The Sign of The Badge

By Marjorie Simon

"He wished that he, too, had a wound, a red badge of courage." 1

"Badges? We don't need no stinking badges!" 2

The opening words of the Old Testament tell us that the first thing God did was to separate: darkness from light, water from land, man from the animals. Dividing the world into self and other appears to be a fundamental impulse. Are you one of us or one of them? And ever since humans left off sniffing others to identify friend or foe, identification has been primarily visual.

As Ernst Gombrich pointed out decades ago, seeing is "shaped by our knowledge of what we see." In other words, perception is always informed by experience and knowledge. Which is why the newly-sighted have a hard time decoding the images before them, and, conversely, why eye-witness reports are often wrong-people see what they expect to see. And social identification relies on signs-images that have cultural defined meanings. A sign stands for something (the signified) in the culture. "All images are signs..." says Gombrich 3. We recognize family members, potential sexual partners, or outsiders by such signs. Through cues subtle and gross we parse the identity of others, a rapid but complex process that assesses kinship, age, gender, social status, and innumerable other overlapping identities.

The meaning of social signifiers is entirely arbitrary, and so is the relationship between the sign and the signified. That is, there is nothing intrinsic to the sign that gives a clue to its meaning. It's not a hieroglyph or pictograph; you have to learn it. It has cultural meaning only-it's symbolic. A red equilateral cross isn't health-giving, it only symbolizes medical help. Though the ability to recognize symbols is shared by our closest primates (chimpanzees can recognize themselves in a mirror), humans alone can create symbols, teach them to others, and reproduce them. The power of symbols comes from their shared meaning. Without it there wouldn't be any national flags, or protests about defacing them, no scepters, no Golden Stool, no religious icons. The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center would still be standing, and the swastika would just be an old pagan running cross.

"The specificity of an image also calls for correspondingly specific knowledge in the person who is to understand it" wrote Rudolph Arnheim, in Visual Thinking. 4 In order for symbols to communicate, both the bearer and observer must know what they mean. Wearing designer clothes confers high status only if the observer recognizes the designer; otherwise, a handbag is just a container with letters of the alphabet printed on it. Likewise, ignorance of the cultural symbols of power, authority, or deeply held sacred beliefs may give offense (or worse) in international or cross-cultural situations.

By this time it should be clear that the badge, at its most fundamental, is a symbol of human community that separates as well as joins. The badge locates the individual in a group, publicly declaring social identity, rank, status, community, solidarity, and differentiation. Like other symbols of group membership, badges reinforce in-group solidarity by maximizing the differences between groups and minimizing the differences within them. Badges communicate because they are mutually understood by wearer and observer. Even if you don't know the specific meaning of the badge, you know it means something. If you don't know what it means, you're not in the group.

Physically, a badge is an emblem that can be pinned onto one's clothing. In the United States the word badge refers to an identifying pin made of plastic or fabric, or, most commonly, the shield carried by law enforcement personnel. 5 In the vocabulary of material culture a badge is A THING, a tangible goad to memory and experience. Like the souvenir, it validates and concretizes experience and at once calls up a myriad associations to the bearer and the viewer. One who possesses the badge retains the memories, while the uninitiated viewer is left to wonder at the arcane meaning of the symbol. Badges may be mementoes (a plastic pin shaped like a pickle distributed by the Heinz factory), reminders of a significant experience (lapel pin of the Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty), product identification (automobile logos), or achievement (stars and stripes, Purple Heart, OBE).

Badges chronicle the overlapping identities a person has throughout his/her life: youth as a girl or boy scout, then perhaps a lifeguard, later a police officer, a veteran, a museum visitor, an employee, someone who sold a million homes, supports athletic teams or opposes political factions. Badges communicate political affiliation, and like any sign, slogan, or logo present a shorthand allegiance, such as images of Chairman Mao or Che Guevera in the 1960s.

Metaphysical badges such as hairstyles, jewelry, clothing, including uniforms, tattoos, body piercing, gang colors and football jerseys identify community members to each other and affirm their separateness. Other objects signal community to like-minded members, such as "Vietnam Zippos," the engraved cigarette lighters carried by Vietnam veterans.

