June 25, 2015

Symbolism, Racism, Murder, and the Confederate Flag - A Rumination

Dylan Roof murdered the people whom he murdered because of their skin color. There cannot be doubt about that. All of his talk, his actions, his lifestyle points only to that conclusion. There cannot be enough opprobrium, condemnation, and censure of his action; words fail because there are few terms harsh enough to describe even the cold-blooded murder itself, let alone the evil reasons behind it.

I think that it is also clear that Roof adopted symbols he perceived not only as standing for his brand of racism, but also were historically significant. He was photographed wearing the flags of Rhodesia and South Africa from eras when they were controlled by white supremacists, and at least one embracing the Confederate flag, and had a website entitled "The Last Rhodesian." To Roof, all of these things are identifiers of his own racist beliefs - he adopted them to identify himself to others who might agree with him, and to define his own beliefs more clearly.

This is the nature of symbols - they are defined by those who adopt and identify with the perceived meaning behind the symbol, and thus add their own legacy to the symbol through their actions. Those who adopt symbols may dispute with other adopters and with the historical meaning, may try to wrest them to their own use and purpose, and may succeed if enough people are convinced over time. Thus, the Swastika, adopted and put to terrible purpose by the Nazi regime, was originally (and still is) a holy symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, and has been so used for 5,000+ years. Now, however, it is a rare individual in the West who can see the symbol without becoming aware of the use and appropriation of the symbol by the Nazis, or indeed is even aware of the prior history of the symbol.

The problems with symbols comes with interpretation and ascription of potent symbols in a culture, where symbolic meaning is attributed to one using a symbol, who does not use it for the purpose ascribed. We need not look far for examples - Christians use the Cross and Fish as symbols of their status as followers of Christ, while others interpret those symbols as those of violence and ignorance. The problem is that there is a tendency, especially among those who wish to control discourse, to universalize a particular meaning in, or use of, a symbol, and then attribute that particular meaning to all who adopt that symbol, without attempting to interrogate the use. So, for instance, a student at George Washington University posted a swastika on his university's bulletin board which the student acquired in India, and was fascinated by its use as a holy symbol. Despite the student's protests of his lack of ill intent, the president of George Washington issued this statement:
Since its adoption nearly a century ago as the symbol of the Nazi Party, the swastika has acquired an intrinsically anti-Semitic meaning, and therefore the act of posting it in a university residence hall is utterly unacceptable. Our entire community should be aware of the swastika’s association with genocide perpetrated against the Jewish people and should be concerned about the extremely harmful effects that displaying this symbol has on individuals and on the climate of our entire university community.
Within this statement, one can see the debate over the meaning of symbol, and the need and desire of those who have ascribed certain meaning to a symbol to keep that meaning primary, and deny that it could have any other meaning; for instance,  note the use of the term "intrinsically."  Those who claim intrinsic meaning of a symbol attempt to ascribe that meaning to others using it, negatively or positively, and react accordingly. Therefore, "[w]hile the student claims his act was not an expression of hatred, the university is referring the matter to the [police] for review by its hate crimes unit." Despite the evidence that the swastika in question was obtained in India, a land likely using it for Hinduism, Buddhism, or Jainism, and despite the student's own protests, the very fact of possession and use of the symbol apparently requires one's inclusion in the group who adopted the symbol for anti-Semitic purposes. Similar debates now air about use of, for instance, the "N-word," and other terms which have acquired multiple meanings. See, for example, debate about whether to "leave the N-word in Huck Finn."

