Flags (And Other Symbols) Are Important

On June 30, 2020, the Governor of Mississippi signed into law a piece of legislation that will, finally, remove the Confederate battle flag from Mississippi’s state flag. This is a big deal, and an unequivocally good thing. It comes during a time of intense debate about all kinds of symbols, from statues and monuments to names of schools and other buildings to sports mascots. This is an important conversation for several reasons.

I’ll start with the most obvious reason. Adopting a symbol is the same as endorsing what that symbol symbolizes. Mississippi, by having a Confederate symbol on their official flag, has been endorsing racism and treason for over a century. Those endorsements are both blameworthy and shame-worthy. It’s sad that it took Mississippi 126 years to feel that shame, but at least they do now.

Another reason the debate around symbols is important is because there is a difference between remembering history and commemorating history. Remembering means knowing what happened. Commemorating means celebrating what happened. A statue displayed in a public place is commemorating, not remembering. Every statue of Robert E. Lee or Jefferson Davis is celebrating what they did. They are celebrating traitors who fought for the right to enslave other people. The Civil War is well documented in books, movies, and museums. There’s no danger of people forgetting what happened. It’s long past time to stop celebrating the bad guys.

The third reason the debate is important is probably the most contentious, but it shouldn’t be. Certain symbols offend groups of people. Many people will dismiss this as being overly PC, but we should worry about offending others. It’s basic morality. Offending someone is hurting that person. Intentionally hurting an innocent person is clearly immoral. Intentionally using a symbol that offends a group of people, especially a marginalized group of people, is clearly immoral. It’s possible (although unlikely) that when the Washington football team adopted its name and mascot, they didn’t know they were hurting anyone. But that excuse is long gone. Continuing to use the offensive symbol is just being cruel.

It’s not always easy to tell which symbols are acceptable and which are not. Symbols have both intended meanings and unintended meanings. The intended meaning of the American flag, for example, is to commemorate the nation’s founding (with the thirteen stripes) and present (with the fifty stars). The unintended meanings are too many to list, but they include freedom, capitalism, democracy, racism, imperialism, and power. In other words, the American flag is complicated. My intuition is that it is acceptable, but I’m not afraid of having a conversation about it.

When talking about the commemorative aspect of symbols, it is important to remember that many flawed people did things worthy of commemoration. There’s currently a debate in England about what to do with statues of Winston Churchill. On the one hand, he was one of the most important figures in stopping the Nazis. On the other hand, he was an unapologetic imperialist who was probably fine with Gandhi’s assassination. When commemorating someone, are were celebrating everything about the person? Probably not, otherwise there would be no one worthy of commemoration. We have to look at how big and important the praiseworthy things are compared to how big and important the blameworthy things are. With Churchill, I’m apt to say that beating Hitler is big and important enough to warrant commemoration. But I could easily feel differently if I were Indian. I welcome the debate.

When it comes to the offensiveness of a symbol, we need to remember that you can probably find someone out there who is offended by anything you can imagine, no matter how wholesome it may seem. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use symbols. Since someone will always be offended, I think a type of contractualism can help. Under this we can say that a symbol is offensive if it can be considered offensive under a set of principles which no one can reasonably reject. I don’t have time to get into all the details, but the Confederate flag is offensive because no one can reasonably reject that it is a symbol of racism. Black Lives Matter signs are not offensive because anyone can reasonably reject that they are offensive. It takes some racist mental gymnastics to find them offensive in the first place.

That leaves us in a place where many, if not most, symbols can and should be debated. But it also leaves us in a place where many symbols should be removed or changed immediately. The Maryland state flag is an example. I’ve written about this before, but the red and white parts of the flag intentionally symbolize the traitors who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. That is not something Maryland (or anyone who cares about the United States) should endorse or commemorate. Not to mention that it was adopted during Jim Crow, so it was probably intended to intimidate the black residents of Maryland. Plus, it is offensive in a way that no one could reasonably reject. Any symbol that endorses or commemorates the Confederacy is offensive and has to go now.

So, I applaud Mississippi for taking a long overdue step in the right direction. If Mississippi can do it, it can be done anywhere. Let’s all join them taking steps in the right direction.

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