As the quintessentially semiotic accessory, badges succinctly announce an individual's membership in any one of innumerable groups. Badge collections provide an entertaining history of forgotten occupations and esoteric achievements. Pinkerton Guard, Pony Express Messenger, Brother Inspector are counted among collectible replicas of by-gone badges. Who knew Elvis Presley had been made honorary sheriff? Vestiges of heraldic badges showing allegiance remain in buttons, keys, and the ubiquitous laminated ID tag worn for security purposes. Virtual badges now appear in role playing games, either board games or online communities. The origins of individual badge design may be shrouded in mystery or simply lost to posterity. Who decided that the sign for sheriff should be a six pointed star with circles on each point? Or that an escutcheon shaped like a Roman shield denotes THE LAW? Once embedded in our consciousness they remain there, forming a feedback loop of signifier (the thing) and signified (the idea). The current obsessions with "branding", the use of color, font, and design for logos, has resulted in an unprecedented display of symbols in material culture, making scouting's proficiency badges seem quaint beside T-shirts, shopping bags, automobiles, or a thousand other recognizable "brands." Condensing an entire experience (slogging into the woods, pitching a tent, lighting a campfire, etc.) to a simplified drawing or icon creates a shortcut to memory. And though the skills have changed in ways Lord Baden-Powell never imagined (does anyone earn a Laundress badge anymore?), international scouting badges are still colorful, embroidered patches (Japanese badges are particularly vivid) whose icons are perhaps less universally understood, but still communicate to insiders.

It is perhaps not surprising that law enforcement and the military have remained durable users of badges. They are hierarchical organizations in which instant identification determines behavior, instills trust and promotes group solidarity. Of the many ways to express identity, a badge is worn in those contexts when it is the most salient. For example, when a driver is stopped by a car with a flashing light, the metal escutcheon signifying the police officer is at that moment the most salient part of the interaction.

In a fragmented and heterogeneous society badges have the advantage of standardization, of repetition, and "insistent re-enforcement of the association of signifier and referent." 6 In many organizations engraved and enameled pins are given for citations and special occasions because the badge conveys dignity and gravity to rank and occasion. All over the world, colorful enameled badges announce "Gendarmerie," "Russian Lynx Special Forces," Dusseldorf Autobahn Highway Patrol, and the like. Russian hat badges are particularly prized. There's even a website for "unidentified international badges," some of which are quite detailed in construction and design. Nearly all are champlevé enameled, sometimes with guilloche engraving. Though dwindling in number, badge-makers take seriously their products' significance to both wearer and presenter. They advertise hand-engraving and durable vitreous enamels, hard silver soldering and sturdy plated finish. They know people are proud to wear their badges!

Obviously, human social identities are more complex than a single symbol can communicate. Equally obvious: the way people perceive each other affects the way they treat each other. It's hard to imagine any social interaction without these signifiers. Since people occupy more than one role, there are multiple signals to keep track of, and there would seem to be no limit to the number of badges one individual might wear. Who are you, and are you like me? Anyone looking for signs of community might try wearing a badge, pin, or button, to reach out and see who else is out there.

1. Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage, ch. 9. Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 16th Edition, 1992. Little, Brown and Co., Inc. Boston, MA

2. Mexican bandit in "Blazing Saddles," film, 1971. Mel Brooks' famous line refers to another piece of film dialogue, from the 1948 film The Treasure of Sierra Madre, which is itself taken almost verbatim from B. Traven's 1935 book of the same name.

3. E.H. Gombrich. Art and Illusion. A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation. Princeton University Press, 1989.

4. Rudolph Arnheim. Visual Thinking. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1971. p.142.

5. A metal pin with a printed icon or message would be considered a button, though it might function exactly as a signifying badge. Arnheim, p. 145.

6. Arnheim, p. 145. This essay was written for the catalogue accompanying THE ENAMEL EXPERIENCE, International Badge Exhibition, curated by Elizabeth Turrell, published in Great Britain, 2007, by Impact Press.