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Raul Rebane: War of symbolic gestures won't blow over on its own

Raul Rebane.
Raul Rebane. Source: Ülo Josing/ERR

In a comment on ERR's Vikerraadio, communications expert Raul Rebane examined the current media picture from a different angle, asserting that an unprecedentedly sharp war of symbolic gestures is currently taking place.

Following the elections, especially in recent weeks, the media has been filled with exceedingly potent symbolic gestures. We are seeing a gesture signifying white supremacy at the inaugural sitting of the Riigikogu as well as later. We are seeing the president leave the Session Hall of the Riigikogu as a minister is sworn into office. We are seeing the President of the Riigikogu remove EU flags from the Riigikogu as a first order of business; we are seeing wide-brimmed men's hats and sweatshirts emblazoned with messages. Tallinn is the Russian-language essay capital of the world; a minister removes the president's portrait from their office, and so on.

This type of intense war of symbols is unique. Some want peace and recommend not paying much attention to such things. That isn't possible, unfortunately. Everything important takes place in the world of symbols specifically, as symbols contain so much more information than text.

Perhaps the most recognized symbol is the cross, and throughout the ages, millions of people have been killed in its name in religious wars. Uncle Sam, the Russian Bear and Peking Duck all say a great deal instantly. Draw three lines as an image of the Eiffel Tower and it's clear you're talking about Paris; a squirrel is the Reform Party, a rhinoceros is [Edgar] Savisaar, and during the Soviet era, whenever they played "Swan Lake" on TV, people understood that someone had died.

Symbolic things are especially good to cover in the media, because "everyone understands." You can prepare three hours of intelligent talk about reducing taxes or increasing pensions, but if Jüri Ratas or Helir-Valdor Seeder appeared to read these text in wide-brimmed men's hats, you can be sure that this image would take over the entire media in moments. Where does the actual power lie, then — in political promises or in symbols?

Arguments claiming that presidents don't have any power are laughable. They have symbolic power, and this [power] is great. On March 27, 1997, Lennart Meri held a press conference in the restroom at Tallinn Airport because it was in bad shape. It was initially criticized as being unfitting for a president. Now it is highlighted in PR bibles as an especially good example of the effective use of the power of symbols, as it changed people's behavior and attitudes. That is power.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves was one of the initiators of [a group of] presidents' visit to Georgia during the 2008 conflict. There wouldn't have been a shred of practical benefit to their presence, but as a symbol, the visit was extraordinarily significant, and that is certainly one reason why attitudes in Georgia are gushingly friendly toward Estonia. The visit was a big, symbolic act of support. As was Barack Obama's speech in Tallinn.

Marine Le Pen's visit to Estonia likewise has a symbolic meaning. Would you go greet her, flowers in hand, on her way from the airport to the city center?

Kersti Kaljulaid's two recent symbolic acts, the sweatshirt supporting the freedom of speech and her departure from the Session Hall during Marti Kuusik's swearing-in, have incited unusually fierce criticism. Igor Gräzin called her a bumpkin girl and on the same level spiritually as a Russian milker-cowherd, and Tallinn TV's "Meedia keskpunkt" called her a kolkhoznik preparing for a coup d'état.

Symbols are working

This boundary-crossing criticism, however, is a sign that it worked, and that she exercised her symbolic power in a very robust way. Following these steps by her, one cannot look at violence toward women or restrictions on freedom of the media the same way anymore. She changed [people's] assessments and behavior, and that is power. Whether you call her clothing a sweatshirt or a sweater is of entirely secondary importance. It conveyed a message, and what is important is the message, not the material and shape of the article of clothing.

This war of symbolic acts points toward great tensions in society, perhaps even toward a crisis. The thing is, symbols are so valuable that one cannot just simply abandon them. One can reach political compromises along the lines of "Cucumbers for you, money for me," but the majority will not replace a cross with a swastika without violence.

And that means that this won't all just blow over on its own. The battle of symbols and values is too sharp already. Leonid Krainov-Rytov once said that "Every government is provisional."

Whether ours is provisional, as are all governments, or very provisional will become clear in the battle of symbolic gestures.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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