Write, Teach, Laugh

Burning Flags: Symbols Have Meaning in Context

(Originally published on Blogcritics.org)

About a dozen years ago when I was teaching evening classes in adult computer literacy at a local university, I happened to wear the pictured T-shirt to class one night.  Why I chose that shirt on that particular day, I don’t know. I have a lot of T-shirts and often the choice is kind of random.

Half-way through the two hour class we always took a break. During this particular break, two students who had been sitting towards the back of the class came up, somewhat agitated, and obviously wanted to speak with me.

T-shirt of terror?

T-shirt of terror?

They seemed upset, but when I stood up, they hesitated and looked at one another. One of them gave an embarrassed laugh and said, “We were going to complain about you wearing a Confederate flag, but we didn’t see it was a Gettysburg souvenir. Never mind.” We all laughed and they went on break.

What my students realized was that it was not the symbol itself – the Confederate flag – but the context it was presented in that gave it meaning.

The current frenzied movement to abolish all depictions of the Confederate battle flag – it wasn’t the national flag of the Confederacy, which was a different design that few have ever seen – is taking a symbol out of context. This is pointless and perhaps even counterproductive in numerous ways.

The moronic psychopath who shot people during a prayer meeting had his picture taken with this flag.  What if he had taken his picture with a Ku Klux Klan symbol, which includes a cross? Would we now be trying to obliterate crosses? What if he had wrapped himself in the Stars and Stripes?

Let’s say the movement is successful and all depictions of the flag are removed from the public space. Will racism disappear? When you forbid something, human nature is such that it becomes more appealing. People think, “Why are those people so afraid of this symbol. It must be powerful.”

It is not the symbol that is important. It is the meaning people give to it in its context. Flying over a museum maintained by the Daughters of the Confederacy in New Orleans, it means that people are interested in their history and their ancestors. On a license plate in Texas, it is a symbol of regional pride. On top of the Dukes of Hazard’s car, it is a joke. Context is everything.

Flag burning is often followed by book burning. This is a dangerous mind set. It is time for our nation to take a deep breath and relax. Let us grieve for the people of Charleston, but we live in what is probably the least racist nation in the world. Let’s be thankful for that and, like my students, take a break before we do unintended damage.

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