On The Ambiguity Of Color Politics

On a recent drive I took a couple of days ago to The Dalles, I saw two billboards, one on the way there in the rural hinterlands of Portland and one on the way back, in Eastern Portland itself on the way back, that either spoke in praise of the blue or urged the driver to do so. I took this to mean, given the symbolism involved in the billboards, to be a praise of police officers, which takes a fair amount of bravry to do in American cities. Yet while I have no issue with this sentiment whatsoever, being in general a fan of law and order behaving decently and receiving the respect and honor of similarly law-abiding citizens accordingly, it does at least give some indication of the ambiguity of color politics. Similarly, for example, I am listening to an audiobook that has spent some time talking about red scares, and in the context of politics, red scares refer to fear and panic about the threat of Communism within the United States (and other Western countries). Yet these colors have specific political references that vary widely with their significance in other politics-adjacent subjects. For example, those who are fond of Red America (because they vote Republican) are immensely hostile to reds (as is Communists) but are often very strong in backing the blue (referring to police officers). Likewise, those who support Blue America (because they vote Democratic) are often pretty soft on reds (Communists again) while being much tougher on cops (blue) because it gains them support with their political base of leftists who resent any kind of restraint and orderly tendencies hemming them in.

And things get even more complicated when you add more colors or more contexts to it. In Thailand, for example, red was the color of the populist political coalition that has been dominant electorally for the last twenty years or so in Thailand and its most popular in the North and Northeast of the country but which has been periodically thrown out of power by military coups. And that is not even adding other colors to the mix. For example, it has become popular in certain areas and in certain circles for people to show black patches to show they are in support with Black Lives Matter, a Marxist group that is dedicated to using racialist politics as a way of spreading the gospel of victimization. When it comes to my own political views, though, I am a strong white in at least two reasons. One of them being that I have zero tolerance for political worldviews that are hostile to any of my own personal identities, be they being white, Christian, male, and so on. I am also strongly white in the sense of politics as white being hostile to Communists and socialists, as in Russia, Finland, Spain, and so on in their civil wars over Communism and socialism. In this case, the ambiguity of color politics is not an issue because the same color can be viewed in multiple senses and be generally valid, albeit with some important qualifications, in both cases.

But there is significant ambiguity in such matters. Colors are powerful ways of representing people and categorizing them because they make it easy to see who is on our side and who is not. It is little wonder that colored clothing and uniforms have long marked a large part of the identity of such groups as urban gangs, political parties, military and paramilitary forces, police and fire departments, and the like. It is often hard to know who is on one’s side in ordinary life when one walks wearing one’s own clothing. But there is no doubt when you are part of a group of hundreds or thousands or even more people together who is on what side by virtue of the uniform or color scheme that one is wearing. There is a sense of safety in those numbers that gives a strong sense of identity and bonding with people one would otherwise be strangers to. It takes a long time to get to know someone personally and figure out where they stand, if they will let you know in the first place (which, if they are a private sort of person, they may not). But if you see yourself and others carrying the same flags and wearing the same uniform, there is a sense of comradeship and friendly fellow feeling with them because you have symbolically communicated to each other and to others that you are all on the same side, all working together for common goals, all possessed of the same identity. And that communication means a lot, as it can lead people to act in concert that would be extremely difficult to do based on one-on-one motivation.

Yet the power and the ambiguity of color politics ought to be plain. The obvious power that is presented by the solidarity of sharing the same colors and symbols encourages some people who may not necessarily share a passion for political matters to virtue signal by wearing certain colors. At times, people who are entirely ignorant of such matters may accidentally and unintentionally and unwittingly communicate something to someone else, as when a clueless person totally unfamiliar with the gang situation in an urban area just happens to wear the gang colors of the local area by chance. At still other times colors may be seen as being in conflict with each other, so that people of very different political worldivews may attempt to appropriate the same color or the same symbol in support of very different belief systems, or where one group will attempt to prevent anyone else from using a particular symbol or cultural marker outside of a privileged in-group. And of course, the very obviousness of the symbols and colors used by different groups makes it easy (if very hazardous) for people to engage in espionage as a way of infiltrating such a group. Whatever can be used to signal and communicate something can be corrupted by those who would wish for others to think a certain thing while the truth remains different. The problem of communication and the problem of trust and the issue of lying are always connected to each other, since anything that can convey truth can also be used to attempt deception.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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