Signifier: a symbol, sound, or image (such as a word) that represents an underlying concept or meaning.
Admittedly, this is a damn strange word to have stuck in my head for months. When I obsess over a word the bubble usually bursts fairly quickly. A second cup of tea or a first glass of wine and it is gone. But this word signifier haunts me. It is thrust upon me every day. It has a life of its own. And this morning it came rushing at me in my Twitter feed.
CNN posted a conversation (there’s a word I have grown to despise) with a, now standardized, group of Trump supporters. I could best describe them as “church ladies.” I don’t use that description lightly or in a sneering way. These are the women I grew up with in the pews of a Southern Baptist church. Kind, loving, the first at your door with food when someone has died or to call and say they are praying for you when a relative is in the hospital. No sweeter folks on the planet.
The topic, of course, was the Stormy Daniels interview. Simply put, they weren’t having any of it. Their president had been redeemed and the porn star was…well…a porn star. Ten women in a room and not an ounce of doubt. Try though she might to tease out a scintilla of hesitation, the interviewer was a ship on the rocks against the uniform support of the president. They wrapped him in God and country. We shall not be moved. Why?
And here’s that word: signifier. For his supporters, Trump has become a symbol, a collection of meanings that has become unified whole. You simply cannot challenge any part of Trump as signifier. To do so challenges belief and belief is the product of faith. If you were to apply the fact of an affair with a porn star to any other individual who is not a signifier, the moral compass of these women would swing to true north. Talk of forgiveness would be tempered with some good Old Testament judgement.
But you understand the power of a signifier, right? Each of us gathers a collection of things, places, ideas and people that become our whole world view. I have a German sports coupe, a small, snooty library in my reading nook, have no use for movies based on comic books, only drink my liquor straight up, meditate every night and will never be found in a church. We all can make that list. You can paint the picture of me. You can see my signifiers.
I once saw a picture of the parking lot of the Texas Rangers. For as far as you could see the lot was full of big pick-ups and SUV’s. Looking at the cars in a parking lot tells you a great deal about the people around you. Next time you pull into a parking lot in Portland, look around you. We aren’t in Texas, hell we are not even in Eastern Oregon. Our transportation choice is part of our signifier package.
Perhaps one the greatest signifiers in America is the semi-automatic, military-style long rifle. For many owners, it represents freedom and security. Part of the reason they see that weapon in that light is the brilliant marketing of the NRA. When you can link a thing to a thought and then to an emotion it takes on a life of its own. Any good sales person, any good ad copy writer, any political hack and any good carnival barker knows this as a fact. When the thing is no longer a thing, emotion, not rationality becomes the decider.
As I have written here before, we are deep in the genetic code tribal creatures. Creating and maintaining signifiers is a survival mechanism. At its mostly harmless level, we become fanatics for a sports team. In its most frightening manifestation, we are all capable of genocide if we genuinely believe our tribe with its signifiers is threatened.
We should not be baffled that the church ladies have no problem with a president so fundamentally out of their carefully molded moral comfort zone. To question his acts breaks their stronger covenant with their tribe…their team. It takes both an immense courage and a contrarian nature to detach a signafier from your broader collection of those acts, people and ideas which define you.
I think we are in a unique and precarious moment. What is new is the depth and persistence of signifier reinforcement. Social media is designed to keep you engaged by showing you what you want to see. The commerce engine of the web is maintained by thousands of brilliant masters of information manipulation. Even news that seems to appear in front of you spontaneously is the result of careful analysis of your habits. What you see confirms what you think, and when you make choices on where to get information away from the web you seek that same happy sensation the web does so well.
The power of signifiers is universal. I cringe when I see someone roll, without taking a breath, from an angry critique of one person’s signifier to a lusty defense of their own signifier. The path out of this madness is a tough one. It requires a willingness to isolate any one signifier and challenge it. Is that person, that idea or that thing really helpful to who you would like to be? Note, I said who you would like to be, not who you think you are. The ultimate escape from the trap of the signifier is to know none of us are immutable. Inevitably, time and circumstance will change us or we can chose to change ourselves.