Of Swastikas and Second Chances

Some months ago, I visited South Dakota for the first time. Like most San Francisco Bay Area residents, my understandings of the people of South Dakota were limited to three generalities: They are politically conservative, overwhelming white and heavily descended from German immigrants. With that as my limited mental map, I arrived at my hotel and immediately saw the following enormous chandelier in the lobby:

After a double-take moment, I did what the overwhelming majority of people would do, namely I assumed there was something I did not understand. I asked the nice lady at the counter and found out that yes, there was indeed a crucial bit of information without which I would have drawn the wrong conclusion: I was looking at a pre-WWII Native American symbol with no connection to Adolf et al.

Moments like this one are common in a diverse society: We confront a behavior, symbol or word that could betoken prejudice but could also have no malicious intent. As a psychologist, I have long been interested in why we sometimes assume the best in such situations versus the worst. Why do we give some people a second chance to explain their true intent whereas with others we immediately go ballistic and protest their apparent racism/sexism/insensitivity?

A substantial number of misunderstandings in such situations stem from deep pain in the perceiver. In the history of the hotel in South Dakota, I have to imagine there was at least once a guest who survived the Holocaust and was deeply upset by the symbol to the point that they complained, maybe even accusing the owner of anti-Semitism. Similarly, the controversy over a civil servant’s use of the word “niggardly” some years ago largely divided those who had had the scarring N word directed at them at some time in their life, and those who had not. One of the things we have learned from clinical and research work with traumatized people (e.g., soldiers wounded in combat) is that when a stimulus is ambiguous (e.g., a sudden noise that may or may not be a gunshot) they are more likely to interpret it as threatening than are people who haven’t had similar suffering inflicted on them. In those situations where someone had been beaten up or down by prejudice in the past and may have misinterpreted something as a result, there is some basis for honest discussion and resolution if the parties have the desire and maturity to seek it (Including an apology on one or both ends, as appropriate).

Unfortunately, sometimes there is no basis for resolution because the denouncement of alleged insensitivity is driven not by genuine pain but by the adrenaline rush one gets from catching someone else out as an apparent moral midget. Whether we give in to this selfish motivation depends in part on how our role models act. I attended graduate school at the height of the campus p.c. wars, during which some professors modelled civil discourse and others modelled sanctimony. I am embarrased to say that I sometimes emulated the latter group, casting myself as the one, special, truly sensitive person who recognized that the word “cromulent” is offensive to left-handed Lithuanian wheelchair-using transgendered Episcopalians. My better professors helped me break that awful habit by showing another way to approach discussions about racial/ethnic/cultural sensitivity, namely as a chance to connect with other human beings rather than put them down.

Those memories make me dread the primary election season which is rapidly descending upon us, because I know candidates of all parties will be gearing up their fake outrage machines: “Senator Smith’s comment that we should ‘rub noses like the Eskimoses’ is an insult to hard working Inuit-Americans who lost their noses serving our country in wartime, I am outraged at his racism!”. The press tend not to declare shenanigans in the face of such calculated upset because they too fear being labelled insensitive; instead they pass along a bad example with minimal skepticism This style of taking offense for cynical advantage is then cycled and recycled through the media and punditocracy, giving each of us a vicarious, dangerous taste of the drug of self-righteousness. Brace yourselves, and yield not to the onslaught.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

26 thoughts on “Of Swastikas and Second Chances”

  1. I hope the information is correct. Sounds a bit like a tall tale to me. I thought the innocent swastikas were originally from India, and they point the opposite direction. But maybe I’m wrong.

  2. NGC, you are correct about the swastika (going the other way) being a symbol used in India; it shows up in some of the illustrations that J. L. Kipling did for his son’s (Rudyard’s) books. But independent invention, not importation, is a much better explanation for the New World version.

  3. Ken D.: no offense, but that link is non-responsive to my post. It does not say where the Army got the symbol, or why they used it.

  4. Well, I did a google and it looks like it could have been in use here in a non-Nazified way.

  5. It’s an ancient symbol or pattern in lots of traditions, sometimes pointing one way, sometimes the other, sometimes with embellished dots etc.

    The English word “swastika” comes from India. The Germans of course didn’t call it that, they called it “hakenkreuz” (broken cross). See e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swastika.

  6. I learned as a child that some aboriginal Americans used the swastika as a symbol for the Thunderbird. Google returned swastika images with a “thunderbird” search this with a search for “thunderbird symbol”.

    While the swastika immediately brings to mind Nazi Germany, it is not only a native Southwestern design, it can be called a native design almost anywhere in the world. It is the result of basket weaving where the ends of a simple cross design are turned either to the right or left, depending on the direction of the weaving, to form a swastika. Its meanings are as diverse as its worldwide origins.

  7. FWIW, in India swastikas go both ways. More than you’d ever want to know about the swastika (found all over the world) here:


    “The ubiquity of the swastika symbol,” says Wikipedia, “is easily explained by its being a very simple shape that will arise independently in any basket-weaving society. The swastika is a repeating design, created by the edges of the reeds in a square basket-weave.”

