Venerating the Icon: The Hidden Face of Oppression

I’ve been contemplating the word “icon” lately, intensely since the death of Nelson Mandela but really since sometime early last fall. I’m not sure what triggered it initially, but as the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King came around earlier this week and the national holiday in his honor approaches on Monday, I feel compelled to address the nature of making icons and how it relates to oppression. 

What is an icon? According to Google (the fount of all knowledge), it’s primary definition is religious, particularly Christian – a painting of some holy figure used as an aid to devotion.  More generally, it is defined as “a person or thing regarded as a representative symbol of something.” Of course these days, it’s computing denotation is perhaps uppermost in some minds, but it still is a “symbol or graphic representation of a program, option, or window.” In linguistics, icon is used to reference “a sign whose form directly reflects the thing it signifies, for example the word snarl pronounced in a snarling way.” It’s origins are from the Greek (eikon: likeness or image) and then came into Latin in the mid-16th century though Google says its current meanings date from the mid-19th century and later. What I found particularly fascinating was its usage over time. It was apparently used sparingly in the written texts that have been digitized from the 1800s through the 1950s when the usage of the word icon takes off reaching a zenith around the mid to late-00s. I imagine that much of this rapid increase in usage can be traced to the development of computing adoptions.  However, I think it seems also likely that its usage to denote a person who is thought to be a “representative symbol of something” has also greatly increased as our society has become more secularized and previously exclusively religious language makes its way into common parlance.

It’s not the designation of someone as an icon that has troubled my mind, but rather what we have taken that to mean in a global society that is rapidly erasing or at least blurring the lines between deities and mortals while perhaps forgetting why we created such distinctions in the first place.  We make icons of the living and the heroic dead and as we do so, we freeze them in carbonite – like Han Solo in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back – perhaps still alive but no longer capable of change, movement, or development. 

When I teach our Student Development Theory course at Bowling Green State University, sometime during the very first session, I have the students read a short story by Sandra Cisneros title Eleven. It’s a powerful story about a little girl who turns 11 and realizes that she still carries with her all the previous ages she’s been.  I pair this with a quote from Anais Lin that expresses a similar idea.  The point I want students to come away with as we begin the semester, before they fill their heads with a bunch of theoretical models and stages and processes and positions and levels that they are tempted to reduce to rigid, linear approaches to development, is this:

We are, at once, all we will ever be and have been, and something we have yet to see.

Icons don’t develop or change or grow. We see them as fully formed and forged in stone or wood.  This is another face of oppression.  Iris Marion Young discussed five faces of oppression (originally published in 1990 in her text Justice and the Politics of Difference, pp. 39-65; reprinted as a chapter in Henderson and Waterstone, Oppression, Privilege, & Resistance, Routledge, 2009): exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence (physical and psychic). Oppression can be thought of as “when people reduce the potential for other people to be fully human.” She then goes on to explain the concept of a social group: “a collective of persons differentiated from at least one other group by cultural forms, practices, or way of life” who have an “affinity” with one another due to their similarities.  However, by defining those who are members of a particular social group, social groups also can work to limit the range of expression of those members within their group. 

So when we make icons of people, humans, we inevitably steal this dynamic growth from them while they are living and erase it from their lives in death.  Consequently, Nelson Mandela becomes an icon of tolerance and forgiveness, ignoring and erasing his lifelong commitment to social justice by assertive action and insistence upon structural change.  Similarly Dr. King’s beloved community, one which embraced peace over militarism and economic justice over free-market capitalism and informed by religious pluralism, is reduced to an interracial festival of benevolent action. In this way, this business of making icons of people can reflect dominant groups’ attempts to maintain power and control over marginalized groups. But this is not the only way icons work.

Oppressed social groups also make their own icons.  In doing so, they also sometimes cooperate with dominant groups’ cultural imperialism or exploitation that limits someone’s potential to be fully human – to develop, to grow, to change – to be all they will ever be and have been and something they have yet to see. What happens to the person made to be an icon, the epitome of same-gender loving, who allows themselves to fall in love with a person of the opposite sex? The icon for “traditional” marriage who becomes a staunch advocate for marriage equality? The “race man” or woman who feels pressured perhaps to leave their interracial partnership to be more “authentically” the symbol of the movement?

I stipulate that icon-making is another face of oppression, hidden because it is thought and intended to be an act of reverence and honor.  Despite these intentions, the impact is more oppressive than liberating.  I hope I never become an icon.  I would rather just be human, that carbonite is lethal.  Instead of making icons, perhaps we should remember that we are humans living among other humans who are all still becoming and being human.