Symbolism and society

Dear Hannah,

I haven’t seen any pictures, but I’ve been told that when my grandpa was a baby he used to wear a fluffy dress.  Now, my grandpa wasn’t a sissy; he actually turned out to be a pretty muscular, rugged, and virile machinist, and he happened to get my grandma pregnant before he was even married to her.  I mention his wearing a dress because nobody was ever concerned back then that making him wear a dress was going to make him effeminate, or make him think he's woman.  Today putting a dress on a boy would is either a moral statement or a big joke.  Yesterday that's how we dressed a good portion of our soon-to-be warriors, machinists, preachers, and lawyers.

I’m not suggesting we should start buying our little boys pink bows and tutus, but it's interesting that things like fluffy dresses can be acceptable clothing one year and the next be a laughing matter; and that in certain parts of the world, a man can wear what looks like a night-gown, during the day, in public, and never have his manhood called into question (hello Arabs).  At the very least we find that lots of things we consider manly or effeminate are malleable — not that manliness and effeminacy are subjective, or that they're meaningless, but that there are different ways of expressing them symbolically, and that each are valid so long as they aren't obviously immoral.  In other words I wouldn’t call my great-grandfather a sissy for dressing grandpa like a girl; and I wouldn't suggest that making a young boy wear a dress back then would have an effect on his sexuality.  Depending upon the time and the location, wearing a “dress” can mean something entirely different.  Being a coward or a sissy are always the same.

This isn’t the only way that expressions vary wildly for the same thing.  If we consider language, we oftentimes have different words for the same ideas; and across multiple languages we find that the same sounds sometimes mean different things.  Yet simply because the sound of an idea differs, doesn’t mean the idea doesn’t exist; people simply have different ways of expressing things which everybody needs to express.  And it's only sensible to say that certain ideas may be communicated by other methods as well.  George Washington — and even Puritans such as John Owens and Richard Baxter — wore long hair as a matter of style; Nazirites wore theirs long as a matter of religious devotion; and in the Apostle Paul’s day, men wore long hair to be effeminate.  Some men shave their heads as a sign of mourning; others wear it to show they hate foreigners, or that they're sober; and women do it to show they like women. 

There is a great difference, of course, between admitting different symbolic expressions of different ideas, and denying that expressions are valid altogether.  There are certain men in America today who aren’t content with understanding what men mean by different things, which would be a healthy and sensible thing to do, and would much rather get rid of ideas like gender and class altogether, which is backwards and harmful.  There's a great difference between giving a baby boy a dress and telling him that he can choose to be a woman, just like there's a great difference between giving a little boy a military uniform and telling him he’s Napoleon, or pretending that you can't recognize a thug by his clothing, or that just because people live in the same house and have sex with one another they're are family.  And if we're smart enough to know we give certain meanings to certain things, and yet know these meanings exist because we've willed their existence, then that's one thing.  But to say that men today can wear miniskirts, and that it means nothing because that meaning is imaginary, isn’t to deny differing kinds of expression, but to deny one very natural romantic principle and another obvious hygienic one: that men ought to be manly, and that anal sex is never a good idea.  In other words, we give meaning to gestures and sounds; once we know what those things mean, our job is to respond appropriately.  We understand the meanings so we know what to do with them.

Sometimes it's good to question our judgments.  Sometimes men fake status by wearing symbols for manliness and virtue and wealth and success.  These men are known as poseurs.   Other times men symbolize something accidentally, and get mistaken for something they aren’t.  The former man is a danger to society, because he's claiming something he has no business claiming (see: mean tattoos on sissies).  The latter man I think deserves an excuse.  And when too many have claimed something which isn’t theirs, or accidentally stumbled into something they didn’t mean, it’s only fair to question the legitimacy of the symbol.  But that only means we ought to rethink the symbol, not that symbols shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Today there exists a kind of man who believes so strongly in individuality, that he forgets symbols must be common, and they ought to be respected: there's no speech without consensus, and there's no society without speech.  This kind of man likes to pretend that other people are judgmental and backward just because he misuses the symbols, and then demands that everyone accept his way of doing it.   He pretends this is for liberty while he's forcing it on everyone like a master.  This kind of man believes he's above the herd, but he’s actually beneath it; and when we hear men challenging our expressions, we need to remind ourselves that there are two different kinds of men who do it: the ones who challenge others to maintain good communication, and the ones who challenge universal principles because they hate them.  To be the first guy is oftentimes a great man.  If you're the second guy you're a degenerate.

The way we express ourselves can change, but virtue is always the same.  The methods of expressing effeminacy may be different one year from the next — but we should always disapprove of male sissies.  The ways Christians dress and sing may always change — but their expression of humility, reverence, and Godliness should always remain the same.  We may not always agree that baby boys should wear fluffy dresses — but we should always agree that boys are boys and girls are girls, and that they ought to act differently in respect of themselves, their partners, society, and God.  We may express these virtues differently.  And to put it in a fun way, we must express them all the same.

Your father,