It's been some time now since the shooting in South Carolina that led to heated discussion about the Confederate flag and its place in the public realm. Whatever your perspective, the question disappeared overnight from our radar with the supreme court decision on same-sex marriage. I thought it might be time to reflect on the Confederate flag and the role that symbols play in collective memory and the construction of identity.
The image of the Confederate flag,
as we have seen, has proven to be polarising. To many, it is a visual
representation of the evils of slavery; to others, it is a symbol of the
heritage of the American South. Accordingly, the Confederate flag
evokes rather polarising attitudes. With the focus recently on the
question of whether or not it should be banned, I think the point has
been largely missed. Most symbols are not ubiquitously good or bad - this is inherent because they are complex.
As shocking as this may come to people, symbols have different meanings
to different audiences. While I am offended by the values behind the
Confederate flag, I'm still undecided on what I feel about banning it.
Again - this stuff is complex. Moreover, why are we stopping here? Why aren't we outraged that Thomas Jefferson
is on American currency or
that the American flag has a history or violence, hate, and oppresion
along with it. Why do we valorise corporate symbols that are synonymous
with corruption or oppression? There are plenty of other examples of
symbols that have failed to inspire a collective action to irradicate
them. Before we go any further, let's consider that symbols can be
images (like a flag for example), but people, groups, and institutions
can also act as symbols.
There are three cases I'd like to briefly outline below that illustrate the complex nature of symbols.
difficult to discuss symbols without delving into Nazism. In the years
following the Second World War, there was a massive undertaking in both
East and West Germany to remove the references to Hilter. One of the
most interesting ways in which this occured was by changing the names of
streets and public squares. Virtually every population centre in
Germany and Austria had something named after Hitler.
In East Germany, many of these squares were renamed in the honour of
Stalin; in West Germany the emphasis was on the new class of liberals.
Absent from the renamings on both sides are the thousands of streets and squares throughtout the country that bear reference to Germany's brutal colonial past in Africa (something which Germany shares with most European nations).
More recently, the remains of King Richard III were found under a parking lot in Leicester in the fall of 2012. Despite the fact that Richard III is often regarded as a despot,
a majestic funeral was held in his honour. The fact that he was royalty
trumped his actions - meaning that the symbolism of the British crown
ultimately the significant factor.
Lastly, the Catholic Church's involvement in Indian Residential Schools makes
up a major part of the complex story of the Church in Canadian history.
The Church represents both life and death quite literally in the early
history of our nation. Despite the harm caused by the Church, an apology has yet to be offered. Symbols associated with catholocism are, therefore, likely to be viewed with some major differences.
As an historian, I am deeply concerned about pushing the undesirable elements from our past into a dark corner.
From my perspective, I'm really concerned with the idea that we are
policing people's values. Symbols are among the more powerful
manifestations of an idea. Banning a symbol gives it great power.
Instead, let's unpack symbols and discuss what they mean (all of their