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

 


38 comments:

  1. John,

    Thank you for a provocative post. There is much to like in what you’ve written, criticizing Schedler’s originalist view and offering your more comprehensive descriptivist view. Your view could be stated to include conditions that the description is a semantic one (rather than a mere description of an object that is red, white, and blue) and must satisfy a coherence requirement.

    When we’re trying to find an adequate account of a phenomenon, it helps to know what category of thing the phenomenon is. Here, a flag has been classified as protected speech, but it also is a cultural artifact, a piece of art or history. If it is speech, it makes sense to think about the speaker’s intent or the modern user’s evolved understanding. If it is art, I think this allows for many different, even conflicting interpretations.

    In both cases, it makes sense to have an account that includes subjective meaning (makes me think of non-originalist interpretations of the constitution, either evolutionism or moral interpretations). I just worry that adding subjective meaning may open a Pandora’s box and it may be difficult to achieve the sort of coherence that your view requires. You rely on “relevant and true historical facts” and the expertise of Civil War historians, but this suggests that you have in mind further conditions on qualifying subjective descriptions. If you allow in other subjective descriptions (many people in former confederate states and what the flag has meant for them), it is not clear that you would get coherence on the conclusion that the confederate flag is a racist symbol. The additional conditions may get you there, but then you don’t really mean “subjective” you mean something like true beliefs that have been confirmed by the relevant experts (which also may be problematic).

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    1. Chong, the historical facts and subjective meanings could conflict, but when they do, the historical facts will carry greater weight in the coherence process. They're necessary conditions to the meaning of a flag. However, there still can be subjective meaning as long as it doesn't conflict with the historical facts. E.g., the Confederate flag can still represent simple personal life experiences for a person, but it also represents bigotry. The theory of meaning I endorse has a subjectivist element, but it's not purely subjective. There is also a kind of "objective" component to the meaning of a flag.

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  2. I really enjoyed this John, great piece. I read this as aligning in some ways with an approach to "historical facts" with a pragmatist lens - so, in response also to Chong's comment, I would exchange subjective for pragmatist. In this view, the relevance of “historical facts” is itself, historical, in that relevance changes with the historical period (we are living in a time in which flags are changing, statues are coming down, teams are being re-named, etc). However, that also helps bring to light for me more of what is so problematic with a pragmatist view because of the conflict it creates for your final point. Nonetheless, I do not think that negates that there is indeed a strong potential influence of a pragmatically-derived conclusion on relevance that leads to a view on moral obligation. That moral obligation, in fact, could continue to be pragmatically confirmed for many, many years.
    If I may, I would like to quote José Medina, who captures this idea very well here:
    “The past is constantly being recreated in our everyday practices through a plurality of heterogeneous interpretative activities, formal and informal, conscious and unconscious. These diverse interpretative activities that recreate the past and maintain our memories alive include heavily regulated practices designed for this purpose: for example, writing and reading historical narratives (memoirs, biographies, history books, etc.), celebrating commemorations, and creating and consuming historical artworks (movies, paintings, novels, songs, etc.); but also more informal activities that have a historical or retrospective component: for example, habits and customs that reproduce how things had been done previously; ways of talking (naming, describing, praising, etc.) that echo in particular ways past subjects, events, and cultures; and ways of using and interpreting symbols from the past (e.g., the confederate flag, the cross, the pink triangle, etc.). There are many institutions (museums, historical societies, universities, governments, etc.), many artifacts (archives, libraries, public commemorative objects such as statues, plaques, etc.), and many disciplines (history, anthropology, museology, cultural criticism, etc.) that actively participate in the epistemic practices that shape our beliefs about the past; but even more importantly, there is always an irreducible plurality of experiential and agential perspectives involved in these practices. For the agents who participate in the interpretative practices that recreate the past have (or at least can have) differently organized and differently situated selves with different temperaments, and they go about differently in the assessment of their memories and in the reconstruction of their past” (quoted in: Stuhr, 100 Years of Pragmatism, 132).

