Science Fiction and Symbolism

Jacques Derrida has been critical of Philosophy’s (and by extension Political Theory’s) tendency to privilege one form of communication over another, for example, we see the glorification of the intimacy of the “wondering prophet’s” conversations as embodied in the Old Testament as well as the image of Socrates speaking to his students on the street of Athens, above the recorded texts of those conversations.  This line of thought was popular during the Romantic period; Rousseau, in particular, bemoaned the loss of complexity when conversations were reduced to text.  Derrida pointed out, however, that the relationship between text, literature, and symbols can be a remedy to this loss of complexity.  While semiotics and deconstructionism have been issues of intense debate ever since we cannot deny the importance of symbols in today’s culture.  As opposed to literary Science Fiction, VSF presents symbols with a frequency and vibrancy that only make them more critical than ever before.[1]  Below we will see that these symbols are not limited to what we see on television or in a film; they include the decals on our cars, the clothes we wear, and how we protest political oppression.  In addition, we will examine the ways in which symbols can be used to establish and reinforce communities that are based on shared ideologies.  If we do not understand how society uses the symbols it finds in Science Fiction, we will not appreciate the contributions that VSF provides to Political Theory.

Images Matter

Shortly after 9/11 George Bush stood atop a pile of rubble on the World Trade Center site to give what came to be known as the “bullhorn speech”.  Although it was unscripted it was filled with the symbolism that many in the country were looking for at the moment.  The President dressed as an everyman in casual attire, with his arm around a fireman (who was wearing his helmet) was handed a bullhorn to address the crowd. After a short speech in which he praised the crowd composed mostly of firemen, policemen, and search and rescue workers, he promised unspecified acts of retribution for the terrorist attacks.  The moment ended in chants of “USA, USA”.  The speech played on America’s television channels repeatedly over the next few days, it was just what many people in the country were eager to hear.  Almost 20 years later the speech is still remembered and cited, particularly within the conservative media.[2]  The public outrage, amplified by the media, resulted in near-unanimous Congressional support for the invasion of Afghanistan.  This was despite demonstrations in opposition in nearly every major city in the country, demonstrations that often attracted tens of thousands of people.[3]  Almost 20 years later, the opposition demonstrations to the Afghanistan war are all but forgotten.

Symbols Can be Used to Control an Argument

The issues surrounding the decision to go to war in Afghanistan in late 2001 have shown us that the use of symbols in a media-driven world is asymmetric, strongly favoring governments over opposition groups.  For example, the United States government has unfettered access to the media through its own press offices, Presidential news conferences and addresses, Congressional press offices, paid staff for elected officials whose primary job is to influence the media, etc.  The media is of course in a reciprocal relationship in that access to the government results in increased ratings (and therefore money).  The President’s office has famously been called “the bully pulpit”.  Complicating matters during times of uncertainty there is a natural tendency of citizens to rally around their government as a sign of unity in the face of attack; during the run-up to the Afghanistan war demonstrations against it were even criticized as un-American and disloyal.  Some governments, such as Thailand’s, explicitly prohibits demonstrations aimed at the state, as embodied in the principle of lese majeste (from the French “to do wrong to majesty”), making it a crime to criticize the rulers or the state.  Many governments closely regulate what their citizens can see and hear, particularly on the internet. The Chinese government has explicitly stated its policy of censorship is designed to enhance the stability of the ruling government[4], resulting in the so-called “Great Firewall of China”. Even in a democratic society in which the government is theoretically bound to at least listen to the wishes of all the people, the deft use of symbols will often turn the course of events in the direction that the government wishes.[5]  Writing in 1957 Anthony Downs wrote that the disadvantaged position citizens find themselves in in terms of influencing the government is primarily a result of the mechanics of living in a large democracy, as he remarks about the efforts of citizens (he calls them “decision-makers”) to stay informed about political events and issues, information gathering “in a large-sized democracy cannot be undertaken without fantastic costs unless (1) information is gathered for the many decision-makers by a few specialists and (2) the information each citizen receives is prefocused” upon the area under examination.[6]  It is this problem of the government’s ability to deal efficiently with information, and citizens’ inability to find relevant information that places undue power in the government’s hands.  Although some political communication specialists believe there is hope that modern technology (i.e., social media, blogs, etc) will still lead to a new paradigm in which the flow of information is more symmetrical between citizens and politicians, the evidence so far is to the contrary.[7]

