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A sign of the times


A sign of the times

Queensland has made the public display of hate symbols a crime, and it has Jane Stephens pondering the meaning of symbols in our society.

Symbols have the power to inspire hate, but also love. Our surroundings are smattered with symbols and humans are experts at understanding meanings without words.

A few thousand years of practise have honed our symbol-reading skills and given depth to our perceptions of their meaning.

In trademarked shapes such as the Nike swoosh, religious symbols like a crucifix or road signs, symbols give meaning to objects beyond spoken words.

Australian Museum Research Institute evolutionary biologist Darren Curnoe says while other animals can learn to recognise and use symbols, creating them is human alone.

Symbols provide context, give us information and are used to sell us things. They can also be a quiet call to the dark and the damaged.

Recently, our premier announced that symbols of hate would be banned in Queensland. She said she was motivated to act after a person last October hung a Nazi flag from their Brisbane apartment window, which faced a Jewish synagogue. The Jewish community was naturally horrified and called on state parliament, which was reviewing hate crime legislation at the time, to ban the swastika from public display.

Our legislators acted, deeming our existing laws were not strong enough to deter ill-doers who used shapes and signs to spread their poison. At the time of doing it, the Brisbane flag flyer was charged with public nuisance but if they were to dangle such an item under the new law, they would face more serious criminal charges.

The bill introduced to parliament criminalises the intentional display of symbols to promote hatred or cause fear. That might be on a T-shirt, a bumper sticker, a placard or in an advertisement.

While we’re considering symbols of hate and fear, let’s not forget to notice those symbols that propagate good vibes too.

Our world is full of them: a thumbs-up character, a green light, a smile, an X at the end of a message.

Symbols that have made my heart swell these past days have included flowers from a grateful graduating student, birthday cupcakes for me, hand-decorated by a precious little boy; and a heart-shaped ideograph that my beloved left where I would see it, knowing it was from him.

Signs of gratitude and love, all.


Jane Stephens is a USC journalism lecturer, media commentator and writer.

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