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    1. Marnie, thank you for providing such thoughtful insight on a controversial topic. As Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has stated, the flag can be sen as "a painful reminder of racial oppression." Seeing as the flag was flown in support of the confederacy, one can only understand how it is seen as a racist symbol. In regards to your comment about the removal of confederate monuments, there have also been a variety of responses. States such as Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina have placed laws restricting the removal of confederate monuments. In South Carolina 1994, though there were laws in place to protect state symbols, the NAACP threatened to have a boycott and their response (as well as legal responses from businesses) resulted in the removal of the confederate flag atop the South Carolina's state Capitol dome. Therefore, it is really interesting to see how opposition to racism impacts the actions that states take.

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    2. Marnie, this is an interesting idea of how the relevance of historical facts can change with the times, but I don't necessarily want to whole-heartedly endorse it with my notion of subjective meaning as there are other kinds of meaning that can override it. To give a possible example of how interpretations of history can change over time: The U.S. culture once largely glorified the European conquest of the Americas and the Natives, but now there is more moral sympathy for Native American Indians. I take it that interpretations of historical events can change over time, but the actual occurrence of events, such as the taking over of Native American habitats does not. Likewise for the Confederate flag case, the ethics of slavery generally is viewed very differently now than it was during the infancy of our country. However, it's true that the Confederacy still stood on the side of slavery. Using a fact/moral value distinction, if I may, historical facts of a flag should be included as necessary aspects of the meaning of a flag that carry overriding weight during the coherence process when conflicting with subjective meaning. Facts in way are kind of "objective" elements of the meaning of a flag.
      Hence, I am still able to reach my conclusion on the semantics of the Confederate flag.


      Abbey, these are interesting pieces of information regarding the Confederate flag and Confederate monuments!

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  3. 1. What do you mean by a theory of meaning for flags only? I don't see how that could be a thing.

    2. It sounds like you are endorsing a subjectivist account of meaning in which all of the relevant facts are known. I am not sure I understand the motivation for this. Usually when we concern ourselves with incorporating a degree of subjectivity we are acknowledging differences that relate specifically to differences in our perspective on the world, and that inherently limits our access to the facts. It seems to me that if your theory implies that I am wrong about the meaning of the flag to me because I have false or limited views about the historical context of the flag, then there is nothing importantly subjective about your view. Maybe you can explain how your view allows for the viewpoint diversity that a subjective theory of meaning typically tries to preserve. Alternatively, why we need a subjectivist theory in spite of not aiming to preserve viewpoint diversity.

    3. What do you say to someone who is fully apprised of the facts but simply denies that the confederate flag is a symbol of racism for them, but a symbol of independence and the right to secede? Since your theory is subjectivist, it seems to me that you are in a position of saying that they are actually wrong about what the flag means to them. Philosophers are entitled to this sort of awkwardness, but it is pretty weird. I suppose a reasonable answer to this is that they aren't wrong about what it means to them subjectively speaking, but what it means intersubjectively speaking, which also involves an objective and a subjective component.

    4. What, in your view, is a theory of the meaning of the flag trying to accomplish? Are we just doing the good old-fashioned (and for me completely discredited) reflective equilibrium on the romantic assumption that there is a correct precise idea of it to be discovered in our souls? Or are we engaged in a serious explanatory enterprise, where we can be clear about what kind of explanatory work a particular explication is meant to sustain? In my view, until we are able to have this kind of conversation, then the only thing we are doing is trying to rationalize our intuitive commitment that the confederate flag is or is not about the history of racism. I have frankly never seen the theory of meaning of anything to be anything more than the rationalization of intuitions, and that includes Kripke. If meaning is anything worth explicating, it belongs to the empirical theory of communication. i.e., we are attempting to make scientifically viable the statement that meaning is the currency of effective communication and information transfer. I have never seen how any traditional philosophical views on the subject could contribute to this enterprise.

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    1. Hi Randy, 1) I put in the qualification that I'm providing a theory of meaning for flags only to block any objections that may try to project my semantic view onto other symbols like language and say that this doesn't work. There could be different theories of meaning for different kinds of symbols, so I don't want to provide some grand unified theory of meaning for all symbols. I only promote a modest theory.

