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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Making Icons of the Unfortunate and the Unseemly

"Sitting on a park bench
Eying little girls
With bad intent.
Snot running down his nose
Greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes.
"Drying in the cold sun
Watching as the frilly panties run.
Feeling like a dead duck
Spitting out pieces of his broken luck.

"Sun streaking cold, an old man wandering lonely
Taking time, the only way he knows
Leg hurting bad as he bends to pick a dog end
He goes down to the bog and warms his feet

"Feeling alone, the army's up the road
Salvation a la mode and a cup of tea
Aqualung my friend don't you start away uneasy
You poor old sod, you see it's only me"

"Aqualung" By Jethro Tull (1971)

In this song, Aqualung is a homeless man with breathing problems and poor hygiene. Ian Anderson wrote it about a character he made up based on actual photographs of transient men.

Anderson said, "It's (the song) about our reaction, of guilt, distaste, awkwardness and confusion, all these things that we feel when we're confronted with the reality of the homeless. You see someone who's clearly in desperate need of some help, whether it's a few coins or the contents of your wallet, and you blank them out. The more you live in that business-driven, commercially-driven lifestyle, you can just cease to see them."

Aqualung has become one of the most recognizable characters in rock music. The character is now iconic of empathy for those in need. Yet, what about real, hard-luck individuals who seem to draw attention for their odd stature? Have they transcended into folk heroes for some very unlikely reasons? And, are we laughing at their unseemly behaviors to feel better about ourselves?

The word icon comes from the Greek word eikon, meaning "a likeness, image, or figure." The same word is used for religious images in Greek Orthodox worship. The word has come to refer to "an edifice or even a person readily recognized as having some well-known significance or embodying certain qualities: one thing, an image or depiction, that represents something else of greater significance through literal or figurative meaning, usually associated with religious, cultural, political, or economic standing."

Today the word seems to have lost the connotation of representing highly admirable qualities, and people commonly use the word iconic to refer to those figures who possess questionable norms of modern culture. For example, since Paris Hilton and Charles Manson are popular (for whatever reason) and easily recognizable, some call them "icons." An infamous icon has no redeeming substance.

I think it is unfortunate that some questionable individuals are considered icons of a society. As a social community deems a person "iconic," that iconic individual symbolizes a significant quality that undoubtedly advances the understanding of the thing for which the icon stands. Those who share the iconic symbol demonstrate their support for the trait. In essence, the person becomes a logo for his/her admired habits and behaviors (whether good or bad in nature).

It is true that communities choose to create an icon for any reason. For example, Stubbs (a cat without a tail born April 12, 1997) has been the honorary mayor of Talkeetna, Alaska, since July 1997. The town is only a historical district, so it is a natural fit for a feline executive. Stubbs has become a comical tourist attraction in Talkeetna. Every afternoon, Stubbs goes to a nearby restaurant and is treated to water out of a wineglass laden with catnip.  And, I guess all of this is in good fun.

However, a dangerous line of judgment exists between the act of raising curiosity by mocking a person while laughing about his peculiarities and quietly helping that unfortunate person improve his station with honest empathy. We often see this happen to people with impairments or disabilities. A segment of the population enjoys promoting aberrant behavior for the sake of farcical entertainment.

Their frivolity creates an unlikely icon. The court jester, the village idiot, the sidewalk madam, the town drunk, the bag lady, the psycho -- all have become larger-than-life anomalies for the benefit of public jabs and chuckles. In truth, all have problems that should be addressed, not just qualities that are so flippantly acknowledged.

What many onlookers of these iconic figures don't understand is that we see only one side of these human beings, the one most displayed by that person in public arenas. Many can have serious problems and suffer from mental disabilities that are threatening. It is noble that the public acts with empathy and concern for these needy individuals, but most need professional, ongoing care requiring competent professionals.

Unfortunately, some mentally ill people with significant problems are able to mask their deficiencies so that they seldom surface in environments that cater to their desires. Some of these illnesses make them dangerous to themselves and dangerous to others -- the mentally ill can be raging time bombs with short fuses behind their peaceful exteriors. Some are not taking needed medications and are not sheltering in facilities provided by the state for their care. Some prefer to drink, use drugs, or aimlessly wander to ease their troubled minds. Many are not what they seem in relation to their true needs.

An icon stands for something. One should ask what icons represent before lifting their status to saintly proportions. Since people are willing to make many people and things iconic for fun, they should be careful what effect their "fun" might have on the icon, on others, and even on themselves.

As a community teaches their children that "heroic status" is merely conferred upon popular, conspicuous people, they promote the symbols associated with the popularity of these icons. And, these symbols may be unfavorable, detrimental, or grossly misunderstood.

Psychologists say the real reason that people make fun of other people is to make themselves feel better. They are insecure in themselves, and it makes them feel better to make someone else feel bad. It makes them feel empowered -- gives them a sense of control. 

Who should be iconic? It is undeniable that advertising the acceptance of a poor cultural norm is risky business. Those mentally ill people who drink excessively, abuse drugs, and engage in aberrant behaviors should be cared for under controlled conditions -- for the good of all. 

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