One of the major news stories today is the flying of the Confederate Flag. As NPR reports it is a complex relationship that our country has with this banner and all that relates to it. Materially, the adorning image can be described as a star-spangled navy saltire (St. Andrew’s Cross) with a mild white stroke on a red background. Alone these things are simply lines and shapes compiled in a particular order.
What makes a flag meaningful is not what it looks like, but the meaning we attribute to it. It is here where the controversy lies. It is a symbol, without a clear and definitive meaning. There does not seem to be an official council of the flag, it instead, flies unregulated taking on different meanings for different people. The fluidity associated with the meaning of the flag means that some people can say that it stands for Southern Pride, states rights, and a recognition of those who died in the Civil War. Others can take the symbol to mean White Supremacy.
Some may remember when the number sign was something that had to do with phones. Not it is something that has to do with computers. The meaning of our symbols is always changing.
When a young man, Dylan Roof, opens fire on black worshipers in Charleston, South Carolina and points to the Confederate as the symbol of his allegiance it becomes clear that there is certainly some white supremacist meaning placed upon it. Does that mean that his actions, and those of other white supremacist groups have tarnished the meaning of the flag? Who decides what the meaning of the flag is if not the general public. Are these symbolic associations subjective or matter of fact?
For example we have seen that a red octagon means “STOP” and yet a set of over lapping parallel lines means “hashtag”. These meanings are not inherent so we have to learn them from each other and the environment. So if you are a child and your first experience of a symbol is one of heritage, then that is its meaning. If you later come to learn that other people take a different meaning, perhaps of hate then you have to decide whether to assert your meaning or adapt to what is viewed.
The “#” symbol, it has previously been referred to as the number symbol or pound sign, but if you are a child then you may see it as a tic tac toe frame. Now it is used as a a precursor to organize subject on the internet. The meaning of this symbol, as all symbols is not static. Our meanings shift with the times just as we have seen with the “#”. Now, that is not to say that the kid who learns his tic tac toes symbol means something else as an adult will not feel some discomfort as he readjusts his understanding of the symbol to fit its more contemporary meaning. Change is certainly discomforting at times but makes it no less avoidable.
This is one of the core issues the Sons Of Confederate Veterans is a non-profit organization that commits funds and resources to genealogically related to soldiers who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. According to their website
“The citizen-soldiers who fought for the Confederacy personified the best qualities of America. The preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South’s decision to fight the Second American Revolution. The tenacity with which Confederate soldiers fought underscored their belief in the rights guaranteed by the Constitution. These attributes are the underpinning of our democratic society and represent the foundation on which this nation was built.”
This organization has no mention of racist ideology on their site, nor can it be found on their social media but they do hold the confederate flag as part of their logo. We understand why they do it, but that does not change the other connotations that have been applied to this symbol. It makes sense that an organization that is committed to the preservation of a particular part of history would want to hold on to this flag. It is impossible though, to separate all the associated meanings, and to hold tightly to this symbol is to hold tightly to not only its historical significance but how it is seen today.
Since we can not control society ourselves and the freedoms the confederacy fought for might justify a degree of relativism, it would be consistent that this group would like to hold on to their own meaning. We have now however, come to a time when we must continue to reexamine all of our symbols and language to be sure they are communicating the messages that we intend to.
If the efficacy of our symbols has been diminished we should ask if they still worth standing behind.