      2)The historical facts of a flag I take to be objective rather than subjective, but we need a subjective component to meaning as it appears that things like personal life experiences can in part constitute the meaning of a flag. So, my view can be seen as a hybrid one that is internalist and externalist. It takes internal subjective descriptions as well as external objective historical facts. These are put through a coherence process where the objective historical facts carry greater weight and will override contradicting subjective descriptions. However, subjective descriptions, such as personal life moments in the presence of a flag, that don't conflict with the historical facts will remain as part of the meaning of the flag for an agent. This preserves a subjectivist component to meaning.

      3. I do have objectivist and subjectivist components to the meaning of flags, so the "intersubjectively speaking" route you mention is a possibility. I will think of this some more. However, for now, I do believe that since my theory is and should be equipped to handle the problem of ignorance and error, even though people are in ignorance or error regarding the possible racist component of the Confederate flag, it still has a racist meaning.

      4. This is an interesting metaphilosophical question. I also tend to be leery of relying on intuitions that somehow grasp implicit knowledge within us of objective truths. Quining or naturalizing meaning may be interesting. I haven't thought about this too much, but let me say this: at minimum I'm attempting to clarify and come up with a coherent semantic theory on flags relative to the Western tradition or language game of attributing meaning to flags. These are normative semantic values that we've constructed and that apply "for us" even though they may not be eternal truths. They are important for us and help shape the way we live and experience life. If the German politician ignorant of Nazi history put up the swastika with the intention of it being a cool national flag, it would still represent bigotry and hate given Western conventions and our shared way of life regarding the semantic norms we live by. The same should follow for the Confederate flag.

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    2. Thanks John, some brief thoughts on your good replies:

      1. At a minimum I think you need to think of the flag as belonging to a certain class of symbols, and in a larger piece would want to say what type that is. Also, it seems to me that the objections you consider relate the the linguistic sense of meaning, so that would have been an easy way to dispense with them if that were your intention.

      2. I am inclined to think that your view is intended to preserve a normative dimension to meaning. I think we might could achieve what your view achieves by sticking with a purely subjectivist account, but simply disapproving of subjective meanings that conflict with the fact. In other words, you are making the familiar Platonic mistake of insisting that what is real conform with our sense of what is good.

      3. Relatedly, it is easy to believe that what you are searching for here is specifically a theory of meaning that preserves the intuition that the flag is a symbol of racism. You are deep rationalizing a moral intuition that you trust. If you begin with the intuition that all symbols are conventional, and that something is a symbol for some entity just to the extent that it accepts it as one, and this acceptance is part of what permits communication for the people who accept it, then the path you are cutting isn't all that attractive. Nothing about favoring this latter intuition makes me disagree with you that it is immoral to use symbols that assist us in ignoring or denying facts.

      Thanks for a great post.

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    3. Having a subjectivist account that is managed in a minimal way by the historical facts as you describe still contains a minimal normative notion of correctness in the meaning of flags. It's just that subjective meaning that contradicts the historical facts should be removed, but the historical facts don't necessarily then become part of the meaning of the flag. This differs from my view in that for me, external historical facts become part of the meaning of a flag for someone. On your wording, I think this then contradicts the social practice of attributing meaning to flags - e.g., the Nazi flag symbolizes racism even if someone denied it and said it symbolizes German economic recovery and strength only. Hence, my view is better as it has the virtue of accounting for the problem of ignorance and error.

      My conclusion on the Confederate flag fell out of my theory on the meaning of flags. My theory on the meaning of flags was justified by satisfying desiderata of a theory of meaning for flags, such as it's ability to account for a significant degree of subjective meaning and by handling the problem of ignorance and error for descriptivist views. These in turn didn't rely on the Confederate flag being a racist flag. So, I see my approach as bottom-up rather than top-down, and there's no assumption that the Confederate flag is a racist one from the start.