Those who are opposed to government policy, whether it be an issue of government repression of civil rights or a simple policy dispute, are at a significant disadvantage.  In a democratic or otherwise benevolent society issues such as a lack of money and organization will provide significant roadblocks to action among the citizens.  Any level of government beyond a small town will often require significant resources just to bring issues to the public’s awareness.  In the 2020 US election cycle for example just one ballot initiative in one state, California’s proposition 22 (an initiative to regulate the employment of Uber and Lyft ride sharing drivers) total spending by both those in favor and those against was over half a billion dollars![8]  The situation can be markedly worse in countries which are less open to citizen activated politics; Amnesty International has complained that in Thailand peaceful protesters have been assaulted with water cannons and subjected to indiscriminate arrest[9] when they demonstrate for democratic reforms.  The underlying problem lies in the inherent difficulty of a group of often powerless people, who are usually without significant resources, organizing in such a way that they can compete with large corporations and/or state and national governments.  When governments are willing to use force to control a civil population, just the act of organizing can be dangerous.

What can an opposition group do to combat the inherit advantages of governments and other powerful segments of society?  What tools do opposition groups have that affect the policies of government?  As Ludger Helms says, “It has long been acknowledged by democratic theory that the principle of legitimate political opposition belongs to the most fundamental components of any liberal democracy”[10], yet remarkably little work has been done in modern Political Theory to systematize the understanding of how opposition groups who work outside of the corridors of power, yet still wish to be perceived as a legitimate opposition accomplish their goals.  In other words, we are dealing with groups who wish to affect change but do not want to be viewed as “hard core” or “revolutionary” opposition.  In fact, he asserts that the fundamental text addressing these issues is still Robert Dahl’s Political Opposition in Western Democracies which was published in the mid 1960’s.  Carole Pateman has said that in the field of Political Theory, contrary to expectations while talking about the common person “the concept of participation has only the most minimal role” when questions of political power are addressed.[11]  For the common people to be able to participate in political arguments with the government or organized wealthy political factions they need a relatively easy way to access the public “mind share.”  Mind Share is a concept more popular in Sociology then Political Science, it references the ability of the public to understand a group of complicated issues as belonging to one meta-idea while implying an unresolved public debate about the merits of those issues.  For example, the debate over a national $15 dollar minimum wage v allowing Uber to hire drivers as independent contractors would constitute one integrated policy argument.

One of the most common and effective answers to this problem has been the tendency to embody issues in a symbol.  To understand some of the advantages of using symbols that originate in Science Fiction we need to understand where symbols come from and some of the disadvantages of using mainstream symbols.  At their most basic level, all symbols are just made up!  Even symbols that that have come to have historical meaning and are closely associated with their group were at one point simply the invention of one person writing a story or drawing a picture.  One example would be the association of the donkey with the US Democratic Party which can be traced to campaign posters used by Andrew Jackson in the 1828 Presidential campaign.  His opponents called him a “jackass” so in a brilliant marketing ploy he turned the image around to portray himself as a donkey, and by association a stubborn supporter of democratic party principles.  This was based on the then common conception of a donkey being a stubborn animal that would only do what it wanted to do.  The association was later cemented by a series of political cartoons by Thomas Nast in the late 1800’s.  The Democratic party has since embraced the image by using it as a metaphor for its “stubborn support” of its base.  One problem however with the use of a symbol like this is that it has become detached from its meaning.  In the 1800’s the general population were well acquainted with donkeys and understood the characterization of them being stubborn.  By the 21st Century it would be fair to say that most Americans have little or no interaction with the animals, and perhaps have not ever even seen one in real life.  The connection between the donkey and the democrats is now essentially meaningless, perhaps useful only because of its alliteration.  We could call this an “historical symbol”.

