophist” is giving you too much credit. NO ONE, well no one sane anyway, believes that works of fiction are “true”. We all understand they are works of fiction. My god, I’m running out of words. I mean this argument is so incredibly stupid. And that’s what you do Mike, you make arguments that are so incredibly stupid, I feel like a fool actually responding to them. And thus the distraction from the fundamentals of a productive exchange of ideas. A distraction from being able to argue points with you. Every word you type makes a mockery of every school that has given you either a degree or a job. This is crap. Absolute crap.

        I was going to quip that we’ve hit Peak Stupid here, but as confident as I was of “Not at all” I am confident you can get even stupider.

      • wtp said, on December 30, 2014 at 4:45 pm


      • T. J. Babson said, on December 30, 2014 at 5:36 pm

        Mike, the purpose of a symbol like the bloody shoe is to elicit an emotional reaction and short-circuit critical thinking.

        Using symbols to bypass critical thinking is the domain of advertising, politics, and legal defense teams. It is not the domain of philosophy.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 31, 2014 at 12:07 pm

          True-symbols do typically rely on emotional factors and, as such, are non-argumentative means of persuasion. But, symbols can be discussed philosophically and they can be legitimately used in argumentation. For example, your analogy to Othello made use of symbols, yet was still a philosophical argument.

          As you note, using symbols to bypass thinking is not philosophical, but rather political, etc.

          • T. J. Babson said, on December 31, 2014 at 1:10 pm

            Mike–honestly–I don’t see any way that a symbol like a bloody shoe can help promote clear, rational thinking.

            Symbols like the bloody shoe are not the path forward for humanity.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 31, 2014 at 7:08 pm

              Interesting point. On the one hand, rational thinking is general impaired by emotional influences. On the other hand, we do use our emotions in assessing value. Not being an emotivist about ethics, I tend to disagree with their value in making moral choices. But, I certainly do consider the arguments made by folks like Hume and others.

              Symbols, like any tool, are morally neutral-usable for good or evil. But symbols do seem to be used too often for ill.

            • wtp said, on December 31, 2014 at 7:27 pm

              Let me repeat it for you again.
              But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind which can make mistakes and in any case soon perishes: only in the mind of the Party which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be the truth, is the truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party.”

              Read Mike’s solopsistism on the masthead above…ah, on what I see now has disappeared “…the universe assuming it exists” or some such it once was. Welcome to 1984. Orwell was off by 30 years or so, but do you understand what he was trying to warn us about? Meanwhile his book is being used as an instruction manual. And it is all done via the abuse of language, the primary and greatly refined tool that separates us from the beasts. Mike and his ilk spew shit on thinking and philosophy and you go looking for the bits of corn to try to feel secure that what you are witnessing is not really happening. Don’t fool yourself. The shit is real. It’s the only real here. Pretend that feelings and emotion project a truth beyond verifiable truth and your road to perdition is paved.

              And of course there can be no slippery slope…

            • wtp said, on December 31, 2014 at 7:42 pm

              And if the shitting on reality and truth isn’t enough for you TJ, dig this trutherism…the “Dead cops” chant never happened. It’s all fake. Got it? “Hands up, don’t shoot ” of which there is no viable evidence ever happened, in which there are viable autopsy reports saying it didn’t happen, happened. “dead cops” chant, nope.


              Fuck truth. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.

      • TJB said, on December 30, 2014 at 7:02 pm

        Mike, Othello is a story, not a symbol. I have no problem with the idea that one can gain valuable insight by critically thinking about great works of literature.

  4. wtp said, on December 30, 2014 at 10:24 am

    Facts are obsolete. The lynch mob knows the symbolic truth.

    What matters today is how well you can concoct a story that fits people’s preconceptions and arouses their emotions. Politicians like New York mayor Bill de Blasio, professional demagogues like Al Sharpton, and innumerable irresponsible people in the media have shown that they have great talent in promoting a lynch-mob atmosphere toward the police.


    • nailheadtom said, on December 30, 2014 at 9:24 pm

      Isn’t the term “lynch mob” symbolic itself? There’s been no attempt by a mob to lynch any of the law enforcement personnel involved in the two incidents and it seems unlikely that such a thing would ever be attempted since the police are heavily armed.

