100 Things I Know #16 – Symbols Have Force (The Confederate Battle Flag)

Battle Flag in Museum
The Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. Where it belongs…in a museum.

Whether it’s the cross of Christ, the Nazi Swastika, the Nike Swoosh, the Confederate Battle Flag, or the LGBT Rainbow, symbols express and capture ideas, movements, events, religions, economic and political forces.   Raised symbols become rallying centers for people advocating for a cause, public expressions of shared passion and belief, points of gathering energy for assaults on opponents, and means by which consumers can be enticed into buying products. (Every logo seeks to use this power.) Symbolism taps into something deep in the human, finding its way into our lives via images, memorabilia, tattoos, poetry, and all forms of art.

I’m adding my voice to those who say it is time for the Confederate Flag to come down, to make its life in museums alone.

A symbol gathers up multiple meanings, delivers those meanings sometimes in clear trumpet tones, sometimes in ambiguous layers rife with misunderstanding.   They are not static things; like language, symbols live, shift, are always on the move, depending on the people responding to them for new shades of understanding.

Symbols have force.   Symbols have a kind of agency, in the sense that when we seek an outlet for some great passion, usually because of some personal experience that demands that we take action, shared symbols can galvanize us, give us courage, reassure us that we are not alone in our convictions, and thereby vault us past our misgivings and fear, empowering us to do what our conviction demands.

Look at your walls.   What symbols have you placed there to remind you of who you are? Look at your tattoos. They are not there for sheer aesthetics, but are most often reminders—symbols—for some aspect of your identity that you have declared with pain and color and form that you will not abandon or forget.

I’m adding my voice to those who say it is time for the Confederate Flag to come down, to make its life in museums alone.   And as I say this, I must conceded that for some good ol’ southern folk, the Confederate Battle Flag means little more than southern heritage and pride, political conservatism, hospitality, a strong sense of individualism, and the rights of states.

But it is without dispute that the Battle Flag, which first appeared in the Army of Northern Virginia under the command of Robert E. Lee, began as a rallying banner for men taking up arms to ensure that the practice of slavery continued.   It has been used as a symbol for segregation, for the denial of equal rights for black Americans, and for white supremacy. As such, it continues to be an oppressive presence for many Americans.   And yes, maybe taking the flag down is a small, small step, because after all, it’s just a symbol, and there remains much work to be done to undo the ideas behind the Battle Flag.   And lest you think it’s just a symbol, consider that South Carolina wrote laws to keep that symbol in its place, laws requiring a supermajority in both their legislative houses to overturn.

If my symbol of pride and heritage strikes a terrorist chord in the eyes of the very people I’m trying to be hospitable to, I need to put it away.

Symbols have force.

And with that, I’m wondering what symbols I ascribe to.  The cross of Christ?   The American Flag?   A corporate logo?   What force are they exerting in my life, my choices, my attitudes, and my treatment of other people?

2 Comments

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  1. How close is a symbol to an idol? Or, when does it become an idol?

    • That is a great question, Neita. I’ll have to think about that. Because I’m not sure there’s ever a time when we not involved in symbol-making. That’s who we are, it’s how we function, just a part of cognitive life. I guess our symbols could be said to be idols when we won’t let go of them, even if it is plainly destructive, or if its use perpetuates oppression, as in the use of the Confederate Battle Flag.

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