Symbols and What They Mean

Janet Coburn
3 min readAug 9, 2020

Americans (and most likely other people) are having trouble with symbols lately — establishing what they mean, recognizing them as symbols, and, especially agreeing on what they mean. There is a whole field of study that covers this, called “semiotics.”

(One sign or symbol that almost everyone who went to college recognizes is that a towel or washcloth hung on a doorknob means “People in this room are having sex. Do not disturb.” But I digress.)

Trouble — sometimes serious trouble — ensues when people don’t agree on what symbols mean. To take two examples, not entirely at random, the symbol of the American flag and the gesture of kneeling.

Let’s take the flag first. First, and most obviously, it is a symbol for the United States of America and can be used to differentiate us from all other nations, as during the Olympic parade.

What’s happened, however, is that people have attached other meanings to the American flag. That’s perfectly natural. A symbol means what you put into it. The flag can represent the 50 states — that’s what the stars are there for — but these days it usually doesn’t. It represents bigger ideas or ideals.

Start with the premise that the American flag represents the idea of America itself — not the physical territory, but the ideas behind it (which also have other symbols, such as putting one’s hand over one’s heart or saluting, national pride, possession of territory, and so much more).

Fortunately or unfortunately, there is no one ideal of what America is, and therefore what the flag represents. Some people see America as the land of opportunity, the American dream. Others see it as a certain type of political system. Still others equate the US flag with the US military or sacrifice. Some see the flag as symbolizing the greatest nation on earth, while others see it as a symbol of a country that is great in some ways and flawed in others.

Now let’s take the symbol of kneeling. Ordinarily, it is a symbol of respect or reverence. One kneels before God, or a king or queen, or some other person or symbol of authority or power. Pride is taken in not kneeling before what one does not believe is a symbol of such authority. Most Americans will not kneel before a foreign king; some will not kneel when proposing marriage; people differ on whether to kneel before the Pope.

Lately, however, kneeling has come to be seen as a symbol of disrespect, when applied to the flag, the symbol of America. People who do kneel before the flag (or during the National Anthem, another sign or symbol) are certainly flouting the social convention (or symbol) of putting one’s hand over one’s heart or saluting. But who or what are they disrespecting? The social convention or something else?

A lot of this has to do with the variety of things the flag can symbolize. A number of people see the flag as a symbol of the US military and therefore, kneeling before the flag is a symbol of disrespecting service members or US veterans. People often see the flag as a symbol of what America is or means. The problem is that people don’t agree on what that is (or means). Are they disrespecting the flag (the symbol) itself, or America itself, or what America (or some Americans) have done? Are they respecting what America could be, or is?

Finally, it’s noticeable that this clash of symbols takes place largely at sporting events (which can also be symbols of physical superiority, city or state of college pride, or “just a game.”) Sporting events are one of the few places that most people go where the hand-over-heart symbol is used in conjunction with the flag — schools, scout gatherings, and military events being others.

Perhaps it is appropriate that at an event where two sides clash in symbolic conflict, that the players and spectators also clash in what the symbols and signs mean, and what one’s actions in response to them represent or mean.

And everyone forgets that, just as the map is not the territory, the symbol itself is not the thing it stands for. A symbol is in the eye of the beholder.



Janet Coburn

Author of Bipolar Me and Bipolar Us, Janet Coburn is a writer, editor, and blogger at and