      • wtp said, on December 30, 2014 at 11:29 pm

        You and Mike. Opposite sides of the same stupid. “Hands up don’t shoot” fact or fiction matters not. Masses in the streets chanting “what do we want? Dead cops. When do we want them? Now!” Is of course not a lynch mob because, like, literal. This is not rational discussion nor philosophy. This is barely even sophistry. This is shit. And much like the antisemitism rampant here at times, Mike has no responsibility. Responsibility, accountability is only for others. The suckers. The ones who stand guard so jackasses like yourselves can sleep like little fairy princesses at night. Despicable clowns with no shame.

        Cue Mike to now come running in and crying “ad hominem attack! Ad hominem attack!” But when you surrender any fealty to facts and truth, of what does this matter? And in such case, you’ve earned it.

        • nailheadtom said, on December 31, 2014 at 7:46 am

          If there actually are “masses in the street” chanting, that must mean some sort of popular attitude, at least in a certain area, about the matter. If democracy has any legitimacy or meaning at all, then this attitude, if it’s substantial, has to have some credibility. Of course, we know that democracy and representation in the US is a sham so that observation is meaningless.

          “The ones who stand guard so jackasses like yourselves can sleep like little fairy princesses at night.” Yeah, guys like this one: http://nailheadtom.blogspot.com/2013/07/bad-cop-david-clifford-will-serve-2.html

          Or this one: http://nailheadtom.blogspot.com/2012/11/scottsdale-taxpayers-foot-bill-for.html

          • T. J. Babson said, on December 31, 2014 at 8:48 am

            “Of course, we know that democracy and representation in the US is a sham so that observation is meaningless.”

            Fear not. President Cruz will fix this.

          • wtp said, on January 1, 2015 at 12:21 am

            Here’s a cop story for you, dickheadtom…I don’t need to tell you where you can stick it.

            When it comes to helping families in need, the Salvation Army turns a cold shoulder to one class of people: Teenage boys. A family in Johnson City, TN, found this out recently when, on a freezing cold night, they asked the organization for shelter. But because their family of five contained a 15-year-old boy, they were turned down.

            As the dad, Tim Lejeune, explained to WMC Action News 5:

            “They said he’s too old to stay on the women’s side, because of the women running around in their pajamas and they said he’s too young to stay on the men’s side in case some pervert wants to do whatever,” Lejeune said.

            Lejeune says his wife, their 15 year-old son, 16 year-old daughter and five year-old son, all down on their luck, have been living in their car for the last several weeks.

            So instead the family headed to their car. The temperature: 18 degrees.

            Somehow, local police officers came upon them and brought them to the Johnson Inn. The officers then pooled their money to pay for a room. When the night clerk figured out what was going on, he comped the room, so the officers’ money went to groceries for the family.

            Meantime, 911 dispatchers who had been in on the action pooled their money to provide the Lejeunes some more food.

            And after that, the Salvation Army did take the family in—minus the teen boy. He’s not sleeping on the streets. He’s now in a mental health facility. He had a breakdown, his dad says, because he thought it was his fault the family was turned away from shelter.

            I blame a society so obsessed with sex crimes and predators that it has lost its mind. It cannot imagine a 15-year-old male, chilled to the bone, simply and gratefully sleeping through the night. In our worst-first fantasies, which we give the weight of fact, all young men are either innocent victims about to be violated by predators, or predators eager to prey upon innocent victims.


  5. Symbols & Facts - Quirks & Quiddities said, on January 2, 2015 at 11:34 am

    […] The following piece was written by Dr. Michael LaBossiere, Professor of Philosophy at Florida A&M University. It can be found on his website, A Philosopher’s Blog. […]

  6. ajmacdonaldjr said, on January 3, 2015 at 3:30 pm

    What do you make of this? A photo of one of the child victims at Sandy Hook being displayed in Pakistan making him appear as a victim of the recent school shooting that occurred there? Mystery: Sandy Hook Victim Dies (again) in Pakistan http://www.infowars.com/mystery-sandy-hook-victim-dies-again-in-pakistan/ Our old friend Professor James Tracy (Florida Atlantic University) is mentioned in the article.

  7. wtp said, on January 24, 2015 at 7:50 am

    But it’s clearly time to apologize—for every activist and journalist (but I repeat myself) who bought into the simplistic, self-serving “hands up, don’t shoot” narrative and broadcast it far and wide based on false testimony; who reflexively dismissed Wilson’s side of the story as preposterous and unbelievable; who doggedly upheld a wider narrative that slanders police officers across the country as murderous racists.


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