Monday, February 15, 2021

The Meaning of the Confederate Flag

To the indignation of many, the storming of the Capitol building has seen a Trump supporter bring the Confederate flag into the building, taking it deeper than it has ever gone in the Civil War.  This symbol has meaning, but a major contention is what the meaning is.  Advocates claim it means Southern pride with no negative racist connotations.  Opponents claim it represents slavery and racism.  Political scientists today have run studies finding the above two meanings as being predominant (Huffmon et al. 2017).  I criticize one theory of meaning to flags and endorse my own view of it.  

Schedler (1998) relies heavily on the original historical intentions involved when one adopts or raises the Confederate flag in a particular case.  The flag’s meaning is dependent on the original semantic intentions of those who put up the flag in a scenario at a dubbing ceremony.  He says that a symbol has meaning if and only if those originally responsible for displaying intended S to have M.  


For Schedler, when states like Georgia incorporated the Confederate flag into their state flag, the original intention was as a racist backlash to stand against the Civil Rights Movement.  Therefore, those representations do have a racist meaning, and they should have never been established as state symbols.  However, states like Mississippi incorporated the Confederate flag into their state flag in the 19th century before the Civil Rights Movement.  Schedler claims that these original semantic intentions were not racist but were about nonracist aspects of the Confederacy, such as of state rights, agrarianism, and an honor culture.  Hence, the relevant flags aren’t racist.

Alter (2000) criticizes Schedler’s Kripkean-like view with counterexamples:

1.   Racist politicians mistakenly believe that a neutral Microsoft symbol is a racist one.  With racist intentions, they vote to have it be incorporated in their flag, and they are happy when the relevant bill passes.  However, this doesn’t make the Microsoft symbol and their state flag racist despite their original intentions.

2.  A German politician not familiar with Nazi history chances upon the Nazi swastika symbol and likes the way it looks.  She decides to incorporate it in the country’s new flag and intends to use it in a non-racist way.  However, it’s still a racist symbol in Germany and shouldn’t be used.


I believe these counterexamples are correct, but let me add my own objection that theories of meaning for flags need to account for a degree of subjective personal meaning.  For instance, the U.S. flag means lots of things, but for a particular citizen, it also can mean her father serving in the military and playing with her cousins on the Fourth of July national holiday, etc.  For another, it can mean being subjected to discriminatory laws or having your father be killed by state actors like the police.  This is an interesting phenomenon for flags in that they are symbols that also can carry very deep subjective meaning for people.  Schedler is incapable of fully taking into account subjective meaning.


Novel in the literature on the semantics of flags, I endorse a descriptivist-type view for flags only, where the meaning of a flag is in part the descriptions one has in mind of the flag.  This accounts for the subjective meaning of flags.  For instance, possible descriptions of the Confederate Flag are things like slavery, racism, rebellion against the U.S., honor culture, agrarianism, and Southern pride.  


There is an objection to descriptivism in the linguistic case: Kripke’s ignorance and error objection (1972).  Kripke claimed that an individual may be in ignorance of any distinguishing descriptions for a concept like RICHARD FEYNMAN.  One may only know that he was a physicist, but this doesn’t distinguish him from the many other physicists.  Yet, the concept still refers to and means Feynman.  Also, one may have erroneous descriptions of Einstein such as that he invented the atomic bomb, but one’s EINSTEIN concept still refers to and means Einstein.  The problem of ignorance and error also can apply to flags.  For example, the German politician may be in ignorance that the Nazi flag has racist and bigoted meanings.  However, the Nazi flag still stands for bigotry.  One may have erroneous beliefs that the Microsoft symbol on a flag stands for racism, however, it really doesn’t.


My response to this problem is to rely on a constraint that brings in all the relevant historical facts of a flag into people’s sets of descriptions while adjusting for coherence in the sets of descriptions.  Such historical facts are necessary conditions of the meaning of a flag that apply to everyone in a particular culture. When including all the relevant historical descriptions that apply to a flag and then making the set of descriptions coherent, the ignorant set of descriptions of the Nazi flag from the German politician becomes flooded with true information regarding racist Nazi history.  Thus, it’s a racist flag that shouldn’t be used.  The false beliefs in the Microsoft flag case will be corrected when bringing in the constraint such that the accurate descriptions show that this flag really isn’t a racist one.  

Given my justification of my theory, let’s apply it to the Confederate flag.  We need to take into account all of the relevant and true historical facts of how slavery was a major impetus in the cause of the Civil War and the formation of the Confederacy which led to the flag’s creation.  There is consensus among professors of Civil War history that one of the main causes of the Civil War was slavery (Martinez 2017).  Such descriptions that need to be included lead to the conclusion that the Confederate flag is a racist symbol despite possible ignorance and error in the minds of some people regarding such descriptions.  They’re necessary components to the meaning of the flag that apply to everyone in the U.S. Therefore, it’s a racist symbol given its historical descriptions, and it morally shouldn’t be promoted.  

John Park

Philosophy Department

Sacramento State