9+ Symbolic Speech Examples

There’s a popular saying that goes, “Think before you speak.” While we’re all given the freedom to voice out our thoughts to the rest of the world, there are some things that aren’t meant to be spoken out in the open due to conflicting political views and other social issues that can cause a huge stir between members of our society. You may also see how to start a speech.

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But what happens when these thoughts are not being said aloud, rather, are being conveyed through a nonverbal language? This type of communication is referred to as symbolic speech. You may also like speech examples for students.

To fully understand the concept of symbolic speech, let us first take a deeper look at its definition and examples.

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What Is Symbolic Speech?

Let’s say Carlos is a football fanatic, and his favorite national team in the FIFA World Cup is France. Carlos decides to watch the game at a local sports bar but when he gets there, he sees his rival football team’s jersey, Belgium, hanging on the wall. Carlos gets offended by the gesture knowing that France is up against Belgium for tonight’s match. Because of this, Carlos decides to leave the store and watch the game at home. This is an example of symbolic speech and how it may potentially affect a business.

A symbolic speech is a lot different as opposed to the standard types of speeches we’ve learned in the past. This is because it refers to a non-verbal form of communication that is used to express a concept or an idea. Whether we notice it or not, symbolic speech is displayed frequently nearly everywhere we go. Some are subtle and discreet, while others are deliberate and obvious. For instance, coming across a No Smoking sign at the hotel lobby, we immediately know that smoking in the area is strictly prohibited without having anyone tell us that it is.

Symbolic speech is also apparent in the corporate world through the use of business logos and seals. This is a prime example of symbolic speech used to give consumers a visual representation to associate the brand with. Symbolic speech is often used in marketing and advertising to influence the public’s perception toward a given business. Most companies, if not all, use symbolic speech to their advantage because it can help customers remember a brand a lot better compared to mere words. So the more you put a simple logo upfront, then the more popular it becomes.

Freedom of Speech and Symbolism

We all know that pure speech is the exact opposite of symbolic speech. It makes use of words and dialogue to convey a message, while symbolic speech, on the other hand, makes use of actions to transmit an idea.

At the time when the U.S. Constitution was improved, the First Amendment allowed the right to free speech. This was soon referred to as the freedom of expression, considering how the act allows us to express ourselves without fear of governmental reprisal. But with the social and political issues that continue to impact society as a whole, citizens started demanding for change. Since policies and laws restrict us from committing certain actions, people began to recognize the importance of the one right they had the freedom to practice: symbolic speech.

Demonstrations, protests, rallies, walk-ins, and parades have given protesters a platform to express themselves. However, some of these marches also gave some people the opportunity to scandalize others. Handmade signs were made to prove a point, but sometimes, the message that these signs brought were seen as derogatory to others.

Many people who disagree with these protesters—not just with their ideas, but with their methods as well—might think that others are taking the “Freedom of Expression” concept a bit too far with their offensive or otherwise disrespectful displays, but the real question is, what kind of freedom of speech did our forefathers really mean?

The Limits to Free Speech

Although symbolic speech has long been considered a part of our freedom of speech, it does not give us the liberty to express anything we want, wherever we want, whenever we want. The Supreme Court has acknowledged the fact that some “expressions” can be quite harmful to one’s well-being, such as those that are considered to be obscene and completely false. Expressions that stimulate violence or sedition are not a part of free speech as well. This is why the Supreme Court has been working to enhance our laws for the protection and security of human rights. These restrictions are implemented to ban certain actions and expressions that are considered harmful to the average person.

One example for this is the Anti-Discrimination Act. For years, people who belong to particular race or possess a different form of sexual orientation, specifically those of the LGBT community, have become victims of various hate crimes. For reasons that are extremely difficult to comprehend, there are cases where these individuals are ridiculed publicly because of who they are. Aside from the use of slur, some protesters even go as far as walking around with vulgar prints on their T-shirts to purposely offend others.

The Motive to Violence

Another circumstance that is not protected under the First Amendment includes statements or actions that encourage others to engage in violence. In 1969, the infamous Ku Klux Klan (KKK), the infamous group known for their extremist positions that preach white supremacy, white nationalism, and anti-immigration, were convicted by the higher court for advocating violence as a means of political reform. In this case, Clarence Brandenburg, the leader of the KKK, made a speech that supposedly incited members of the clan to take revenge against “niggers,” Jews, and those who supported them. However, because the law had only ruled that the promotion of violence or force was not protected if it is done in such a way that resulted to such action, the Court was forced to reverse the Klan Conviction because they could not prove that the statements made at the rally would create an impending intent to do violence.

