It’s a weekend morning.  You’re going shopping. You will be seen. You look at various T shirts in your cupboard.  Which one should you choose?.

Be careful. After all, you are making a “fashion statement.”  We’re all familiar with the notion of the “fashion statement”–presumably that your deliberate choice of clothing is “saying” something–about your personality, your mood, your values, your self-image.

Feeling in one of those moods, you reach for a T shirt with a skull design–the kind of thing that has been popular for many years now.  So now you are making a “statement”.  Or are you?

What you are “saying” might not be very clear.  Even when you make statements with words, your meaning might be misunderstood.  When you are making statements with clothing you are even more susceptible to being misunderstood.  But wait:  it’s not just the clothing itself –the fact that you have a T shirt with a raw image–that is “speaking”.  It is also the specific image on your T-shirt—the skull.

As a keen student of ToK, you will recall that all language involves “symbolic representation”.  You’ll also recall that symbols shift and slide in their meaning with perspectives.  These perspectives may be personal or cultural, but they colour how symbols are understood.  For example,  “white” has associations that are very different in a traditional Chinese setting (death) from what it suggests in a European one (purity).

Expect, then, as you saunter through town in your skull T shirt that you will be “read” differently by different people . Some will understand you to be saying, “I’m  tuned-in to the fashion scene and know what other people of my age value.”  Others will hear: “I’m a nonconformist and don’t care what other people think of me.”  Yet others?  “I’m a grim realist; I don’t hide from the truth.” Or “I have a sense of humour and like to shock stuffy people.” Or “I hate the prettified superficiality of  social respectability”.  (How might others interpret your statement?)

(Note that while there is a great deal of subjectivity in response, there are limits.  No one is going to “hear” your statement to be “I am a cat lover “. Let’s not overdo the idea of subjectivity and perspective!)

When Statements Become Insults

What, though, if your T shirt has not just the image of a skull, but, also a religious symbol–like, for example, a crucifix or a Star of David.  As you may have heard,  a major department store chain, H & M, recently was selling sleeveless T shirts showing a large, roughly drawn skull in the centre of a even larger  set of two triangles, one red, one black,  intersecting to form the shape of a six-pointed star. The whole design had a deliberately rough, coarse sketchiness that some would call “grunge”.

Can you guess the reactions?  Of course, they varied, but the outrage was loud and clear enough that the department store apologized for the “antisemitic” implications,  made assurances that those implications were unintentional, and withdrew the T-shirts: “We are sincerely sorry if the T-shirt print has offended anyone, it was not our intention to provoke such a reaction.”

Symbolic statement and Language

As a ToK student you will feel spurred by this incident to ask a few questions about symbolic statements:

  •  How much do intentions actually form part of the meaning of a symbolic statement. The store executives claimed no insults were intended. Should intentions be considered as an integral part of the meaning or disregarded?
  •  How much should we accept the ambiguity inherent in any symbolic statement  and, as a result,  hesitate to insist on a single interpretation–and, therefore, “knowledge” of its meaning?
  •  How much should we accept that cultural or personal perspectives create a range of “meanings” of which we might, ourselves, be oblivious?
  •  If we discover that an individual or minority group is offended by a “meaning” of a symbol or set of symbols, should we respect their feelings, or, applying utilitarian principles, insist on majority opinion?

Symbolism and the Arts: A  Thought Game for You to Play

Symbols aren’t just important in ToK approaches to language (or religious knowledge). In your study of the Arts as an AoK, you will be aware of many of these same issues of knowledge or meaning conveyed through non-verbal  or purely suggestive means.  You will also have thought about the intended audience and the intended purpose of such use of suggestive or connotative devices–as, for example, skulls or cultural symbols.

With these in mind, design a T shirt using the  following guidelines:

1.  Aiming just to be inventive, and not to make a “statement”, choose two culturally loaded symbols and juxtapose them — that is, place them together within a design.  Do you find that a meaning arises not just from the two independent symbols, but also from the juxtaposition?   What, for example, if you juxtapose the image of a gun and a pair of comedy/tragedy masks?  What if you juxtapose the image of a hypodermic needle and a rainbow?  A scorpion and a martini glass?  An egg and an atomic explosion?

Give your design to friends ask them what it “means”.  How much do you think they are justified in “knowing” what it means, even if you didn’t intend that meaning?  How would you compare this situation with that surrounding the H&M  shirt?

2. Now, take the opposite approach.  Produce a design that aims to shock viewers with a criticism of an established ideology or religion.  Would you even consider juxtaposing

a. a skull

b. the Star of David?

Think about it.

Now, next Saturday, as you choose what you will wear to town….



“H&M forced to withdraw ‘thoughtless and insensitive’ vest featuring Star of David-skull design following accusations of anti-Semitism”, March 28, 2014. by Associated Press and Daily Mail Reporter.