“Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind
Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?”
This song by Five Man Electrical Band coming out of the 60s in the U.S. represented a huge social shift in the culture. Some say this message was the youth culture reacting to the impersonal and coercive establishment, others see it as a rebellion against traditional values. The unmaking of all that they held dear was coming apart. Whatever the opinion on its message the truth is that this was a time of social upheaval and tension. It asks the question, “Who controls us?”
This is a great example of why studying social theory matters. In the book Contemporary Social Theory, Anthony Elliot gives a great overview of thought leaders in society. From the Frankfurt school trying to make sense of Fascism and Stalin’s rule to the social movements of today. The fact is we cannot withdraw or ignore our social surroundings. One important question social theory asks is, “Who is influencing whom and by what means?” Does society impose its views on individuals or do individual members of society have influence in it? The various theories of how social conditions work can be either pessimistic or hopeful. Either forces bigger than ourselves are controlling us or our own habits influence society. The truth seems to be both. We are complicit in the social influences on us.
Today subtly and overtly, there are social practices that upset my sense of control over my life. As the U.S. faces elections again, images and messages bombard us. There are political signs everywhere littering the city, sometimes as many as 15 of the same identical sign on one corner. Do they thing the more signs the more they can influence us? There is outrage over who is controlling whom. Values we hold dear seem threatened. There is fear of which sign, which language of which party will survive. There seems no clear path. As a Christian leader, it is not easy to navigate the shifting social pressures. It is not an easy “what would Jesus do?” process. Christians around me react in judgmental and reactionary ways. How should I respond, without being controlled by the pressures on me?
This brings me back to signs. Ferdinand de Saussure was part of a movement called Structuralism. He argued that signs are the heart of life. He examines how language shapes us. His thinking is that linguistic signs assert influence over us. Signs bond the things signified with the signifier.1 They bring up mental images in our minds. Structuralism is the concern about how we are dominated through language and societal structures. We derive meaning for life from the signs and around us. To unpack thoughtfully the signs we identify with and why they influence takes a deeper understanding of the thinking and practices that have landed us here. To see the historical context of social ideals and social movements gives a better context than a knee-jerk reaction to societies trends.
Critical thinking on how I am affected by the social signs for life is needed. Clarity is essential for navigating a fluid society. The Five Man Electrical Band resonates with many people who feel the controlling pressures around us. It resonates with me. I am frustrated by the trends that I have no control of. So I think about on what basis do I decide what symbols will shape my life. How do I as a Jesus follower respond? What I see within my leadership is how easily I can adopt competing values and social practices without proper reflection. That without a good framework for which to address the issues, I can fall into reaction. Perhaps the 60’s band was right. The signs are “Blockin’ the scenery and breakin’ my mind”.
1 Anthony Elliot, Contemporary Social Theory, ( New York: Routledge, 2009( p. 58