The history of the United States hasn’t always been pretty. Years ago a small group of rebels banded together and seceded from their nation and attempted to form a new country. Why did they do this? Well, at least in part, they did it to protect their economic interests, the greatest portion of which was embodied in the institution of slavery. Sure, there were other reasons, but we’d have to be kidding ourselves if we didn’t realize how significantly slavery played into the conflict.
At that time the national government hadn’t formally outlawed slavery but everyone knew it was coming. It had already formed abolition societies north of the states which primarily relied on slavery for agriculture and industry; the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court had stated his opinion that “as soon as the Negro comes here, he becomes free. One may be a servant here, but not a slave.” Four years before the rebellion actually occurred, somewhere between ten and fourteen thousand slaves had been emancipated en masse in the north. It didn’t take a genius to see the writing on the wall.
There were several flags used by the states which had seceded in the south during that conflict, but all of them have since come to represent (at best) independence, freedom, and free thinking; others associate these flags with a belligerent arrogance, a know-it-all attitude, and being a “rebel without a cause.” On the worst end of the spectrum, this flag has become associated with oppression of people who aren’t like us, the suppression of rights, and the threat of violence if others dare engage in the actions we flauntingly engage in. I, for one, am sick of the hypocrisy and mixed messages. I think it’s time for a change. I demand that we change the symbol that has, in many places in the world, come to symbolize oppression and hatred. Let’s pull down this flag and exchange it for something new!
Oh, wait. You thought I was talking about something different? I was talking about the American rebellion against the British in 1776. What did you think I was talking about? I just added that picture at the top because I thought it was a pretty design…
Like anything else in life, there are two sides to this issue. On one side stand the people who are offended by what they think the American or Confederate flags stand for and insist that they have a right to not be offended by a piece of cloth. On the other side stand people who insist that their associations with the flag(s) are the correct ones and the flag should continue to be posted in a place of honor because of the honorable connotations it has or once had. So which side is right?
It’s simple: they both are.
Symbols are powerful things; like anything else, they can be perverted. They can come to mean different things to different people. For some, the cross is a picture of hope in the midst of desperate circumstances:
For others, the cross can be a symbol of hatred and oppression:
It would be absolutely ignorant of us to assume that the cross didn’t mean either of those things to different groups of people in different circumstances. So why do we do the same with flags? Why do we ignorantly assume that the American flag isn’t legitimately hated in other countries because of our oft-arrogant, foolish, and idiotic interventions? Why do we so simply assign the Confederate flag a place of honor or hatred and eschew all other connotations?
Flags are applications of principles. So what are the principles at work here?
First, we need to understand that the long-argued debate of “slavery versus states’ rights” is a logical fallacy: a false dilemma. The Confederacy was formed over exercising the rights of states, the specific application of which was protecting the institution of slavery against any intervention by Northern states. The simple answer is “both.” To continue to argue that it was one or the other is to throw out half of history simply because of cognitive dissonance, and that’s downright ignorant. I understand that each side wants to make a noble, right versus wrong, clean slate of it, but history is never clean.
Second, we need to understand that symbols are the property of those who actively use them to symbolize the actions and activities that are most often associated with them. To Confederate flag activists, I would say this: if your first reaction when you see a member of the KKK holding the flag while burning a cross isn’t to vehemently condemn the action, then you should realize that you are passively participating in someone remaking a symbol you love into something others hate. If your actions in promoting the honorable associations you have with the battle flag pale in comparison to hate groups who use the flag to oppress others, then you should understand that the symbolism you love is being lost. If you want to preserve the honorable associations with the Confederate battle flag, it is your responsibility to constantly remake that image and those associations. If you don’t do that, you’ve lost the battle. Someone has stolen your symbol.
To the other side I would say this: currently there seems to be a competition to see who can appear most outraged with a symbol of our past. This is a politically correct bandwagon used by some to attempt to paint the North as abolitionist saviors who all despised the institution of slavery and saw blacks as equals to whites. Such is simply not the case, and engaging in historical revisionism for the sake of political expediency is an extremely slippery slope which should not be taken lightly.
Stephen Covey, in 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, wrote this: “First seek to understand, then to be understood.” If you view the Confederate flag as only a symbol of states’ rights, individual freedom, and independence – you’re wrong. If you view the Confederate flag as only a symbol of oppression, racism, and hatred – you’re incorrect. If you can’t understand both sides of the argument and only then make an educated argument, then please understand that your opinion is ignorant, uneducated, and of no more value than the folks on the other side of the line you gladly mock.
So what do we do with the Confederate battle flag now? I don’t know. It’s a tough question. I will say this: if we can agree to change the US flag to honor the feelings of those who see it as imperialistic in nature; or change the Alabama and Florida flags which contain the St. Andrews cross (the primary design symbol inherent in the Confederate flag); or the flag of the state of Hawaii because it contains an imperial British design which was used to oppress peoples the world over; well, then I can see the principle equally at work – respect for all who have been oppressed. If not, then I think we may have a problem. What does that problem look like?
Well, for starters it looks like Amazon and eBay banning the sale of Confederate flag merchandise, but allowing KKK and White Pride items to still be sold. No, no political correctness here; no grandstanding for the purpose of a bottom line rather than actual respect.
It also includes movements like this where people are demanding that monuments to historical figures come down; for example, Robert E. Lee, who personally stood against slavery and freed all of his slaves when he had a chance. This is an ironic contrast to Abraham Lincoln whose plan was to ship all of the blacks off to Liberia after the War was over in order to keep them from contaminating white America. There’s certainly no cognitive dissonance or self-defeating, politically correct ideology at work here.
You see, when we change history to make us feel better, nobody wins, and we start a slippery slope which may eventually lead to activities like the Taliban blasting archaeological treasures apart because they consider them offensive. If we’re proposing destroying Stone Mountain, how is that different from what the Taliban did to the Bamiyan Buddha? How have we become more tolerant than the Taliban?
So for those who support the Confederate flag, here’s my challenge: remake it into the image you want it to be. You should be more concerned with white people doing something you think is incorrect with it than black people demanding it be taken down; if you’re not, you’ve lost your cause.
To those who argue that the Confederate flag should be banned, here’s my challenge: realize that the road to tolerance is a two-way street. Asking people to tolerate things they dislike for the sake of more freedom for all is a principle, and it involves some uncomfortable applications.
To all: jumping on an emotional bandwagon without carefully and respectfully listening to evidence, facts, and the opinion of the other side is ignorant, intolerant, and against everything we’re supposed to stand for as a nation. Consider your actions and words carefully as you discuss this issue.