      Conventions for assigning meaning to flags aren't merely about subjective acceptance but also involve higher order conventions that are constructed by the community, such as that subjective acceptance isn't the only thing for meaning. There are social "rules" to the language game of meaning to flags that aid in proper communication as communication is a social event. If Sheila mistakenly believes that the original intention of the creation of the Microsoft symbol is a racist one so it is a racist symbol for her, there will be a lack of communication when she tries to promote the symbol with her racist friends who know the accurate history of Microsoft. They eventually will know there is miscommunication and confusion in this conversation since the Microsoft flag isn't a racist flag. Corrections on the flag's meaning will be made. There are social conventions that constrain the subjective element of the meaning of flags and also bestow externalist meaning onto flags. The Microsoft flag is bestowed externally with a racially neutral if not socially liberal meaning. Publicity and proper communication also involve the semantic rules promulgated by a cultural practice.

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  4. Thank you very much John for this piece.
    I believe that a flag represents the history of the country-- what we stand for, what we are inspired by and so forth. I heard these following expression before "To know where we are heading, we need to remember where we are coming from." and I think it makes sense. We know that there are different interpretations of the Confederate flag. To some people, it means honor, sacrifice, pride, and to some other people, it means suffering , injustice, racism and so forth. When we look back in the history of this flag, we can see a lot of bad events that were associated to it and from which our wonderful country has not completely head yet.
    If a flag is raised as a symbol to remind us where we were and comparing it to where we are today to allow us to revaluate things to do better, that would be one thing. But if the flag is raised during riots in which expressions such as "We want our country back", "We want to make America Great again" are shouted out loud, that would also get different reactions. What I can say is that in whichever case we are using the Confederate flag, we should consider its negative impacts on our neighbors, friends and families, who are probably still having bad memories associated with it.

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  5. Stephane Tientcheu
    Thank you very much John for this piece.
    I believe that a flag represents the history of the country-- what we stand for, what we are inspired by and so forth. I heard these following expression before "To know where we are heading, we need to remember where we are coming from." and I think it makes sense. We know that there are different interpretations of the Confederate flag. To some people, it means honor, sacrifice, pride, and to some other people, it means suffering , injustice, racism and so forth. When we look back in the history of this flag, we can see a lot of bad events that were associated to it and from which our wonderful country has not completely head yet.
    If a flag is raised as a symbol to remind us where we were and comparing it to where we are today to allow us to revaluate things to do better, that would be one thing. But if the flag is raised during riots in which expressions such as "We want our country back", "We want to make America Great again" are shouted out loud, that would also get different reactions. What I can say is that in whichever case we are using the Confederate flag, we should consider its negative impacts on our neighbors, friends and families, who are probably still having bad memories associated with it.

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    1. Stephane, your last sentence is an interesting one as some make the argument that even if the Confederate flag doesn't stand for racism for Jane, Jane still morally shouldn't display it because she should be sensitive to the alternate racist meaning it has for other people. This itself of promoting an environment where people can have equal dignity and respect provides moral reasons for not publicly displaying the flag.

      You're right that the context of the flag matters. To provide an additional example, it's ok to display the Confederate flag in a museum or in a play that takes place during the civil War. However, displaying it in a context with chants like "We want our country back" does promote a racist meaning. Just like the individual words in a sentence combine to form the total overall meaning of the sentence, there is compositionality for flags. The flag along with the meaning of the context in which its displayed combine to form the total meaning of the situation the flag is in. When the Confederate flag is in the context of being promoted, such as being held proudly high or put as part of a state flag, this is morally wrong on my view given my above arguments.

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  6. This is a great read, with many interesting points. I think it is interesting to look into what meanings and values different people take from different a symbol, in this case a flag, because symbols are interpretive, and can hold different meaning to different people. Obviously anyone who claims the Confederate Flag is a racist or hateful symbol has a valid point as you concluded, and the flip side would lead to a slippery slope. Someone can fly a flag or promote a symbol all they want, and for whatever reason they want, and then when approached or questioned on the subject can lie in order to avoid confrontation. While your reasoning and conclusion are sound, I think many people would come to the same or a similar one even without the evidence provided. I think it is important to make sure we are aware of the meanings symbols have, and the effects they can have on people, and The example you give of a German researcher incorporating the swastika into a new flag is a great way of emphasizing this. It is important to be aware of the subjective nature of symbols, while also acknowledging that some naturally carry far more weight than others as they represent hate to the vast majority of people who are familiar with them.

