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The dark side of the symbol

Sometimes, there are things that exist that can have different meanings to different people. There is nothing intrinsically rare or unusual about this. For many, a simple cup of coffee is a symbol of a day beginning, and psychologically (if not chemically), it is the closest some people come to religion. (Google images “coffee quotes”). Many are ambivalent about coffee, and for others, feelings about coffee are downright pessimistic (they exist!!). The occasional insomniac in me dreads coffee after 2pm.

Consider how vegans feel about a steak, how celiacs feel about a slice of chocolate cake, or how sports fans feel about competing teams. For that matter, consider how native English speakers and grammar nazi’s feel about tenses and concord versus how everyone else feels about tenses and concord.

What does appear to be rare and unusual – especially when alternative views are in conflict – is the acknowledgement that opposing views about things may both be valid. Opinions about coffee are not necessarily in conflict – what you choose to drink does affect what others choose to drink, and so disagreements about the merits of coffee remain civil. That is, until someone suggests it would save money to replace the filter coffee machine with Ricoffy.

It is when opposing views are such that all people can’t have their way (or where it appears that way) that disagreements become vocally violent – or just violent.

The symbol formally known as…

So, there exists a symbol that is a particular bone of contention.

Many people argue that this symbol represents oppression past and oppression present (presumably the former could be overlooked if not for the latter). It’s existence on display in the public sphere serves as a constant reminder that there are different versions of equality for different people. The more extreme members of this faction will argue for it’s absolute removal, destruction, and preferable banning from society as a whole. The less extreme will settle for it being relocated to a place out of the public eye.

Others will argue that it represents history and culture, and that it’s removal amounts to a whitewashing of history. The more extreme members of THIS faction will reject the implication that the symbol is in any way offensive, claiming instead that it represents historical greatness and past achievements worth lauding (and be willing to rattle of long of accomplishments to support their views). Others will concede that the symbol represents a chequered past, but feel that keeping the offensive symbol in the public eye serves as a helpful reminder of our past mistakes.

And then, of course, there is always a plethora of rebuttals and rebuttals to rebuttals (rerebuttals? I prefer re-butbut-als). Certainly, some of the minor arguments have very little merit. You can’t simultaneously reject the view that the presence of the symbol is offensive, but be offended by it’s removal. Nor can you simply reject out of hand that some are inspired by the symbol for reasons that have nothing to with (the oppressive component of) it’s past.

With that all said, I find it especially telling that there are always those who make special effort to display their own personal symbols all the more visibly when current events raise the issue of it’s offensiveness – like flipping someone off, and then doing it again millimetres from their face when they call you out on the gesture. Oh, this old thing? This thing I’m holding up here for no reason other than to demonstrate what a fantastic scholar of history I am? This…bothers you?

One symbol to oppress them all

I refer, of course, to the Confederate Battle Flag. It has been a bone of contention for quite some time, and again recently following the Charlston Church Shooting (follow this link for edification on the flag in the context of the shooting). I won’t pretend sufficient knowledge of American culture to attempt an explanation, but I suspect a willingness to fly the flag at half mast following said shooting would have done much for the argument that the flag is just a symbol and not a flip-off to the face.

In general, the flag is both a historical relic and a symbol of oppression. In general, both arguments are simultaneously valid. Amongst the rabid and sane opinions on the internet I have seen few people willing to concede that point. It is a concession, I feel, that could be made by both sides and would probably de-polarise the debate somewhat.

But where the arguments do cease to be equally valid is in the context of their usage. A confederate flag in a war museum is merely an historical relic. A confederate flag on the wall of a private house is (sometimes) a collectors item or a symbol of a rich personal heritage. A confederate flag flying at full mast alongside a national flag at half mast following a brutal racial massacre is a flip off to the face. A confederate flag flying at half mast – that would be an interesting thing indeed.

You could, of course, find-and-replace the words, ‘Confederate Battle Flag’ with ‘Old South African Flag’ or ‘Statue of Rhodes’ without changing the meaning of this post much at all. (Practically, it might be a little more complicated than find-and-replace but you take my meaning). Come to think of it, ‘South Africans wearing New Zealand supporters jerseys’ works, too. I deliberately pulled the bait and switch (twice, I suppose) because, in a South African context, one might attribute less emotive context to the Confederate Flag than to either the old SA flag or the statue of Rhodes, and thereby consider my arguments on merit.

I have a colleague who hates it when my papers migrate slightly across ‘the line’ to her side of the desk. Is it petty of her? Yes. Is it inconsiderate of me? Also yes. Two opposing but valid views. Sometimes I give her the finger and leave something annoying quite deliberately in the middle of her desk. Sometimes she gives me the finger and dumps all my stuff in the bin. In general, though, we respect each others views and find practical ways to avoid murdering each other.

Too long, didn’t read? By being willing to consider that opposing viewpoints also have merit, you may find it easier to accept a compromise.




{ 1 comment… add one }

  • Chris 1 July 2015, 10:50 am

    Interestingly, I’m lead to believe that pointing with the middle finger is pretty common and inoffensive in Asian cultures (at least traditionally). So, there’s a lesson in that.

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