While gestures are typically understood as non-verbal acts of communication such as a wave hello, the noun has been appropriated to also signal acts of intention, expression, attitude or demonstration. We often refer to making a “gesture of friendship” when we do something nice for a friend, or a gesture of sympathy when we send flowers to someone after the loss of a relative. These actions are intended to express emotions that are often hard to convey. Gestures occur on all manners of scale. A small gesture of kindness might be giving a dollar to a homeless man. A large gesture of kindness might be to leave your estate to the local branch of the humane society after you die. Gestures express intentionality, values, personality and character. And as much as gestures can express the good, they can also express the bad side of humanity. Consider a menacing glare at someone who cuts you off in traffic; walking out on a tab at a bar or restaurant; or simply not being willing to consider another’s feelings in any given situation when you are certain, somehow, that your way is the right way.
There are numerous examples of gestures, both good and bad, in our country today. As this is being written, there is controversy surrounding the right to fly the Confederate flag in some states. While it is a symbol whose meaning is projected upon by individuals and collectives, the Confederate flag is not inherently racist; it cannot be. Inanimate objects cannot be racist. Only people can be racists. But this is not the point. For many, the flag is a symbol of a dark history of oppression and cruelty. For others, it is a symbol of a proud heritage which many say is disconnected from the tumultuous past. So which side is right? Both, I imagine. Individuals across the globe ascribe meanings to symbols – that is what language is, a collection of symbols that allow us to communicate. What the Confederate flag communicates to some is far different than what it communicates to others. But as a society, how do we decide whose definition and understanding prevails? Who decides what is racist and what is not? If these decisions are made at the federal level, then it becomes an affront on free speech. But if these decisions are not made by our government, we risk alienating and further demoralizing certain groups of people.
Consider the swastika. Likely most well-known for its use as a symbol of the National Socialism party (or Nazis) in Germany, it is a symbol that was appropriated for ill. The Nazis did not invent the swastika. It has, in fact, been a symbol of many religions since 3,000 B.C. And without going on a tangent about the potential divisiveness of religions in our world, its original intent was clearly for good. But its current understanding and representation is clearly not. Today in Germany it is illegal to publicly show the swastika. This was, quite frankly, a very necessary gesture taken by the German government to restore the dignity of their country that was corrupted by a group of evil people. Some have tried to draw parallels between the Confederate flag and the swastika, saying that each are equally evil and racist. It has been pointed out that skinhead groups in other countries use the Confederate flag to symbolize their racism when other symbols are not available, such as the coterie of Nazi regalia.
In the 2008 Election, some said that the election of a black president in the U.S. was a symbol of the end of racism; clearly it was not. In some ways, it signals the divisiveness that still exists in our country; people use Barack Obama as a symbol that they are not racist because they voted for him. But just because I put up a Christmas tree does not mean that I am a devout Christian. Often we let our symbols speak for us when we can’t or don’t want to do so of our own accord. Our embracing of a symbol is a gesture to our allegiance and our feelings on some subject. When I choose to ride my bike instead of drive it is a gesture that I’m taking a very small step to helping save the planet, or perhaps as a gesture to try and live a healthier life. When I go out drinking and decide to leave my car overnight, instead of foolishly driving home, it is a gesture that I don’t want to get in trouble, get killed, or worse, kill someone else. Our actions are gestures. Who they are intended for varies, but when we make them, they become symbols. These symbols become points of orientation for people to understand us, or at least believe that they do.
I’ve often thought about the importance of trying to understand every side of the story (there is never only two). In almost every situation I feel I can. Outside of senseless acts of violence, I think we should all try to “walk a mile in another’s shoes.” Easier said than done, sure. Worth the effort? Absolutely. Now we can’t literally live another’s life, but we can attempt to understand their life, thoughts and understandings as much as possible by going outside of ourselves and considering how things are different. This is a gesture to humanity. This is a gesture to thwart the individualistic, materialistic, me-first society we live in today. These gestures then become symbols of our hopeful attempt to be better people with an end result of becoming a better species.
I’m not saying to do one thing or another about the Confederate flag. That is not what this essay is about. And frankly, I don’t claim to be a moral authority. Far from it. But it is a call to understand the other; whichever side you may be on. The gesture to do so is a symbol of personal betterment. Grand gestures can lead to better connections, better relationships and better lives; for whatever may be the object of attention. And to try and spin a more positive end to this diatribe, I’ll give a personal example of a gesture I made to someone very important to me.
I bought a Harley in May of 2002. I loved that bike and rode it often for years. Over time, however, I grew to ride it less and less. It began to feel like an obligation when I rode it. It was such a nice bike that I felt bad when it would sit there, so I’d go out for a ride. Towards the end of my ownership it wasn’t because I wanted to ride, but because I felt I should. It was clear that riding wasn’t important to me anymore, but I still loved that bike. I couldn’t imagine selling it to anyone. I had put lots of time and money into customizing it, making it my own. It was very distinctive without being flashy, and I always received comments on how nice it was. I kept it clean. That’s what my dad taught me to do.
A few years after I bought it my dad talked about buying one similar to it, but he never did. He used to ride bikes when he was younger, but hadn’t owned one in decades. He mentioned that if I ever wanted to sell it, he wanted first right of refusal. I never thought much about it until this past summer when I knew it just wasn’t for me anymore. I asked my pops if he still wanted it and he said “Yes, how much do you want for it?” I told him I didn’t want anything for it; I wanted him to have it. I wanted it to be a gift. He and my mom have been such genuinely loving, generous people since I popped out that I really felt as if I had to make a gesture somehow, sometime, of how much I appreciated and loved them. He was taken aback and very thankful. The bike became a symbol of the family bond that I hadn’t always embraced openly, but was still very important to me.
When my folks came out to pick up the bike and we were wrapping up tying her down, my dad gave me a big hug and with tears in his eyes said, “thank you.” In that moment the better part of four decades of familial interactions, trials and tribulations, love and grief, was condensed into a 10 second gesture of love – that hug. My dad is in his early 70s, and as they pulled away I acknowledged the reality that he won’t be here much longer; that’s just the way things go. But I was happy to have been able to make the overture to the man that has been there for me every step of the way. My folks have been generous to me and they have made these same type of grand gestures; symbols of their unconditional love. While I’m always appreciative, and oftentimes overwhelmed and humbled by their acts, I always have felt that I never have been able to repay the “debt.” With this action I felt I had made a small deposit.
Now how do these two stories intersect? What do public, contested symbols of history, racism and pride have to do with giving an old man an old Harley? Well, you’re the reader, you figure it out. As the Grateful Dead sang in their song Terrapin Station, “The storyteller makes no choice, soon you will not hear his voice. His job is to shed light and not to master.” So I won’t spell it out for you, but I’ll leave these as my parting words: when we consider what is truly meaningful to others, whether it is an object, a shared experience or hope for the future, we step outside ourselves to become one with another, however ephemeral the interaction may be. When we consider what is of value to us, we must consider what it symbolizes, for good or ill, for others as well. This does not mean that we must bend with the wind and shed our convictions or become martyrs for a cause, but it does mean that we must at least peek around the barriers we have built for ourselves, to leave our comfort zones. Perhaps we’ll find that we were right all along and it is an affirmation; we return to our safe havens. But we may find that we have misunderstood or simply failed to see how symbols are viewed from other vantage points. If nothing else, it is a gesture to ourselves that we are becoming more aware. The classic liberal view is that to have freedom for ourselves others must have it as well. This applies to love – and hate – and everything in between.