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  7. Hi Professor, I think that you outline a brilliant model for how we should interpret the meaning of flags. While there is no doubt some subjective emotions involved in symbols, there is also relevant historical facts that must be included in the description of a flag. Just as you highlighted the racist history behind the Nazi symbol, there is an inherent racist history behind the Confederate flag. This flag was created in response to the Civl War, in response to the end of slavery. The people who stood behind this flag may have been fighting for other qualities of their states, but they also were fighting for slavery. This cannot be overlooked in our description of the Confederate flag, and we should be deeply ashamed that this flag made it into our White House.
    I think it is also important to take into account some of the subjective experiences people may have with the Confederate flag. While I believe the true historical facts relevant to the flag already deem it to be racist, the subjective experience some people may have with it make it even worse. Many people still alive today have relatives who have been lynched in the name of this flag. So, regardless of the other qualities some people may subscribe to this flag, it is a symbol of pure racism.

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  8. Hi Professor, I think that you outline a brilliant model for how we should interpret the meaning of flags. While there is no doubt some subjective emotions involved in symbols, there is also relevant historical facts that must be included in the description of a flag. Just as you highlighted the racist history behind the Nazi symbol, there is an inherent racist history behind the Confederate flag. This flag was created in response to the Civl War, in response to the end of slavery. The people who stood behind this flag may have been fighting for other qualities of their states, but they also were fighting for slavery. This cannot be overlooked in our description of the Confederate flag, and we should be deeply ashamed that this flag made it into our White House.
    I think it is also important to take into account some of the subjective experiences people may have with the Confederate flag. While I believe the true historical facts relevant to the flag already deem it to be racist, the subjective experience some people may have with it make it even worse. Many people still alive today have relatives who have been lynched in the name of this flag. So, regardless of the other qualities some people may subscribe to this flag, it is a symbol of pure racism.

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  9. Hi Professor,

    I think that you outline a brilliant model for how to interpret the meaning of flags. While there is no doubt some subjective experiences involved with the meaning of flags, it is important that we examine the relevant historical facts that are tied to the flag. Just as you highlighted how the Nazi symbol is deeply related to genocide, so too is the Confederate flag deeply routed in racism. This flag was created in response to the Civil War, in response to the end of slavery. People who stood behind this flag may have fought for other values as well, but they undeniably fought for slavery. These facts make the Confederate flag an inherently racist symbol, and we should be ashamed that it made it into our White House.

    I think that it is also important to look at the subjective experience that some people may have with the Confederate flag. While some people may associate the flag with values that they ascribe too, for others it may represents the lynching of their relatives. The atrocities that have been committed under the Confederate flag no doubt condemn it to being a racist symbol.

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    1. Great, Max. I'm glad you posted. Just as a minor point, the Confederate flag was marched proudly and held high in a sign of victory through the Capitol Building or "the People's House" rather than the White House.

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  10. Professor Park,

    I really appreciate your rationale as it pertains to the interpretation of flags. I believe that in every aspect of our lives, there is some sort of subjectiveness that exists and while it is important to acknowledge that, we must also acknowledge the facts and truths. As I was reading your entry, I began to dig deep into the facts and subjective experiences regarding our own American flag. In this day and age, there are many negative connotations associated with our flag; connotations that really point out the flaws in our "American Dream" type of society. Although the US flag wasn't 'born' in celebration of negativity or racism, I personally believe (and feel free to disagree) that the American flag now holds significance in that it does not represent what it used to. So for me, when I see someone who is super prideful in the American flag, it really rubs me the wrong way. I totally get that people are entitled to their own beliefs, but what message does it send when someone is super prideful in a flag that represents a nation that thrives on oppression and inequality? In this case specifically, although there is a positive historical meaning surrounding our flag, I would have to disagree that the historical aspect overrules the subjections that people have. Especially because there is no denying that there are some serious problems occurring within our nation.

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    1. Hi Alyssa, this is interesting that you're bringing analysis to the American flag. Actually, based on my view, historical events such as genocide against the Native Americans, also are a part of the meaning of the American flag. Of course, there also are lots of good things that objectively are part of the meaning of the American flag too, but your insight is something that my theory can accommodate.