Problems Inherit with the Use of Symbols

Historical symbols have other issues also, for example they can be hard to control.  This can occur because the symbols can be used by a movement’s detractors, or it can be taken over by another faction of the same or closely allied movement.  Modern tools have made it easier than ever to modify and share images.  However, in the past the barrier to such activities were rather high, modifying images required the talent to draw well, and the availability of the materials needed (ink and colored ink, drawing paper etc.) could not be taken for granted in the 1800’s.  Sharing images was particularly difficult as access to a publisher such as a newspaper would have been problematic.  Distributing posters and leafleting were a common means of sharing, but this was only practical in dense urban areas and even then, the reach would have been limited to a small essentially random population.

Today only the basic skills needed to understand an image editing program, a computer and an internet connection are needed to modify almost any image and to distribute it widely.  For example, the image of the Democratic donkey has been modified almost beyond recognition by some groups in order to focus attention on their various areas of interest.  Further, the image can be shared with a like-minded group or searched for by those who might (or might not) be interested in the message.

Insert figure 10 (Donkey)

Thomas Nast’s Democratic donkey is an example of the malleability of images in the computer age.  While it is unalterably intertwined with the mainstream Democratic Party, it is also fluid enough to be used by used by almost any group that falls under the umbrella of Democrat.  In the example above we can see the evolution of the donkey over the years.  At first it was meant to recall the moral fortitude of one man in his fight against the forces of elitism and public greed (Jacksonian Democracy) it has evolved into an icon which can be modified for use by many.  Despite this radical modification the underlying motif still informs the audience of “the big picture,” which is an alignment with the goals of the Democratic Party (fighting for the working class for example) while at the same time focusing attention on a subset of the population (in this case the LGTBQ population).  Here the LGTBQ donkey packs a lot of new meaning into an icon that already has a great deal of meaning for many, is very recognizable, and would be very hard to duplicate in any other way.

A symbol being used by a group that is less aligned with the dominant group, or perhaps even hostile to the dominant group is arguably much more pernicious.  While emerging norms in today’s digital society would lead us to believe that in most cases an historical symbol being hijacked would be evident based on the way it is being used, the same cannot be said for the sincere use of such a symbol by another group.  This can lead to genuine confusion and dilution of the symbols meaning.  An example would be the use of Red, Black, and bisected flags in the anarchist movement in the 19th and 20th centuries.  In the later part of the 18th century Anarcho-Communism as envisioned by Peter Kropotkin was strongly associated with a plain red flag, however the anarchist movement was anything but monolithic with several schools of thought vying for attention and working to attract adherents.  In this environment icons and symbols are extremely important and could be contested.  Before long the plain red flag was being used by several groups, including some who had widely divergent views including Bolsheviks.  In early 1900’s Russia, where all forms of socialism and anarchism were repressed and where large barriers to information existed, it is easy to understand how one symbol could be used by multiple groups leading to confusion.  The situation became so confused that at Peter Kropotkin’s funeral his own supporters famously marched under black flags (against his wishes) in order to avoid confusion about who they were, since by this time most anarchists had adopted black as their symbolic color.

Symbols in the Information Age

In the intervening 100 years the information environment has changed dramatically.  Where once information was hard to come by, where the original meaning of symbols was often in question, people are now overwhelmed with information.  Given our easy access to the Internet, to movies and television, information threatens to overwhelm us.  What are the implications for modern society?  How are citizens in a democratic society impacted?  How does the ability to share and to manipulate images impact citizens in a political context?   We live in a society dominated by popular culture[12] so it is only natural that popular symbols will find their way into our political world, Science Fiction has been a particularly rich contributor to this phenomenon.  It is common to see decals from Star Trek (the Federation insignia) and Star Wars (the Rebel Alliance insignia) on our cars, women dress in costumes that imitate those found in the Hand Maids Tale in political demonstrations, Guy Fawkes masks (popularized by the comic book and subsequent movie V for Vendetta.) were common at Occupied demonstrations and continue to this day.  Why have people coopted these symbols for their own use?

