Symbolic ambiguity

This is a columbine.

A columbine is a wildflower. It is Colorado’s state flower, and it grows wild all over the place. You can find columbine in a variety of colors, but it’s usually a light or medium purple.

This is the current version of a typical Colorado license plate.

One of the interesting things about Colorado is that there are about eleventy billion different specialty plates. You can get plates that display your alma mater, your military service, your Native American heritage, even your rusty old beater’s status as a collector car! You can get a plate with proceeds to go to greyhound rescue, or to help cure breast cancer. You can even get plates to commemorate MTV’s The Real World (Denver) or the 2008 Democratic National Convention. Having grown up in California, where all the plates are the same, I still feel a bit of unbridled glee whenever I see a new specialty plate here in Colorado.

A plate we see not infrequently here looks like this:

In the middle, you see a columbine. On the bottom, it says Respect Life.

The thing about this plate is that there are a lot of ways it could be interpreted. The origin of the plate came from someone who wanted to raise funds for the victims of the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, and I bet many native Coloradoans, or at least the ones who lived here when that happened, think of the Columbine shooting when they see the plate. The funny thing, though, is that the plate kind of got co-opted by some of the pro-life fundies and to them, it’s an anti-abortion sentiment.

And to me, someone who didn’t live here when the Columbine shooting happened, someone who grew up with parents who were hippies, the Respect Life plate looks like an environmentalist message. In fact, when I first saw the plates it was all I really thought of until after someone, probably Dan, mentioned the Columbine incident and what a huge deal it is to Coloradoans.

I find it utterly fascinating that such a simple symbol, a specific flower and two words, can evoke 3 entirely different messages. To some, it’s “Remember the tragedy of Columbine High School; don’t kill people.” To many, it’s “Abortions are bad, mmmkay.” To me, and I’m sure to some other non-natives who didn’t live here when Columbine happened, it’s a message of wildlife conservation. Although Colorado has a specialty plate for that, too, with an eagle on it.

One of the things that is most interesting to me about humanity in general and culture in particular is that our brains are always looking for symbols. We find patterns in clouds; we are all about face recognition; we want to find meaning in things that have none so badly that we invent conspiracy theories. Colors have always been powerful symbols, depending on the time period and place involved (the color blue in early religious art; the color blue as a symbol for a left-wing state.) Green means go on a traffic light; green means envy; green means environmentally conscious. A circle with a diagonal line through it means No; a swastika can mean a symbol of hatred or any number of other things, depending on context. Yet with enough exposure and publicity, symbols can be subverted to mean just about anything.


Here is a columbine. It is the state flower of Colorado. It is a symbol of great tragedy to some, a political message to others, and to me, it’s just a pretty flower.

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3 responses to “Symbolic ambiguity

  1. This particular plate has always confounded me. Glad to hear someone else saw the multiple possible messages that I did!

  2. I really liked this post and your message!

  3. I've always loved the columbine in all its infinite varieties.While plants and flowers have been symbols for centuries, sometimes it is nice to just enjoy their beauty and leave it at that. The Columbine High School shootings were unfathomably horrific. After the massacre happened, I planted some new columbines in our back yard. It's rather sad to attach such a grim event to the state flower. If I could, I would perhaps see if another plate could be made that said "Respect Differences."

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