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Abi Paul

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Something to Believe In (Why symbolism and legacy matters)

Posted: 02/05/2013 11:30 am

The Walrus Glenbow Debate was held on June 7, 2012 at Max Bell Theatre in the City of Calgary. The topic of debate was "Calgary's Cowboy Culture: Living Legacy or Just History?". An excerpt on the debate topic as posted on Epcor Centre website is reproduced below.


As we celebrate 100 years of the Calgary Stampede and the country looks at Alberta as a key economic driver, we will debate how Calgary's rich past relates to the present and our future. Join some of Calgary's top thinkers for a lively debate about culture, city-building, and what it means to be Calgarian.

I could not attend this event, unfortunately, so I do not know the proceedings of this debate.

However, a response to the debate was posted by one of the Provocateurs (and panelists), Terry Rock, on his blog page. The full blog post can be found by clicking here.

I really loved this post. It had a lot of depth in the writing and is informative without being too critical. Here is my personal summary this post.

  • Symbols and Rituals are endearing and enduring
  • Symbols do have a history behind it that narrates a story
  • Calgary's symbol is its cowboy culture and the white cowboy hat
  • Symbols are powerful in such that it can swamp other messages
  • Symbol interpretation is sometimes lost in translation

Since I was not in attendance at the main debate, I rely on Terry's post for summary of key findings on the subject and my thoughts on these. Lets look at some of the main ones.

[Sections of the original blog post reproduced here]

I wish more time had been spent by the "living legacy" team outlining what they think is the "cowboy culture legacy." It seemed to begin and end at a vague set of "western values" that speak to friendliness/neighborliness, integrity and a can-do spirit........There are a few other things that I think could be or should be part of the legacy of Calgary's "Cowboy Culture."

I agree. Every symbol has more than one meaning. Indeed, when I was contemplating the move out from the east, the perception among the locals about this City was limited.
("It's cold" "All yahoos out there" "There is nothing to do there socially" "They are not friendly over there" "It snows all the time" "There is no public transit, you have to buy a car")

And none of the above turned out to be true. In fact, as I soon realized, Calgary was very much the opposite of all these notions. Although the PR adage of "any publicity is good publicity" need not necessarily apply to the legacy of a City, I still feel that it is better to have some legacy than to have none, as voidness is only an aphorism for darkness.

[Sections of the original blog post reproduced here]

And then there's the issue using such a powerful symbol to represent our city. The defenders of the symbol don't seem willing to acknowledge two important facts: first, the symbol is so powerful, it can swamp other messages we may want to get out there (an innovative tech and financial services sector, for instance).

I agree. Some symbols are associated so deeply with a certain notion that it is hard to imagine it as symbolizing anything else. However, Calgary's white cowboy hat, is not one I would consider to be stuck with any such symbol that overwhelms everything else. It is well, simply put, just a cowboy hat. And if it does happen to be strongly associated with the "western values" of friendliness/neighborliness, integrity and a can-do spirit, hats off to that (no pun intended). After all name another Canadian city that is playing the friendly city angle. Montreal is the "fun" "party" city, Ottawa is the "political centre" city, Toronto is the "culture and finance" city, Vancouver is the "lifestyle" city. In fact, based on my experience from out east, I would say the rest of the folks in Canada do need more enforcement of the association of the symbol (eg. White Hat) with the important message (friendly, warmth). Just ask any Provincial tourism board adviser!

[Sections of the original blog post reproduced here]

When dealing in the realm of symbols, the communicator doesn't really get a chance to tell people how they're supposed to interpret the image they're presented.

I agree. History does not give us the choice to choose the relevancy of a symbol. Our present does, however. That means, it is up to us to choose what the symbol "should" represent to future generations as well as to outsiders, and of course not just rely on their interpretation of such, but instead explicitly tell them what it symbolizes. In the instance of the cowboy hat, one must remain cognizant of the fact that it does carry a sense of style and character (beyond its practical use) to a greater extent than most head-wear accessories can. In the few White Hat Projects that I have accomplished to date, I have found that once the recipient dons the hat, there is an immediate transformation of personality - as if the hat had some mystical powers behind it.

In this age, when we have so little left to trust among our fellow humans, when all our heroes have died, the bastions of justice have forsaken us, when remnants of innocence are shattered in matter of seconds by acts of violence, it doesn't hurt to have something to hold on to in order to keep the faith or the order of the day. Hope can be in the trust we place in another, in the omnipotent, or perhaps, even in something as simple as the symbol of the white hat.

 

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