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    2. The flying and celebration of the American flag is now more often indicated as a symbol of oppression and inequality to me as well. I understand that others might disagree but I will give my reasoning. Quite frequently I see the American flag waved alongside the Confederate and Trump flags. As a person who strongly supports the rights and lives of immigrants, people of color, the LGBTQ+, and women's reproductive freedom I have watched Trump and those who support the Confederate Flag undermine the institutions with rhetoric, laws, and policies. I see more and more people who describe themselves as "patriots" while waving the Trump, American, and Confederate Flag all at the same time. In my eyes the American flag is becoming synonymous and representative of Trump’s racist America. I understand Professor Park that this new indication of a negative connotation with the American flag comes from a place of privilege. Other populations such has Native Americans and African Americans may have been always had this connotation based on the large injustices this country has inflicted.

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    4. Hi Gabrielle, thanks for you post! I just wanted to point out on my view that in part relies on objective historical facts, the American Flag also stands for many good things along with possible bad things, such as fighting against the South in the Civil War, standing for democracy and a high degree of individual freedom, beating the Nazis, etc.

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    5. Thanks Professor Park. That is very true and I am grateful for that. In light of recent events I have also seen it weaponized. I guess this is a lesson on how quickly symbols such as flags can take on inherit meanings based on the experience of the viewer.

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  11. Jazmin Hernandez/ PHILL 122February 16, 2021 at 9:06 PM

    This was a great piece. I fully agree that all of the history of the Confederate Flag should be known and tied to its racist meaning. It is ignorant of people to display this flag and say it is not racist. Its roots are racist and to many people, it brings painful memories. The example of the Nazi flag in Germany makes this truthful. In Germany, the Nazi flag stands for hate and the atrocities that took place during the Nazi regime. They will not fly that flag because of the known history. It does not matter how individual people view the flag, all that matters is the history it is tied with. Other countries also do not fly the Nazi flag because of its history. It does not matter that it happened in Germany but the actions it represented. We must all realize that the Confederate Flag is no different and those who choose to fly this flag are racist and ignorant. We are all different individuals and see things differently, but this is one thing we must all collectively agree on. It is unfair to display this flag proudly while hurting others in our communities. If it hurts some people then it should not be displayed at all. Many claim that they fly the flag for patriotism but storming the Capitol is not patriotism. It is shameful and wrong to do that. This is another great example that even though some people see nothing wrong with this flag, it does not represent American values.

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    1. Great Jazmin, thanks for your post.

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    2. Hello, Jazmin,
      I also enjoyed reading this piece. I do agree that people should be weary of parading a symbol that can be seen as racist or bigoted. I would like to push back on the idea that all that matters is the history tied to a flag. I understand that this is an easy claim to make when comparing it to the Nazi flag that clearly has roots in racism. However, with this logic, would not every flag represent some form of racism or carry some negative history that would offend some, but not others. Where do we draw the line when it comes to restricting what people can and cannot wear or show. If we all collectively said that the Confederate flag is not racist, would that mean that it is not racist anymore? What I am trying to say is people's perception of any symbol or flag carry some weight in the discussion of the symbol in question. It just depends on how you look at the flag. On one hand, the flag is a historical artifact, like the Declaration of Independence. On the other hand, the flag is a piece of art, which almost completely depends on how people interpret it to give it meaning.
      Also, what is your reason for stating that because people proudly carry the Confederate flag, they are considered to be racist?

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    3. Hi Daniel, thanks for you post. I know you're replying to Jazmin here, but let me just tie in my view that given history, yes, there will be many flags that carry a racist meaning, and that is fine on my view. A lot of these flags though may also carry an overridingly good meaning too. While my theory contains a subjective component, any subjective meaning that contradicts objective historical facts of the flag will get cancelled out. I do want to avoid your complete subjectivist stance on the meaning of a flag, especially of a political flag that necessarily is grounded in a country and is not just a work of art but something much more. The Nazi flag still represents hate even though the German politician is ignorant of Nazi history. This example and others show that the meaning to flags is not purely subjective, but there's also an objective component to them.

