confederate flag at south carolina capitol

In defense of symbols: Why taking the Confederate flag down matters

“Symbols are the key to telepathy. The mind wraps its secrets in symbols; when we discover the symbols that shape our enemy’s thought, we can penetrate the vault of his mind.”

— Lady Deirdre Skye, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri

Every political action must be met with an equal and opposite reaction, it seems. To read writer and critic Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Twitter feed is to see him barraged with people suggesting that the turning tide against the public display of the Confederate flag in the US is a mere distraction.

Certainly the demons of a liberalism that downplays and dismisses black activist wisdom and history is in evidence here, but this sort of tut-tutting is endemic to the entirety of the left, especially when it comes to anything in the world of symbols. Time and again, we are quick to remind people that symbols (be they literal objects or people imbued with some significance), are not solutions, and that we should not act as if they are. But the issue, as Coates reminds us, is that symbols do matter a great deal. The Confederate flag is no ordinary symbol; to many it is the n-word rendered as a standard. And if it were just cheap symbolism the battle to keep the stars and bars flying would not be as pitched as it is.

Many leftists don’t realize it, but “it’s just a symbol” is the visual-linguistic equivalent of “it’s just words.” Each is a version of the same fallacy: that anything short of a fist’s solidity is somehow less real or meaningful.

Symbols are what make the fists move, however. Symbols can be why people clench their hands into fists or open them to shake the hand of the Other.

The battle to take down the Confederate flag in its various manifestations — not least from the state flag of Mississippi but also its surrogates in the form of busts and statues honoring Confederate politicians and military leaders — is about recognizing their role in the ongoing terror inflicted on black Americans. These symbols are motives; they animate the unquiet ghosts of the Civil War’s casus belli to terrorize the descendants of those the white South kept in chains.

The myths we live by are stitched into flags and banners, swatched into paintings, color the pixels of TV programming, and order the 1s and 0s of digital art. These myths are not just ways we amuse ourselves or tickle our aesthetic enjoyment; they are part of how we make sense of the world. Symbols (and words are surely symbols) are the notes of a social symphony. It is why a swastika on a synagogue door rattles the historical memory of genocide and diaspora; it terrorizes across generations and centuries, summoning a horrific past into the present.

Symbols are carriers of meaning, and are often as not deliberately chosen so as to communicate certain ideas. We think, wrongly, of the bigot as a guileless fool, shallow and uneducated who expectorates hate for much the same reason lesser primates would fling poo. But the reality of the matter is that the suite of hateful symbols constitutes a well-chosen arsenal to hit the bigot’s target where it hurts most. From the aforementioned swastika, to the Confederate flag, to hanging a noose on a tree near a black fraternity, to the way 4chan trolls collect anguish and despair like digital trophies, the symbols are carefully chosen because their wielders know what feelings will be provoked by their invocation. It is why cis men will call trans women “tranny” and say we’re “men,” even as they talk about whether or not they’d like to fuck us; the words and ideas create shackles of control: “act this way, and we might let you live… or we might not.”

Symbols are about communication in an orderly world. Calling a woman a “bitch,” for instance, can do a world of work with only a few letters because we all know the suite of meanings connoted by the term. Any slur works the same way; an act of power, launched through a spear with those hateful words comprising the point. Symbols allow you to say things without spelling them out; or when you do spell out hate, to do so in a way that is efficient, that strikes fear into the heart of the target to keep them in their place. Such things are amplified by an order of magnitude with the Confederate flag, however; we live in a society where we understand, in the abstract, that people die for flags yet do not ask what it meant to die for that flag, and what it means to fly it high today.

The people who resurrected the Confederate flag in the 1950s and ’60s knew full well what they were doing. They were not clueless or feckless but cunning visual rhetoricians of prejudice. In 1961, when the Confederate flag was restored to the South Carolina Statehouse, it coincided both with the centennial of the Civil War and with the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement; the timing was not a coincidence, nor was the use of that symbol or even the idea that the centennial was a thing to celebrate at all, rather than a day of mourning and remembrance. Though, that’s not quite fair: the war was indeed remembered for its true meaning, a meaning ably documented by Coates in a recent article for The Atlantic.

It was that spirit the flag was meant to invoke without saying it in so many words; the wish (indeed, the lust) for enslavement, if not de jure then de facto, the endurance of a nation half free and half unfree. All that is worn by those Confederate stitches.

No symbol is ever “just” the material substance it is made of; a symbol is, at heart, ineffable. It carries with it a weight that the physical object or the letters that comprise the word can only begin to hint at. They are vessels of value and communication, they serve to guide and reinforce certain ideals and values.

And this sort of thing is only becoming more important. Symbolic communication is a congress of whispers, winks, and nods, which trades off of conventional wisdom that need not (or dare not) speak its name. Since the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement it has become uncouth to speak bigotry openly and plainly; the guile of symbols is, indeed, a timeless rhetoric but one that is especially well-suited to this era of subtle bigotry, to the epoch of dog whistles.

Whatever movement you claim as your home, we underestimate the power of symbols at our peril.

Header image credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Katherine Cross is sociologist and Ph.D student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City specialising in research on online harassment and gender in virtual worlds. She is also a sometime video game critic and freelance writer, in addition to being active in the reproductive justice movement. She loves opera and pizza.

Sociologist and Unofficial Nerd Correspondent.

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