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First, they have several “natural advantages”.  Beyond any ideological significance (which will be examined later) they are ready-made with well thought out graphic designs.  The Rebel Alliance symbol from Star Wars is striking in its simplicity, for example, instantly recognizable once it is known, with great use of positive and negative space, and is composed of only one color it can be used in many different ways, on T-shirts, stickers, decals, it can even be easily spray painted by graffiti artists.  Compared to the Empire’s symbol which is composed of hard edges and a fairly intricate design the Alliance symbol is smooth and pleasing to the eye.  These qualities should not be underestimated, corporations for example spend millions of dollars attempting to establish logos without this type of success.  The Alliance symbol is ubiquitous on the Internet and so is easily downloaded by anyone.  From a pure graphics standpoint, the alliance symbol couldn’t be better suited for its ability to allow people to express who they are and what they believe through its use.  These symbols come with an emotional attachment thanks to their use in popular media and their association with in-universe back-stories.  Greater advantage is given in that symbols drawn from popular Science Fiction are already embedded in the public consciousness and so start from an advantageous position of recognizability.  A recognizable symbol stands out in our graphically cluttered world.

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Beyond their natural advantages, Science Fiction symbols come with emotional and ideological advantages that they derive from the perception of the universe they belong to as well as their back story; people are primed to have certain feelings about these symbols.  The already mentioned Star Wars Rebel Alliance Starbird for example derives meaning from its use in the Star Wars franchise before it is used by any real-world person or group for political purposes.  The Star Wars protagonists, the “rebels” are fighting the evil empire who are oppressing the common people who are portrayed by Luke Skywalker’s Aunt and Uncle Beru, poor “moisture farmers” who are reminiscent of the “dust bowl” farmers of the 1930s.  By extension, Luke is a naive farm boy who “hates the empire” though at first he is too caught up in his own life to risk fighting against it.  After his innocent Aunt and Uncle are needlessly killed by the Empire, Luke finds enlightenment with the help of a Jedi Knight and a princess (whose entire planet has been blow-up by the Empire).  Luke, now a rebel himself, risks his life to defeat the Empire and in the end he wins a thrilling victory!  Star Wars premiered in 1977, just two years after the fall of Saigon which marked a low point for an America already battered by the Watergate scandal, the first OPEC oil embargo, and a troubled economy.  The emotions of that time (as well as the commercial success) have carried both the Star Wars universe and the Starbird symbol forward almost 45 years later.

In 2012 Disney purchased Lucas Arts and so became the owner of the Star Wars brand.  While it might seem counter-intuitive that one of America’s largest corporations is the owner of a symbol that represents common people fighting an over-the-top evil empire, it points out two of the strengths of using symbols that are drawn from VSF.  First, once a movie or television episode is made, it becomes a primary document that can be used to set the meaning of a symbol in place regardless of how others might try to use it.  As has been referenced above, before the ability to record the written word and drawings through film or digital media existed there were obvious difficulties in the common person being able to define the precise meaning and origin of a political symbol.  That is not the case however with popular symbols taken from VSF, especially those that have achieved a high level of popularity.  Those who are interested in using symbols as well as those who consume them will always be able to find the original use of the Starbird and so will be able to fix its meaning in the fight of the rebels against the evil empire.  While it may be ironic that Disney owns the rights to this symbol, they do not have the power to alter how it has been used in the past or the ability of consumers to see the original films, which are the primary documents.  Related to this point, secondly, the popularity of blockbuster films is a partial defense against recuperation.  Recuperation in the sociological sense is the co-option of a symbol and/or an idea by one party for use in a way antithetical to the intended original use of that symbol or idea.  An example would be the use of the ideas and symbols centered on environmental sustainability on one high-visibility product by a corporation as a cover to deflect blame from that corporation’s overall environmental record (in this instance a practice also known as Greenwashing).   Even if Disney were to use the Starbird as a marketing ploy, it original meaning would remain, even if it were just layered underneath.

This is not just a one-way street however, Science Fiction often takes meaning from real-world symbols in order to make a political statement.  For example, in the Star Trek franchise, the governing body is the United Federation of Planets, it has a flag that is obviously based on the flag of the United Nations.  This design, which comes to us from the 1960s is politically significant given the desire of the creative team behind Star Trek to portray a future world united in social harmony.  During the 1960s moments that sought to remove the United States from the United Nations were active, giving the decision to use this design obvious political overtones.  Given 21st Century politics, this iconography can continue to have meaning when viewed in terms of Brexit and other polarizing issues.

