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I had never heard of semiotics until about twenty-five years ago, when I read Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. Eco, it seemed, was a semiotician. The biographical sketch of the author explained that semiotics was the study of signs, symbols, and significance. The Name of the Rose was fraught with symbology, including an elaborate red herring involving an apparent recapitulation of the signs of the apocalypse. I filed semiotics away as an interesting word and thought little more of it.
Our recent ill-fated fight against Proposition 8 in California (which in the longer run may yet bear interesting fruit) reminded me of the importance of symbols and the meanings people ascribe to them. The first campaign posters against Prop 8 included a green check mark in the “O” of “NO.” I remember in grade school that a check mark used to indicate that my teacher had found a mistake in my work. By the time I was in college, however, the check mark had morphed into a symbol of approbation and it was supplanted by the “X” symbol as a signifier of error. Therefore the first anti-8 signs might have been subtly misleading, suggesting that 8 was okay. See? It has a check mark! (A green one, no less.)
As the campaign heated up, new leadership took over the opposition campaign. The new campaign advisors immediately amended the signs, replacing the green check mark with a bright red X. They sharpened the words, too. Now it was clear. Proposition 8 was wrong. It was in error. The new signs blossomed everywhere, although the old version was still evident at campaign rallies (and on my bumper).
It was, unfortunately, too little, too late. Would the red X have saved us if we had seized upon it sooner? Perhaps. I think, rather, it was our overconfidence and late start that cost us dearly. If we had made better use of the opposition of Sen. Obama (more than a million Obama voters must also have voted for Prop 8) and Gov. Schwarzenegger, the election might have turned out better, but that's hindsight speaking. Instead, we are left with a small lesson in semiotics and an unfulfilled agenda for the future.