Symbolic Speech Example in Burning Flag

A country’s national flag is one of their prized possessions that must be respected by individuals of any race. Any actions that are perceived disrespectful in any way, such as sitting while the flag is raised and the national anthem is played, is punishable by law.

But if there’s one form of symbolic speech that has been widely practiced in today’s culture, then it has to be the burning of the flag. In 1984, a man named Gregory Lee Johnson burned the American flag right outside the Republic National Convention at Dallas Texas convention center. He claims to have done it to protest against then-President Ronald Reagan’s policies. However, some individuals who witnessed his actions were deeply offended, and police arrested him after a few complaints were raised. Johnson was charged and convicted for violating the law that barred vandalizing objects (such as the national flag) with the intent to incite others to violence.

But Johnson appealed his conviction, arguing that he was exercising his freedom of expression through symbolic speech. Like the case of the Klan conviction, his argument forced the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to reverse his conviction as they could not punish someone for burning the flag. The state decided to appeal once again, bringing the flag burning issue to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Court’s final ruling stated that Johnson’s conviction was not consistent with the First Amendment. It was also stated that the state’s laws were way too broad, and that Johnson’s actions had not caused any further damage during the demonstration. In fact, in this example of symbolic speech, no one involved was hurt, the demonstration had already heated up prior to Johnson’s actions, and that the flag was only handed to him after it had been stolen along the way.

Hence, these situations prove that symbolic speech is only acceptable if it does not have any damaging effects to the rest of society.

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Everyday Examples of Symbolic Speech

Symbolic speech is prevalent in our everyday lives. This includes small acts of nonverbal communication that you may or may not have identified as symbolic speech during the time of occurrence.

To cite one recent scenario of symbolic speech, let’s take the January 2015 massacre in Paris for example. A group of cartoonists and columnists working for the French satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, were violently attacked when two terrorists stormed their headquarters. The gunmen identified themselves as members of the terrorist group, Al-Qaeda, who later took responsibility for the shooting. Though the killings could not be justified in any way, many began to wonder whether the publication took it too far with their artworks.

Charlie Hebdo has always been known for its satirical publications that often mocked Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, and other relevant political and social issues that have affected our world. The newspaper is no stranger to controversy, especially after the cover of their 2011 issue featured a cartoon of Muhammad, which was considered offensive to many followers because of how the depiction of such is forbidden in some Islamic interpretations. As a response to this feature, extremists threw a fire bomb at the newspaper’s office. The controversial depictions of Muhammad is considered the principal motive for the massacre.

Despite the cause for such actions, millions of people from around the globe condemned the shootings. The outgrowing support for free speech continues to live on resulting to peace rallies everywhere with people displaying the slogan “Je suis Charlie” or “I am Charlie” in support for the slain newspaper employees. In this example, symbolic speech was exercised in the newspaper’s cartoons and caricatures, along with the use of the protester’s signs and slogans.

There are many other examples of symbolic speech that are witnessed or expressed in our day-to-day lives. Sit-ins, flag waving, marches, stand-ins, silent protests, demonstrations, and even wearing T-shirts and buttons that express some sort of protest against a specified idea serve as examples of symbolic speech. Here, people come together to relay a message to the public with the intent to support a cause or oppose a situation without being verbal about it. The great thing about symbolic speech is that it’s often creative and figuratively understood, it’s open for everyone who wishes to take a stand on a political or social issue without using their actual voice to prove a point.

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There are many forms of speech that are delivered for a variety of reasons, we have a welcome speech to greet guests and visitors attending an event, we have thank-you speeches that express our gratitude toward particular individuals, and we have elevator speeches that can help give us a pitch for a sale or job position. But if there’s one distinctive type of speech that greatly differs from the rest, then it has to be the symbolic speech. This has allowed us to express our thoughts and opinions through nonverbal communication. But because of how complex a symbolic speech can be as part of the First Amendment, it’s important that we stay fully aware of our rights as citizens.

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