My old friends may have a bad high school flashback when they read this statement: “The symbol is not the thing.”
S.I. Hayakawa’s seminal text Language in Thought and Action was required reading for many students. I remember struggling through this book on semantics and the ways in which humans use symbols to signify abstract meanings.
I have been thinking about the Hayakawa quote recently as America debates the question of removing the Confederate flag from public display.
On the one hand, flags are merely symbols. They represent geographical entities, such as cities, states, and nations. In the case of the Confederate flag, it represents a would be nation from a specific time in U.S. history. Hoisting it does not resurrect that time in history when states in the South seceded from the Union any more than raising the Stars and Stripes perpetuates the existence of the United States of America.
Yet flags and other symbols have potent meaning for people, and despite the dangers of conflating the symbol with the thing, we must pay heed to the emotions surrounding these symbols.
Flag burning is a common tool of protest against a government or regime. During the Vietnam War era, the sight of a U.S. flag set afire by protesters inflamed the hearts of many Americans. Americans go to great length to respect our flag: pledging allegiance to it, not letting it touch the ground, even singing our national anthem, an homage to Old Glory itself.
The flag of the Confederacy, on the other hand, may stir up pride in some white Southerners, but more often it is associated with a culture whose very existence depended upon the enslavement of black Africans. As such, the Confederate flag is a painful reminder of the racism that did not disappear once the South was defeated. Flying it in a state capital seems like celebrating and approving of that racism.
Just as in past blog posts, I have spoken out against Native American logos and mascots, I believe that the Confederate flag should be relegated to history, not put on display with pride. Those who use these emblems and symbols may not all be racists, but the effect upon racial minorities in America is dehumanizing.
Let’s make no mistake. Taking down the Confederate flag will not solve the problem of racism in America any more than burning the U.S. flag would destroy our great country. But as a potent symbol, its removal would go a long way toward reaffirming our belief “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
What a fitting way to celebrate our upcoming Independence Day.