Appreciating the Symbolic

The recent attack on Emanuel AME Church, wherein 9 parishioners were killed, has prompted discussion on many aspects of American society.  America has been compelled to confront its history of white supremacy and the oppressive violence that it necessitates.  Conversations and debates about the Confederate flag (N.B. any subsequent reference to the Confederate Flag includes the Battle Flag, Navy Jack, any of the three official flags of the Confederacy, and any such variations) naturally emerge from such discussions, as many directly associate that flag with the social, economic, and political institutions created and maintained by racist ideology.  This association aligns with the social and anthropological definition of a symbol, which any flag certainly is.  Just as the Confederate flag is a tangible, material symbol, the very act of flying (or removing) the flag is also symbolic.  Participants in the flag debate can generally be classified in three ways: proponents, opponents, and those who are apathetic.  The views of the proponents and opponents have been thoroughly and passionately presented in the public discourse, but the views of those apathetic to the discourse have not been as comprehensively advanced, due either to the size of their contingency or due to their namesake.  While the reasons for apathy may be many, one will be discussed here, particularly that which dismisses the removal of the flag as a useless gesture of symbolism.  Their argument is that removal of the flag in no way diminishes the actual attitudes and behaviors of those who cleave to the racist ideology of white supremacy.  In other words, it doesn’t matter if you remove the flag because racism will persist unabated in the flag’s absence.  They further proffer that removing the flag is conciliatory at best, disingenuous and deceptive at worst.  I will attempt to address these arguments by introducing the concept of symbolism, as well as by discussing the tangible impacts of symbolism in society.

No meaningful exposition on symbolic gestures is possible without first establishing the definition of “symbol”.  The simplest and most nondescript explanation of a symbol is that it is any object (material or otherwise) that represents something else.  More specifically, a symbol usually represents a complex range of abstract ideas, and it may vary in meaning to different individuals and groups.  How a symbol is interpreted depends on the accumulated knowledge, behaviors, and rituals associated with the symbol. As such, a symbol is dynamic and evolves with the culture of those interpreting it.  In fact, symbols are one of the 5 key components said to comprise culture, the others being language, values, beliefs, and norms.  The field of symbolic anthropology even regards culture as the complex encoding of symbolic creation, interpretation, and behavior.  Preeminent symbolic anthropologist Victor Turner posited that symbols are the mechanisms of social maintenance.  Turner further argued that social cohesion requires continual reinforcement and that symbols play a vital role in such.  In short, the culture of a society creates symbols and establishes their meaning and significance.  Symbols in turn inspire actions, behaviors, institutions, and social dynamics, leading to a reinforcement or reinterpretation of the symbols themselves.

The importance of symbols isn’t merely an academic abstraction.  Historically, when one nation conquered another, it was commonplace to destroy all of the monuments of the vanquished and replace them with tributes to the victor.  This was a symbolic gesture whose purpose was to demoralize the conquered and exact loyalty and obedience through the imposition of power.  The result was often a psychological and behavioral paralysis that deterred dissent.  Another example of tangible symbolism is evident in the doll experiments conducted by psychologists Kenneth Clark and Mamie Clark in the 1940’s.  The experiments involved children being shown a white doll and a black doll and then being asked a series of questions about their perceptions of each.  Overwhelmingly, Black children described the White doll as pretty and virtuous, while describing the black doll as ugly and lacking positive character attributes.  Dolls are unambiguous symbols of beauty and desirability, and the doll experiments exposed the quantifiable psychological effects of such symbolism on African Americans. The results of these experiments were so convincing that they were included as testimony in the Brown versus Education case.

Citing examples of symbolism and its impacts can be done indefinitely, but at best it represents an indirect way of addressing the apathetic argument discounting the removal of the flag.  It addresses the argument by analogy.  Let’s address the argument more directly by examining what would happen if the flag were removed from public sites.  Consider that generations of White children in the south have been taught, at home and in their communities, that the flag represents heritage, virtuous qualities, and noble sensibilities.  When they venture out into the world and see the Confederate Flag flying on state grounds, at schools, parks, and memorials, all that they have learned at home is validated.  With such broad validation they have no reason to question any of what they have been taught.  If their family, community, and state all confirm the same teachings, what other confirmation is needed?  Removing the flag wouldn’t change what children in this generation were taught at home, but it would eliminate the state validation of such teachings.  So, for the first time, children might be compelled to question why the state decisively acted in opposition to their home teachings.  Such interrogation might lead them to the truth.

There is another way to interpret the symbolic gesture of removing the flag.  Consider that the decision to fly the Confederate Flag in the first place was made by those who support it, without consideration of or consent from opponents.  In other words, Whites decided to fly the flag, and Black people had no say in the matter.  That was the social dynamic that existed.  Removal of the flag demonstrates that there is a portion of whites who now think differently about the matter and that Black disapproval of the flag must be earnestly considered.  In the past, a Black woman climbing a flagpole on southern state grounds and removing the Confederate Flag would have been met with violent (probably fatal) results.  This represents a changing social dynamic, and while removing the flag in no way removes racist ideology, it is a start.  The same could be said of emancipation, the 15th Amendment, or any other act instituted to advance the standing of African Americans in American society.  There is no moral mandate to choose between removing the flag and dismantling racism.  There is social, economic, political, intellectual, and moral capacity to accomplish both.


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