Symbols are dangerous things. They signify much without saying anything. They are imprecise instruments of communication, oozing meaning. We see a symbol and we react. We literally embody the meaning by how our nervous system responds to it.
Does the bald eagle signify American freedom or Native American ancestor worship? Both. How about the Star of David? Judaism or a Hindu chakra? Both. The Ichthys (the “Jesus fish” icon)? Jesus or the Earth Mother? Both. The meaning depends on both the larger context and the person looking at the symbol.
All “tribes” have symbols. Take political parties–donkeys and elephants–or a football team–panthers or patriots. One of the ways humans affiliate with a common identity is to adopt a set of symbols. Think about how sororities and fraternities make meaning among a group of co-eds. They share a set of symbols and stories.
All humans are meaning makers. We tell ourselves stories about who we are and what we believe in and we illustrate these stories with symbols. Once a symbol is linked to who a person believes themselves to be, the symbol becomes dangerous. You know identity symbols: The Confederate Battle flag, Nazi swastika, a cross, the letters KKK, a Star of David. These symbols signify core beliefs.
At the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, marchers carried both Confederate and Nazi flags, protesting plans to remove a Confederate statue from the city’s Emancipation Park. The mixing of Confederate and Nazi symbols would have surprised most Southerners until somewhat recently. Yes, both the Confederacy and the Nazis waged wars to defend white supremacy, but those two symbols were mostly kept apart for decades after World War II. It was not until the 1970s that the Klan merged them.
Symbolic meaning changes over time and in context. Many white Americans, especially Southerners, still view Confederate symbols as standing for “heritage” rather than “hate.” They are proud of what they perceive as their ancestors’ history of rebellion and bravery. These largely Scots-Irish individuals believe they should honor the fact that their family members died for an idea, even a wrong-headed one. To some, the “rebel flag” signifies a certain “fuck you” attitude and has more to do with lifestyle than politics. The flag, dirty boots and corn whiskey all signify an unwillingness to be pushed around. They embody a stubbornness that, in part, defines portions of rural, white culture. Ironically, some Southerners who argue these symbols are “heritage” are attempting to own the symbols of their shame–the Confederate surrender–and to reclaim power by making them about defiant, hard scrabble living.
To others, Confederate symbols, especially the battle flag, symbolize white supremacy, violence and physical threat to people of color. The mixing of Confederate symbols with Nazi symbols undeniably signifies radical, white supremacy. David Duke and other racist Klan and Neo Nazi leaders during the 1970s intentionally fused Confederate and Nazi symbols with one clear aim: To signify their belief that America should be a white, patrimony. When I see a Confederate battle flag I immediately react. To me that flag means hate. Plain and simple. I do not believe it should fly on any government or public property because it is antithetical to our view that “all men are created equal.”
And yet I do not believe that protestors, counter-protesters or anyone else acting without color of law should forcibly remove the flag or other Confederate symbol from a public space.
I know I’m going to get blasted from my Left-y friends for this, but hear me out.
City councils, county commissions and state governments all across the South have been removing these symbols for years now. No, it isn’t always fast. Yes, it is almost always a heated debate. And that is certainly frustrating for those of us who believe Confederate symbols harm our society. However, in order for their removal to be legitimate, there must be democratic process.
We still live in a time where these symbols have divided meaning. If we want to maintain any semblance of a functioning community, we have to allow those with other views to be heard and honor the decisions that are made. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” and the arc has been bending toward removing those symbols now consistently for years.
When the white supremacists marched in Charlottesville they weren’t really marching because they care where that statue of Robert E. Lee stands. They were marching because they identify with ideas that are intertwined with who they understand Lee to have been in today’s terms.
Last night, in Durham, when protesters pulled down the Confederate monument at the old Durham County Courthouse, they didn’t do it because that statue is overly bothersome, they did it because they were saying “We are not what you [white supremacists] say we are.” They were saying to the legislature, “if you won’t do this, we will.”
This is a battle of identities that we have long been waging. There are two ways to fight battles over meaning. One, we use the democratic process. We openly debate these ideas. We say out loud and at the ballot box, as I do unequivocally, that these are racist symbols inconsistent with who we are as a country.
Or, we act via mob rule. Mobs of people do whatever the hell they want because they agree/disagree with the meaning being ascribed to a symbol. You know where that goes, right? I know you do because the entire country is mourning it now. That is how people get killed. That is how Heather Heyer got killed. She died in a lawless war over symbols where somebody decided the political process wasn’t working correctly and plowed into a group of counter protestors.
There is also the practical problem, which troubles me as someone who finds POTUS’s authoritarian tendencies scary. Violent protests or marches that damage property create the situation where POTUS might argue he has grounds to invoke martial law. Authoritarians love opposition violence because they hold it up to their supporters as an example of why they have to crack down and limit civil liberties. Violence empowers bad leaders. It does not remove them, at least not without long, bloody conflict. And one long-term outcome of taking matters into your own hands is that you reduce freedoms of association and speech for society writ large.
I understand why the protesters in Durham pulled the statue down. I do. But it was both strategically and tactically wrong-headed if their goal is to move the United States further down the path toward a vibrant democracy with equal justice and liberty for all. Violence must be met with nonviolence. Speech must be met with more speech. Mob rule almost always breaks the very institution it is trying to protect: Democracy.