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In 2012 The Hunger Games movie based on the book by Suzanne Collins was released.  It portrayed a dystopian world in which the United States has devolved into the country of Panem which is composed of 12 districts and a capital.  The capital rules over the districts with an iron hand leaving them no freedom, no voice, and no representation.  The districts exist to serve the capital, the result is that they live in destitution while the Capital citizens live in luxury.  In retaliation for a past attempted revolution the capital requires each district to provide “tribute” in the form of citizens (often children) who are then forced to fight to the death as a form of entertainment for the capital, thus the eponymous “Hunger Games.”  The district citizens are persecuted until they lose all hope, and the audience is left wondering how they continue on.  Although the book was written as young adult entertainment the movie allowed the obvious political themes of authoritarian control and economic inequality to play out, portraying the tributes as freedom fighters and heroes.  The movie includes a visually impressive image salute on the part of the district citizens, three fingers of one hand are held together high in the air; it was meant in the imagined world as a sign of respect and as a way to say goodbye to a loved one.  When the salute is used at a memorial for a fallen tribute the salute takes on political meanings of resistance and revolution.

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Just a few years later in Thailand students began to protest in favor of increased democracy and against political corruption.  The students had seen the movie and the symbolism between the plight of the district citizens and their own situation must have seemed obvious.  In the real world, the Thai students used it in demonstrations in which they demanded significant political reforms from the military-supported government.  Just as the demonstrators in the Hunger Games movies risked personal safety the Thai students risked arrest at the hands of the government in their quest for political reform.  The three-finger salute has become one element of the social reinforcement that keeps the student movement viable in the face of government violence.  The salute has several advantages as a political symbol, it is easy to use, and you do not need any supplies to make a protest sign for example.  It is distinctive, once the public is familiar with it there is no doubt about its purpose, plus it plays to the camera well.  Note the prevalent use of the symbol from this early news report of the civil unrest.

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Most of all it inherits connotations of freedom and self-determination from the Hunger Games movies.  Not to mention that in the movies the rebel factions won!

Most of all it inherits connotations of freedom and self-determination from the Hunger Games movies.  Not to mention that in the movies the rebel factions won!

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This image highlights the fluidity of symbolism as it combines the motifs of a historical symbol, the blind-folded Lady Liberty, with that of the modern three-finger salute taken from a piece of popular entertainment.  The three-finger salute is likely especially meaningful to the people of Myanmar given the similarity of their struggles to that of the Thai people against a government that seems more interested in retaining power than in respecting the population’s civil rights.

Clothing as a Symbol

Political symbolism drawn from Science Fiction even extends to the cloths people wear.  Joss Whedon’s 2002 Science Fiction-Western series Firefly, set in a world to which people have fled from Earth because it was “used up” was inherently political in nature.  A new solar system with many habitual planets and moons allowed settlers to diversify their cultures depending on the local environment.  After a time, the technologically oriented “Alliance” planets dominate the agrarian planets, which leads to a civil war in which the agrarian planets loose.  The majority of the shows main characters are drawn from the losing side of the war and much of the dramatic tension of the show is realized through the characters interaction with the authorities.  The soldiers of the losing side wore brown coats as part of their uniform (reminiscent of the American old west), as a mark of defiance after the war they continued to wear the coats and so came to be called Browncoats.  The lead character in particular, Malcolm ‘Mal’ Reynolds has overt libertarian views and is often shown wearing the iconic brown coat.  The show’s creator Joss Whedon described Mal as “if not a Republican, certainly a libertarian; he’s certainly a less-government kinda guy.”[13]  The show plays-up this anti-government persona as the characters are portrayed as just trying to make a living by hauling (and occasionally stealing) freight between planets while they fight for the common person who is being continually oppressed by the central government.  The show has become particularly popular in libertarian circles with reviews on libertarian websites and screenings with members of the Cato Institute and the Institute for Human Studies.[14]   The term Browncoats has come to be used within the Science Fiction and the libertarian communities in reference to people who resist authority.[15]  (Browncoats have nothing to do with the Nazi Brown Shirts, and are in spirit completely opposite).

