There is an interesting difference between signs and symbols in the philosophy of Paul Ricoeur. When signs (like on a sign board) points to a reality, symbols are more powerful. They do have a part of the reality within themselves. But they are not the reality in itself and when this confusion happens, those signs become idols. Many of our religious symbols point to a reality called God/divine/something beyond and it is always possible that these symbols take the place of God or become idols. This is a huge area where many of the religious actions can and should be critiqued;
But today, I should like to look at the political arena. India being a religious country (just meant that many people do have a religious affiliation) have given important roles to symbols (cultural, religious, nationalist and so on). With the increased power of social media and advertising, there is a high risk that these symbols can become idols (idols in ricoeurian sense). For achieving a particular reality, we just keep on promoting that symbol, forgetting that symbols point to something beyond.
Clapping hands or lighting a diya (candle) are beautiful symbols, which have much value. In our present context they are expressions of gratitude and hope. But when the propaganda machinery takes charge of these symbols and work for the promotion of it, they forget the reality behind/within it. What is that forgotten reality? Respect towards health care workers, social distancing, hope in the midst of suffering and pain and so on, for overcoming the struggle of covid-19.
We have beautiful real dreams and ambitions. When the dream of girl child education and dignity is amazing, it becomes caught up with certain publicity and gets separated from real-life actions. When getting rid of black money is a wonderful reality, hastily planned and well- advertised symbol of demonetization as only a means to that reality was forgotten…
This sad state of affairs may be true in various state governments and other organisations, and may be in our personal lives to some extent.
I know it’s a hard- stretched dream. Stopping the propaganda machinery of all political parties (I know people can find loopholes here) during this pandemic will help the leaders and us to focus a little more on the reality rather than just on symbols. I am not saying we shouldn’t do these symbolic actions, but we shouldn’t deify them.