The word symbol comes from ancient Greek, when it used to mean “token, watchword”. It was a combination of two terms, “throw” and “together”, so “throwing things together”. Now it’s something that can recall an idea which is different from the immediate, direct, literal aspect. In a nutshell, something evocative, whether it’s the big bad wolf in the fairy tales or Greta Thunberg‘s braids.
Symbol and reason don’t have to speak the same language. The first can be easily understood by the subconscious, the process of rationalization possibly comes in a second time. That’s why societies always transmitted myths, rites and suggestive images, never to be interpreted. literally Our brain would find them silly, beyond any logic, but instinct catches the recondite sense.
So Little Red Riding Hood can be more effective than years of psychoanalysis, putting your hand in a glove full of aggressive ants can turn kids into adults more than schools or universities can and burning effigies in the desert during the Burning Man can be more liberating than therapy. Or, in a negative way, a swastika is scarier than any (boring) passage of Mein Kampf.
Symbols had been fundamental to build individual or collective identities and for the storytelling which gathered clans, tribes, states, religious communities, sport supporters. And all the technology we have didn’t change things very much.
Greta Thunberg is one of the modern days symbols. It probably was since Joan of Arc that a young girl didn’t divide the public opinion that much: you either love her or hater, usually there is no in-between.
Is she just a phenomenon magnified by media? Maybe. Was her speech at the United Nations too rhetorical? Of course it was, she is 16, if you aren’t idealist at that age… Is she endorsed by major powers? It could be, but how can you consider industrial or oil interests not major? She is just repeating things discovered by other scientists… Once again, she is 16, not a scholar or an expert, and she is not pretending.
The Swedish physicist and chemist Svante Arrhenius was the first one who, at the end of the XIX century, supposed a direct link between human activities and carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere, one of the causes of climate change. As we know, many others came after him and Greta is like a megaphone that delivers their message. If things are distorted and Greta gets more attention is only our fault, we should also listen to “boring” people with something to say.
Some people and younger generations need for a symbol like Greta to concern about vital topics, but even her detractors acknowledge her status. She woke their irrational, instinctive hate and they’re trying to diminish her – more than scientific theories – in sudden iconoclastic bursts. She had a sandwich wrapped in plastic on a train, she went to New York with prince Pierre Casiraghi, a billionaire far from a sustainable lifestyle. She is banal, she should attend school and so on.
All things that divert attention from the main theme, like those who look at the finger and not at the moon. Because deep down we hate people who somehow elevate themselves, like crabs in a bucket or the satirical idea of the law of Jante.
It’s not just a gender issue, as someone said. Al Gore had the same service when his movie An Inconvenient Truth came out. He was accused, with a motive, that his big house consumed more energy than a whole town. That’s something hypocritical, no doubt, but that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t right. Like a doctor who orders you not to smoke while lighting a cigarette.
The debate whether symbols are still necessary can be endless. It seems so, even if we consider ourselves so intellectually emancipated. Or we can argue about the reasons why Greta became a symbol and someone else didn’t. Maybe because she represents a generation, maybe because she is kinda “normal”, and that eases both identification and criticism. Like those who, in front of a blank painting, comment with a “I could have done that too”. You could have, but you didn’t.