Insert figure 17 browncoat

The use of Science Fiction clothing as a prop also extends to gender issues with women taking on the red cloak and white bonnet from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale novel and streaming adoption.  Set in a dystopian America renamed Gilead and governed as a repressive theocracy, women have become second class citizens unable to work while some are forced to bear children for the elite men.  The plot of the show offers a natural affinity for women (and men) who are concerned with the marginalization of women in society and restrictions on reproductive rights.  The show became popular no doubt in part because it became available for streaming at the beginning of the Trump Administration.  The Administrations conservative bent on judicial appointments caused concerns among feminists that reproductive rights might be endangered.   Concerns about civil and reproductive fights have empowered many women to monitor the actions of state legislators when they perceived threats to their ability to have control over their own bodies because of proposed restrictive laws.  These activists have in many cases taken on the costume of The Handmaid’s Tale.  The cloak and bonnet provide many advantages for those who wear it, as Heather Busby (executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice) said while speaking of demonstrations against potential legislation in the State of Texas, “The cloaks are an effective protest prop, adding: “It is very eye-catching. People are always turning and looking, and a lot of folks get it and how that relates to what is being done on the policy side in Texas.”[16]  The cloak and bonnet provides another advantage in that they are relatively easy to make and distribute, as Heather Busby continued, “Initially we rented red cloaks from a local shop and rush ordered white bonnets off the internet,” now she said “we have teams of seamstresses making the cloaks.”

Insert figure 18 cloaks

Since the release of the dystopian movie V for Vendetta the Guy Falkes mask has become popular at Anarchist and Anonymous protests.  Although the mask does not originate in the Science Fiction genre, it has become closely associated with the movie in the United States as this was many Americans first exposure to it.  The mask actually originated in the Catholic-Protestant rivalries of the 1600’s after Guy Falkes became a martyr for the Catholic Church fighting the Protestant English government when he unsuccessfully attempted to blow-up the British Parliament building.  After this every November 5th became Guy Falkes day in the UK and was celebrated by burning him in effigy and distributing masks to children to play with.  The mask took on a more modern theme when it was used by David Lloyd and Alan Moore in their V for Vendetta comic book where the character became an urban gorilla fighting a future British fascist dictatorship.  The masked urban gorilla persona was retained in the movie where, ironically, Warner Brothers studio popularized the mask that would later be used to demonstrate against corporate America by distributing thousands of them at the movies premier.

Insert figure 19 Guy Falkes

The mask has been taken on by many groups who find its perceived symbolism congruent with their own, typically revolving around issues of the powerless fighting the powerful, as well as economic and moral justice.  For example, it has been widely used in the Occupy movement in protests against economic inequality and corporate greed as well as by the hacktivist group Anonymous “to protest against the Church of Scientology because, as they say, “we believe it’s a cult/scam.”

Insert figure 20 pamphlet

The animal right group “Anonymous for the Voiceless” has been particularly open about the advantages that they see in using V for Vendetta iconography.[17]  Given that they specialize in person-to-person contact to advocate for animal rights they see great advantages in the use of the mask.  They list, for example, the tendency for people to look past activists’ individuality and so to focus on the message at hand as well as the ability for a person who may not be comfortable working with other to in essence, hide behind the mask.  But most interestingly they see a kind of fellowship with other organizations that they believe situates their struggle in the progressive framework.

The Value of an Immaterial Symbol

We see that two types of symbols can be taken from Science Fiction, material symbols such as clothing and immaterial symbols such as the Federation and Star Wars logos noted above.  Although even immaterial symbols require some type of physical representation to be useful, I will include them in this immaterial category to signify their iconic nature.  The value of an immaterial symbol lies partly in the way they have often originated in the literary or visual arts.  As consumers we did not invent the Federation logo, it was developed by a creative team as a representation of what they envisioned what the future could be.  But that does not mean that the use of these symbols are a one way street, symbols exist interactively, imbued with meaning both by the creators and the users.  Because of this we find that our use of a Science Fiction symbols such as Star Trek’s Federation icon often says something very specific about how we wish to portray ourselves.  What any one symbol means to an entire community is of course not without controversy as different people will have different opinions, but these symbols would not be useful if there were not some basic consensuses on the ideas behind the symbols.  As a case in point the concepts that underpin Star Trek are well known in the community, they include a vision of technology supporting human well-being, a shared faith in reason to solve mankind’s problems, a rejection of prejudice and bigotry, cooperation between different races and nationalities, and more.  To value Star Trek is often seen as a rejection of superstition (and sometimes of religion) and an acceptance of humanism.[18]  Notice that these concepts tend to be viewed at a societal level, dealing with interactions between people and groups.

