Thursday, July 9, 2015

Who Decides What Symbols Mean?

            This may be a slight departure from my usual subject matter of atheist and religious topics, but it’s something that I really can’t let pass without some commentary. And anyway, there are plenty of religious tie-ins for both the specific and general cases under discussion, so I don’t feel like this topic is wholly out of place here.

            So to jump right in, following the murder of nine African American people at the Mother Emanuel Church in South Carolina, there has been quite a storm of controversy over the symbolism of a Confederate flag flying over a war memorial on the grounds of the South Carolina State House.

            Symbols, at their heart, are like language in that they are an abstract medium intended to convey ideas between people. Like language, any given configuration is essentially arbitrary, and has communication value only to the extent that people share an agreement on what they mean. For example, the word “river” only means “a natural stream of water of fairly large size flowing in a defined channel,” because we collectively agree that it means that. For that matter, all the words I used in that definition only mean what they mean because we agree that they mean it. A language – whether visual or auditory – is an emergence of agreed meaning for otherwise arbitrary symbols through usage and collective acceptance. Without that agreement, the ability to convey ideas through language is utterly lost.

            I think this is a helpful way to look at the argument over the meaning of the Confederate flag; as language. Imagine the following conversation between two people:

            Person A: I support racism.

            Person B: That’s awful!

            Person A: What do you mean?

            Person B: You can’t justify the claim that one race is superior to another, or that anyone is defined by their race.

            Person A: I’m not saying that.

            Person B: But you just said you support racism. That’s what racism is.

            Person A: Not at all! Where I come from, the word “racism” means “respect for our history and traditions.” In fact, most people back home have “I support racism” banners all over the place, and we even fly one from our courthouse.

            Person B: You know that nobody else uses it that way, right? And I’ve met people from your hometown – a lot of the people who fly that banner are, in fact, racist as the rest of us define it. And your court does have a history of selectively enforcing the laws to the benefit of your race and detriment of others.

            Person A: That’s true, but they’re misusing the word. Or, while they may be racist the way you mean it, that has nothing to do with their public display of the “I support racism,” banner, because that’s just not what it means around here.  I’m not racist in the sense you’re talking about. I just love my history, and we have a proud tradition of using the phrase “I support racism,” to signify that. That’s why I say it.

            Person B: That’s absurd! You realize that everyone you meet is going to assume you’re a racist because your keep saying you support racism, right? And even if you’re not racist yourself, your insistence on using the phrase this way only serves to give cover to the people who are!

            Person A: So what? You have no right to tell me what words mean, and it’s unfair of you to assume I’m a racist as you define it just because I say I support racism. That’s ridiculous!


            Obviously, these two people are having a serious difficulty communicating. And it’s because they refuse to come to agreement on what the words mean (or, possibly, because one is trying to obscure the meaning in order to hide their true sentiments). I’m using this example, though, for a couple of reasons. The first is that we have a pretty reasonable agreement on what the word “racism” means, and how people who explicitly express support for it are going to be perceived by the general public. Even many groups that are outright racist will try to avoid the label because they recognize that it’s perceived as a bad thing. So it helps to point out the barrier that insisting on trying to redefine it can create. The second reason is because I believe the phrase “I support racism,” is an adequate stand-in for the Confederate flag.

            “But Brian!” you may say, “What right do you have to tell us what the Confederate flag should mean?”

            To which I would say: I don’t have a right, any more than I have a right to tell you what words mean. The meaning is a collective agreement. But I do have an argument. It’s really pretty simple.


Premise 1: The Confederate flag represents the Confederacy.

Premise 2: The Confederacy was, officially, racist as all get-out.

Conclusion: The Confederate flag represents racism.


            So, in support of Premise 1. The flag we think of as the “Confederate flag,” wasn’t actually the official flag of the nation called the Confederacy. It was the flag of their armed forces, adopted because the actual flag of the Confederacy was similar enough to the US flag that it could create confusion in the chaos of battle. So it would probably be more properly termed the “Confederate battle flag.” But really, that’s a distinction without a difference. It was the flag that represented the military that protected and enforced of the ideals of the Confederacy. Premise 2 has to do with what those ideals were.

            So what were the ideals of the Confederacy? Not to put too fine a point on it, the defining ideal of the Confederacy was white supremacy and race-based slavery.

            Don’t believe me? Well here's a good resource. These are the official reasons the Southern states gave for their choice to secede from the United States. In other words, these represent the raison d’etre for the Confederacy. In case you didn’t read the link, here are some pertinent excerpts:

Georgia: While the subordination and the political and social inequality of the African race was fully conceded by all, it was plainly apparent that slavery would soon disappear from what are now the non-slave-holding States of the original thirteen.”

Mississippi: Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world.”

Texas: We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.”

            South Carolina’s declaration avoids many of these overtly racist statements, but virtually every complaint it levies against the federal government and the Northern States is in regards to their movement towards the abolition of slavery. Virginia barely makes any complaints at all, citing only “oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.” Several of the secession documents go to the effort of pointing out that, if the original US Constitution hadn’t had protections for slavery (yes, it did, lest we forget), they never would have joined in the first place. And then there’s Article 1, Section 9, Paragraph 4 of the Confederate Constitution, which reads “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed,” thereby expressly enshrining the racial nature of the slavery they practiced as a protected right of Confederate citizens. It is simply not possible to give an honest reading to these documents and not come to the conclusion that the major reason the Southern States seceded was their insistence that they must, under any circumstances, be permitted to keep owning black people.

            But please don’t just take my word for it. Follow the link. Read the documents. They are instructive on more than just this issue.

            So yes, I maintain that the Confederacy was founded on slavery and white supremacy. It was the central ideal behind the formation of the short-lived nation, as documented by their state and federal legislatures themselves. They loudly and proudly proclaimed this fact. That is why their flag stands for those ideas today, and that is why it has been adopted by so many white supremacist groups – they didn’t pick some random neutral symbol that they could corrupt, but rather adopted one already associated with the hateful ideals they wished to promote.

            It is, therefore, wholly appropriate for government institutions like state houses to refrain from flying the Confederate battle flag (or to take it down if they haven’t already). And not merely because it’s offensive, as much as its supporters like to claim that mere offense is all we’re talking about here. By flying the flag, by giving it a place of honor, they suggest to white supremacists that the state government really does support their position. It implies that discrimination, and even outright criminal acts, will be met with support (or at least indifference) from the legal establishment. It suggests to members of minority communities in that state that their participation in that government is discouraged, that they are officially unwelcome, and that without the federal government holding the state in check it would have them rounded up and re-enslaved if it could. It is, simply, corrosive to society for state governments to endorse the Confederacy by flying its flag.

            None of this is to suggest that I would ever endorse robbing individuals of their right to display the flag however they want. And I certainly wouldn’t be in favor of shutting down conversations around what it may mean to individuals. But I do think such conversations are equivalent to arguing over whether “I support racism” banners would be about racial oppression or respect for history; the association of the first meaning to the larger mass of society is too strong to be overcome by arguing for the second. No matter how strenuously you argue, you’ll still end up carrying the baggage for flying it whether you want to or not. I guess it’s just up to every individual to make that choice for themselves.

No comments:

Post a Comment