One aspect of the recent, horrific events in South Carolina that has gotten some attention involves the “Confederate Flag” (technically, a rendering of the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia)–displayed on the license plate holder of the shooter (If this were a newspaper, I’d be obligated to say “alleged shooter” but it’s not so I’m not so I won’t) and also flying on the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse. Some are giving intellectual, carefully wrought defenses of the flag, explaining what it “really” means–that’s fine; such people can be written off as morally bankrupt and we don’t need to deal with them. But I’ve recently come across some who are saying, “Let’s forget about the symbol and concentrate on the substance.” That’s worth taking a moment to look at.
A symbol is a concentrated image. Symbols can be powerful rallying points, like union songs during a strike. They can establish points of commonality, both by loving them and hating them. I know my pulse quickens when I see the hammer&sickle-4, symbol of the Fourth International, because of all that it means in history and in defiance and in hope. I know that I clench my teeth on seeing the Confederate flag because of all that it means in violent, organized opposition to freedom.
Let me quote from my own book. I can do that, because this passage was written by my collaborator: “But it’s never the symbol–the bird itself, the cross itself, the prophet’s name in and of itself that is sacred–it’s the welter of emotions, ideas, and insights it triggers. If it triggers nothing, its power is nothing.”--The Incrementalists
To be sure, a symbol can only do so much; its power is limited. It cannot answer arguments, or explore nuances, or provide a cost-effective treatment for subdural hemotoma. But thousands of avowed white supremicists have taken the Confederate flag as their symbol. There are, no doubt, many to whom it represents something different. Yet to me, it is significant that it is impossible to disagree on the meaning of that flag without the conversation at once leading to a discussion of the U.S. Civil war in which the person defending the flag will pull out all of the old idiocies–“It wasn’t really about slavery” “they had a constitutional right to secede” “Lincoln was a bad human being” &c &c ad nauseam. And what all of those arguments boil down to is a defense of human chattel slavery, which today means a defense of all that is backward, reactionary, ignorant, anti-democratic.
That is one thing that symbol does. Another thing it does is that in our (in my opinion, fully justified) disdain, it can bring many of us together. Whatever our differences, when use of that flag makes us seethe, we know that what we have in common is a hatred of oppression and injustice.
The differences among those of us who support equality are legion, and non-trivial. But with that much in common, it is good to be reminded that those differences may be worth talking about.
That is the power of symbols.