Those who take on the Star Wars persona are often saying something very different.  The Star Wars community tends to value the individual.  “Overcome the fear within yourself,” “Keep your mind open to new possibilities,” “A little hope goes a long way” are invocations common to this community, even to the point where they have become canonized into lore.[19]  Star Wars (as a community) does not reject the meaning and trappings of faith in the way that the Star Trek community does.  “May the force be with you” is both a salutation and an invocation.  The two communities are not mutually exclusive in that there is room for disagreement within the communities and there is also space for different emphasis on varying aspects of the philosophies.  But to take on one symbol versus the other is to say something very different.  They display who we are, they make us part of a community.  They signal to others the values we hold.  Through signaling community we re-enforce those values both for ourselves and for the community.

Science Fiction symbols can mark us as being part of a “brand” such as Star Trek or Star Wars with all the emotional baggage that that entails.  They facilitate the formation of communities much in the same way that professional sports do, though they provide an ideological and philosophical component beyond those found in the mostly geographically based support for sports.  Affixing a Star Trek Federation decal to one’s car says something very different from displaying a baseball or football team’s logo.

Insert figure 21 star trek logo on car

The material symbols we have investigated tend to have a much more practical application; they exist as a form of protest.  They are valuable because they are not ordinary, they demand attention.  They too mark those who use them as a community, but it is a community with a specific purpose.  They are protesting a law or working for a cause.  Those who protest find strength in numbers, especially when the protest is unpopular or even illegal.  To wear a costume can mark you as a member of a group and a group can give you strength.  A group can accomplish what individuals cannot.  “The Guy Fawkes mask unites Anonymous under one face, with one voice.  All humans together” they say.  The mask as well as the Red Cloak and bonnet from The Handmaid’s Tale have emotional impact, they can be shocking when seen in the real world.  This is of course the point.  This is the power of a symbol.

[1] Green, M. C., et al. “Understanding Media Enjoyment: The Role of Transportation Into Narrative Worlds.” COMMUNICATION THEORY, no. 4, 2004, p. 311.

[2] Lynn R. Mitchell / September 14, 2018 @SWACgirl. The 9/11 Bullhorn Speech by President George W. Bush. 14 Sept. 2018,

[3] “Protests against the War in Afghanistan.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 18 Oct. 2020,

[4] 吴哲钰. State Media Should Play Due Role in Properly Guiding Public Opinion. 22 Feb. 2016,

[5] On September 14th the House of Representatives voted 420 to 1 in support of the resolution to invade Afghanistan.  The Senate voted 98-0 in favor.

[6] Downs, Anthony. An Economic Theory of Democracy. 1957,

[7] Metzger, Miriam J. Broadcasting versus Narrowcasting. 24 Aug. 2017,

[8] Rowan, Harriet Blair. Deep Pockets: Here’s Who Is Spending Big Money in California Elections This Year. 9 Oct. 2020,

[9] “Police Use of Water Cannons in Thailand Is ‘Deeply Alarming’ Escalation in Protest Policing.” Amnesty International, 17 Oct. 2020,

[10] Helms, Ludger. “Five Ways of Institutionalizing Political Opposition: Lessons from the Advanced Democracies.” Government and Opposition, vol. 39, no. 1, 2004, pp. 22–54. JSTOR, Accessed 4 Nov. 2020.

[11] “Recent Theories of Democracy and the ‘Classical Myth.’” Participation and Democratic Theory, by Carole Pateman, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1970, pp. 1–21.

[12] Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. , 2006. Internet resource.

[13] Sanchez, Julian. Out to the Black. 30 Sept. 2005,

[14] Ibid.

[15] Thielman. Ten Years Later, ‘Firefly’ Continues To Resonate. 5 Nov. 2015,

[16] Hauser, Christine. A Handmaid’s Tale of Protest. 30 June 2017,


[18] “The humanist values of Star Trek.” Retrieved December 02, 2020, from, Copson, A., & Andrew, British Humanist Association

[19] Geek, A., & Geek, W. (2015, September 02). 10 Things We Learned from Star Wars. Retrieved December 02, 2020, from