I don’t have occasion to talk about the Civil War on my own campus very often, so I was delighted a couple weeks ago to be invited to serve on a faculty panel to discuss the Confederate battle flag. I was one of four professors and nearly 200 students who participated in the program—the first in a series of campus discussions called “Race Matters.” My function was to provide some historical context about the flag.
I’ve been trying to get my head wrapped around the flag ever since the latest round of controversy erupted over the summer. I understand why Confederate heritage groups embrace it as a symbol of their ancestors’ battlefield valor, just as I understand why Blacks, in particular, see it as a forever-marred symbol of racism. Both sides feel so entitled to their perspectives that they exclude the validity of all other possible interpretations. Heritage groups feel defensive and besieged; Blacks feel dehumanized and dismissed. Both sides get offended by the other.
It’s up to the person who is offended to decide what is offensive, one of my colleagues pointed out during the Race Matters discussion. It doesn’t matter what the intentions are of the person speaking, he explained. In other words, someone can be offensive without even meaning to.
The implication behind that statement, though, was that the person who was “offensive” is in the wrong, whether he/she meant to be or not. “Free speech gives us the right to be as offensive as we want to be,” my colleague said, urging sensitivity as an alternative. I have serious reservations about the underlying premise to all this, but that’s the direction the current seems to run these days. (Unintended acts of offense are called “micro-aggressions.” You can read more about the concept in this article in The Atlantic, which also ran an excellent counterpoint.)
So it goes with people who are offended by the Confederate flag: They get to decide that the flag is offensive, whether Confederate heritage groups intend it so or not and no matter how vehemently Confederate heritage groups argue that it’s their flag so they get to decide what it means.
But what does the flag mean?
That is, of course, the whole rub. And in my adventures over the past few months, I’ve had a harder and harder time coming to any clear understanding of that. After all, what does this say:
The cognitive dissonance there made my head go “Ka-boooom!”
Also, it’s hard to buy into arguments supporting Confederate honor when the flag is displayed as respectfully as it was in Key West:
That’s hardly the most outlandish misappropriation of the Confederate flag, either. For other examples, blogger Brooks Simpson has had a veritable field day looking at the multitude of ways neo-Confederates have shown their colors over the last few months. The supposedly sacred has been elevated beyond the ridiculous to the sublime, which makes it hard to take seriously any sincere calls to respect Confederate heritage. Heritage groups are fighting a rear-guard action even as they’re undercut by their own biggest fans.
Just as confusing in its own way are the many Confederate flags I see flying in western New York and northwest Pennsylvania, the area where I work—which is well north of the Mason Dixon line, I should point out.I see them all over the place. A recent letter to the editor of Civil War Times—written from Grand Island, NY, not far from me—bemoaned the same thing. “When I see Confederate flags flying in upstate New York by those with no connection to the South,” he observed, “I feel it is a subtle message of white supremacy.”
Are these Yankees celebrating Southern heritage—either their own from long ago, relocated north, or even just in general? Are they exhibiting a “rebel” attitude in defiance of big federal government? Do the flags fly for other reasons entirely?
You’ll notice that I’m long on questions here, but short on answers. I tend to believe that the discussion IS the answer. As hesitant as we seem to be, as a society, to discuss race, the act of discussion itself becomes a significant step forward.
Let’s assume, just for a moment, no mater which side you might be on, that the other side isn’t entirely wrong. Let’s assume, too, for a moment, that the other side is not just being over-sensitive and needs to “get over it.”
How would that give us a better platform for discussion?
How would that help us better understand each other?
How would that help us show respect to each other?
How does that help us live here, now?