I’ve written about Raelians before in Wikileaks, Raelians, Reincarnation and The Possibility of an Island. I admit a certain sociological fascination with this group. How it has lasted as long as it has is a little beyond me.
Today I ran across an article on AOL News (there is actually such a thing) discussing The Raelians,who have declared June 23 “World Swastika Rehabilitation Day,”. They are requesting Buddhists, Hindus and other traditional users of the swastika symbol to support them in order to reclaim the symbol for good.
This topic has gone around countless times, sometimes in a reasonable fashion and sometimes rather hysterically so I’ll not recapitulate all that.
In the AOL article the author writes,
At the turn of the 20th century, Americans used the swastikas on postcards to express congratulations, said Kaenzig. They have also symbolized good luck, harmony and well-being at different times.
Scott Selby, author of the forthcoming “The Axmann Conspiracy: The Nazi Plan for a Fourth Reich and How the U.S. Army Defeated It” (Penguin) agrees that swastikas’ original meaning has been abused, but he’s against trying to rehabilitate its image.
“Some things are so debased that they can’t be redeemed,” Selby told The Huffington Post.
Menachem Wecker, who blogs about art and religion for the Houston Chronicle, understands why the event may cause a furor.
“The swastika has longstanding meaning as a symbol of peace, and nothing the Nazis did can change that,” Wecker told The Huffington Post by email. “The reality is, however, that it also carries Nazi baggage now, and anyone who thinks they’re going to ‘take it back’ or ‘own it’ by holding some kind of public forum without offending a lot of people is deeply mistaken.
“Regardless how careful and intellectually honest the hosts of a ‘Swastika Rehabilitation Day’ are, it’s very hard to imagine that not offending a lot of people.”
There seems to be a trend in terms of methodology to mute certain offensive symbols and words by taking them back. From the same article:
Selby, who is also a trademark attorney, said that a comparison can be made between what the Raelians are proposing and African-Americans taking back the “N-word,” but only to a point.
“The use of the ‘N-word’ in that community has been very controversial,” he pointed out. “In this case, if a group of Holocaust survivors decided to take back the swastika, it would be wrong. In the case of these people, it’s offensive and wrong.
We see this happening with events like Slutwalk as well, which was a reaction to police practices of shaming women who had been victims of rape by victim blaming. While these reactions act as a catalyst to discussion there can be unforeseen consequences to these reclamation processes. If symbols, be they actual or in the form of words become muddied as to their meaning in particular contexts it provides easy grounds for denial of what the symbols actually meant in that context. If the popularity of slut-shaming among misogynists can somehow be excused “because they never meant it that way” then misogyny becomes further entrenched and that much more difficult to identify and address.
My view is that holding official sorts of events and expecting only positive results is pretty naïve. In the case of the swastika, the people who have traditionally used that symbol continue to use it in the context in which it is familiar to them. They have no need of reclaiming anything since it was never let go of even though it was culturally appropriated by the Nazis in a quite different context. That kind of cultural appropriation sans context was rampant at the turn of the 20th century and one of many characteristics of imperialist and oppressive colonialism practiced by Europeans at the time.
At one time I somewhat agreed with this reclamation idea, but in doing further research and examining my own privilege more closely I’ve found there is another point that has to be addressed.
It is not for white people to reclaim the swastika for other traditional cultures. That smacks of exactly the same kind of disempowering attitude that led to it’s co-opting in the first place. The White Savior Complex rearing it’s ugly head once more. It is not unlike what Teju Cole wrote in his Atlantic magazine piece called The White Savior Industrial Complex when discussing Africa
From the colonial project to Out of Africa to The Constant Gardener and Kony 2012, Africa has provided a space onto which white egos can conveniently be projected. It is a liberated space in which the usual rules do not apply: a nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike savior or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied. Many have done it under the banner of “making a difference.” To state this obvious and well-attested truth does not make me a racist or a Mau Mau.
Much of what passes for contemporary spirituality, including Buddhism among whites in America and Europe is very similar to this. [Finally I agree with Žižek on his other points as well] One can enter a spiritual arena erected by others and project all kinds of fantasies upon it without any sort of due diligence or even basic knowledge. One can reap a certain kind of social capital by exploitation. One can satisfy one’s ego as well as reify cultural dominance all under a fuzzy banner of do-goodism. The Raelians swastika project is an extreme example of this.
Now if some particular group of traditional users of this symbol were getting hassled for it’s use in their own context, such as on a Hindu temple or a Buddhist statue, I might ally with such a cause. It comes down to intention and meaning.
In cross-cultural, as well as in any other cross-boundary dialogue presuming to take the lead, particularly if one is in the dominant position, is often a sign of far more serious underlying structural issues.