Into the midst of the tragedy caused by Roof comes the debate about the Confederate flag flying at the statehouse in South Carolina, and as is proving to be the case, the debate about the use of the Confederate flag anywhere. As with the debates about the swastika, the battle here is a one of control and interpretation of the meaning of, and behind, the Confederate flag. What is happening, however, is a problem similar to that with the swastika and with the "N-word" - that is, a claimed intrinsic meaning is being ascribed to existence and use. Ross Douthat outlines the problem particularly well when he notes that many supporters of the continued use of the Confederate flag are succumbing to the idea:
[T]o which many southerners and not a few cultural conservatives have succumbed, to regard the Confederate States of America as the political and historical champion of all these attractive Southern distinctives, the road not taken down which they might have flourished more fully, and to invent narratives in which Robert E. Lee’s soldiers fought and died for God, chivalry, states rights, Mardi Gras and Low Country cuisine and the philosophy and poetry of Allen Tate.
Douthat argues that the Confederate flag is the wrong symbol to represent this, as it is too bound up with the history of slavery and racism..."the southland’s conservative friends and admirers should be eager to see its flag furled and put away," he says. What he does not do is to argue that these people must, ipso facto, be assumed to support the South's history of racism and slavery. He is arguing that the flag is too bound up with negative symbolic meaning, and should therefore not be used in other representations. Careful thinker, careful thinking.

Less careful are those who accuse anyone who is against removal of the flag for the positive reasons Douthat outlines as supporting racism and slavery. These people ascribe the negative meaning associated with the flag to anyone using it for any reason. For instance, at the Twitter handle @GOPBlackChick, one Crystal Wright has posted a series of tweets today dealing with the Confederate flag question, along the lines of:
To white people who want blacks to get over Confederate flag+racism it symbolizes. Tell Jews to get over that Nazi thing too.
Those of you conservatives who are fervent supporters of Confederate flag, a symbol racist Dems built, is why we will lose in 2016.
Ask Lindsay Graham why SC Statehouse didn't fly the Nazi flag too? Afterall,"white supremacists" are a part of who SC is too? Right?
Ms. Wright is ascribing sole inherent meaning to the Confederate flag, but rather than attempt to determine if there is any other symbolic meaning for those who support it, she ascribes racism as the only possible meaning and then judges people with whom Douthat remonstrates as apologists for white supremacy.

There are two problems with this - first, it does not deal charitably with those with whom one disagrees. Douthat's approach is to acknowledge that people may use the Confederate flag for other purposes, but seeks to dissuade such people due to the problematic associations of the Confederate flag in its history and current use (e.g., by Roof-alikes). Ms. Wright, whose mode of discourse is, I suspect, all too common in our culture now, takes the opposite approach, and is not likely to influence people or win arguments.

The second problem is that this flattening tends to deny that there can be any positive use for a given symbol. This goes beyond the simple shaming attempts of the Wrights of the world, and proceeds, in sort of a reverse-inscription, to attribute a sort of inherent corrupting force to symbols; that is to say, by the very use of a symbol, the user, for whatever purpose, is corrupted and suspect. Witness the student with the swastika, as discussed above. Similarly, in this matter, Apple has apparently removed any apps containing the Confederate flag from its online store. This includes games representing the American civil war, where (presumably) the flag is a matter of historical accuracy. As noted by a director of such games:
It seems disappointing that they would remove it as they weren't being used in an offensive way, being that they were historical war games and hence it was the flag used at the time," Mulholland said. "At the moment we're working the games to replace the flags that are deemed offensive.
Mulholland and Wright are engaged in a debate not just about the symbol of the Confederate flag, but about the nature of symbols themselves. In fact, this might be one of the great debates of our time - whether use of a symbol means not only what one acribes to it oneself, but ipso facto, must mean an adoption of every characteristic of that symbol, and whether, therefore, one is somehow complicit in, or corrupted by, the negative uses to which the symbol has been put.

Broadly speaking, then, some would argue that it is unnecessary to eliminate use, provided one has proper intent and purpose (e.g., historical use). Others would add that one must, in such cases, use due care in adoption and use (e.g., Douthat), and when the symbol is too imbued with negative meaning, one might reconsider despite one's virtuous use. For instance, while Douthat does not think that the flag is prudently usable to represent any current strain of cultural moment, I suspect he would agree with use illustrating history and culture; with placement in museum or textbook. Still others would disagree; they would look at any use of a symbol as inherently corrupting, and deny that any use could be made of it without directly, and perhaps deliberately, supporting the negative meaning associated with the symbol.

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