  8. (Keith): “Why do we give some people a second chance to explain their true intent whereas with others we immediately go ballistic and protest their apparent racism/sexism/insensitivity?
    Cost/benefit considerations, somehow. Professor Kleiman, who called advocates for Constitutionally limited government, federalism, and markets “teabaggers”, who called for civility after the shooting of Representative Giffords, and later mocked calls for civility, might be able to illuminate.
    Someone must have speculated on the evolutionary origin or function of insults. Seems to me most insults mean either (1)”I don’t like you and I want you to know it” (2) “I don’t like him and I want you to join me in making his life miserable”, or (3)”I really like you and I demonstrate this by calling you dirty names, because only a friend could get away with this”. I don’t see the advantage in giving your enemy information (“I don’t like you and I want to hurt you by letting you know this”).
    I’m not saying I will always resist the temptation to call ideological opponents “retards”, or “moral midgets”, but it’s like an appetite for sugar: why? Except we know that last, about sugar.

  9. Ken–I suspect your point is right. But the website of David Irving, noted Holocaust quasi-denier, might not be the best link on this topic.

  10. Some years ago, in my tiny Indiana home town, my Dad’s Kiwanis club decided to rationalize the parking arrangments at the county fair. The six temporary parking lots (carved out of vacant swaths of the fairground and a nearby cemetery) would be color-coded, so that people could more easily remember where they left there cars when they headed home, late in the evening, judgment clouded by corn dogs and Tilt-a-Whirl rides. The Kiwanians took a further step, posting helpful signs indicating the shortest route to each color-coded lot. Including the small lot, away from the other five, isolated on its own behind the hog barn. On the second day of the fair, when an agrieved African-American showed up with a film crew from the TV station in far-off Indianapolis, my Dad realized that he might have chosen better wording for the arrowed sign on the hog barn than “White Parking Only.”

  11. Ben, David Irving is a full-fledged Holocaust denier. The judge in the case he brought against Deborah Lipstadt concluded:

    Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence; that for the same reasons he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favourable light, principally in relation to his attitude towards and responsibility for the treatment of the Jews; that he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-Semitic and racist, and that he associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism.[4] … therefore the defence of justification succeeds.[5] … It follows that there must be judgment for the Defendants.[65]


  12. At first glance the lights looked like soft serve ice cream cones and I thought it was some camp send-up.

  13. @larry birnbaum: actually, Hakenkreuz means hook(ed) cross, so basically a cross with hooks. Not broken cross.

  14. Here are some basque flags, the first is the flag of the ANV party, founbded in 1930 or so.
    You’ll notice a curvilinear swastika, the lauburu, on a flat green star with 6 points like the star of David. The star is representative of God while the lauburu represent tradition and old laws. In euskara Jaun Goikua eta Lege zarra, sometimes written Jaungoikua eta lagi zarra.

  15. The old downtown Reno post office, which dates to the 1920s, is highly art deco and full of stylized eagles and swastikas. Looks pretty odd today, but was normal for its time.

  16. This reminds me of a case described by a co-worker some years ago. A group filed a grievance against a former employer for abuse of African-American corpses. When asked to provide evidence, they cited the company’s own literature which spoke of experiments in black body radiation.

  17. True fact: my great-grandfather’s house was named Swastika. He had all sorts of swastika things, including the world’s greatest old oak desk, so huge you could land aircraft on it, full of secret drawers and such that my inner child adores — and inlaid with (if memory serves) sixteen oak and ebony swastikas, which I finally, and with a lot of conflicted feelings, had removed after explaining once too often that it (along with the house, etc.) was made while Hitler was in diapers. — My great-grandfather was a friend of Rudyard Kipling, from whom he got the idea, and the swastika doorknocker, which K. made himself, which started the whole thing.

    Stuff like that takes a *lot* of time to explain.

  18. Hindus still use the Swastika, more often in the rightward-twisting form that the Nazis borrowed, while Buddhists use its mirror image.

    The word Swastika comes from Sanskrit, the ancient language of India, as does the word Aryan. The Nazis had some kind of bizarre racial theories that the Northern Europeans were descended from the same “Aryans” who invaded the Indian subcontinent in ancient times.

    You can still see Swastikas on Hindu temples, and you can buy them at places that sell supplies for Hindu worship. They see nothing sinister about it. Here’s one available at Amazon:


  19. I’m going to take a devil’s advocate point of view here. Stop lying to people about the prevalence of institutional racism, sexism, antisemitism and other bigotries, and a large chunk of the mistaken outrage will go away. Members of various minorities have been hearing that their perception of discrimination is all in their heads for most of their lives. We’re supposed to be in a “post-racial” society even now, as people not gibbering on streetcorners circulate pictures of a watermelon patch in front of the white house and a presidential candidate effectively calls the current president a welfare queen. Not to be outraged or anything.

    But it’s easy for people not currently being oppressed to point to the cases where the perception of discrimination actually is mistaken, and to form a narrative of “ooh, those thin-skinned minorities, when will they ever be ready for democracy.”

  20. Two things you might not have known about Dublin.

    One. There was for many years a laundry there called the Swastika Laundry. No prizes for guessing its logo, publicly displayed for decades after WWII ended. (No, the laundry was founded before the NSDAP and was nothing to do with nazis.)

    Two. The Germans bombed Dublin during WWII, killing a few dozen people and causing a fair bit of property damage. Germany maintained this was down to a navigational era; some thought they’d done it “accidentally on purpose” to punish Dublin for sending fire brigades to help Belfast after the northern capital was bombed (as a city in the UK, Belfast was a “legitimate target”). Anyway. One of the buildings destroyed in the bombing raid was a synagogue. In addition to lodging a formal protest over the German bombing of a neutral state, de Valera’s government demanded that Germany pay for the rebuilding of the synagogue. Germany did so. I have next to no time for Dev, but that anecdote has always made me smile.

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