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  12. I find myself taking a moderate stance on this issue, a position I rarely find myself in. I believe that some symbols (a flag being a symbol) have a single objective meaning to them. Some symbols are more complex and may be left up to interpretation. I believe taking one position or the other is an over simplification of this complex issue. No reasonable person would claim that the meaning of the Nazi flag may be left open to interpretation. It represents evil in its purest form. Similarly, the Microsoft logo does not represent something evil, but something entirely neutral. In contrast, I believe that the American flag represents goodness (liberty, justice, equality of opportunity, etc.). I find these to be objective facts.

    That being said, I believe the Confederate Flag to be a more complex symbol; one that may be left open to honest interpretation. One may be right to believe that it represents the evils of slavery. One may be right to believe that it represents southern heritage and regional pride. Perhaps this is because symbols can take on different meanings throughout time. I believe it is wrong to consider an individual racist or ignorant for displaying a confederate flag. I believe that multiple interpretations of its meaning may be valid. While the American flag was always a symbol of liberty and hope; the Nazi flag one of pure evil; and the Microsoft logo one of neutrality, I believe that the history of the Confederate Flag is far more complex.

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    1. Travis, well the Confederacy was motivated in significant part by slavery and racism as a historical fact, so the flag has its origins in very nefarious things. When you say that symbols can take on different meanings throughout time, you seem not to allow this for the Nazi flag. We need to be consistent in how we apply meaning to flags. It seems like you'll agree with the conclusion in the Nazi politician case that the Nazi flag still stands for bigotry despite the politicians ignorance in the knowledge of Nazi history. It also seems like you'd agree that the Microsoft flag is a neutral symbol despite error in the minds of certain politicians. Since you allow for historical facts to override ignorance and error in people's minds for flags, it follows that we should do the same thing for the Confederate flag. It still has a racist meaning despite ignorance or error in the minds of certain people.

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  13. Good evening Professor Park,
    This post was very thought provoking for me. I wanted to read your post and either agree or disagree with you, but I can't because I don't think it's an issue thats black and white. As someone who personally believes that the confederate flag stands for southern pride, history, and honor, it would also be ignorant for me to believe that the flag only stood for that. At the end of the day, we might not always realize when this flag is being used under a racist context. It dives into how certain symbols are interpreted by many people.
    I like how you mentioned how the American flag has come under recent scrutiny. How someone's daughter may pride the flag because of her deceased veteran father or someone may despise it due to the racial injustices going on within our society. Based on people's life experiences, decisions, and even the region they reside in has a lot to do with the definition they use for the symbol.

    While I believe it's any person's right to freedom of speech and to use a symbol if they would like, I also acknowledge that the meaning of symbols can change due to past history and usage. Using the confederate flag screaming "We want our country back" is extremely racist and sadly, this is common among some people. You could argue that symbols are deemed racist or bigoted when majority of the population believe they are. For instance, majority of the United States recognize that the swastika is a symbol with a negative meaning behind it and shouldn't be portrayed. Many prisoners use it as a "white power" symbol of hate now.
    I think this whole debate also comes down to human nature. Humans sometimes like to push back and go against the grain. Once the flag became recognized as a racist symbol, the south fought back even harder by waiving the flag even more than they did before. Once it's said that people want to take something away, other people will naturally want to fight for it.

    I also believe that I could take anything in my life and use it as a negative symbol if I make it a negative symbol. I could use my water bottle on my desk as a form of hate and once a group starts to form around it, it will be viewed as a negative symbol. It all comes down to how the majority of people view that symbol. I have often thought about symbolism and the population's views on it. Most of us were born into the idea that the nazi symbol symbolized hate. We were told from a young age that that's what it symbolized. The confederate flag has more recently been argued so more people still side with the confederate flag. I think as time progresses, we will see the confederate flag fly less and less due to the fact that the more time passes, the more this idea of it being considered a racist symbol will imbed itself into the minds.

    At the end of the day, we can't take away someone's right to waive a flag or freedom of speech. Just like how we can't stop someone from destroying a confederate flag, we can't take away from the people who want to fly it in pride of their history. Do I think the south should come up with a better symbol for southern pride? Probably. But I understand why southerners with pride, still waive it. Amazing post and very thought provoking. Thank you.
    -Shelby Ricci

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    1. Hi Shelby, this was a very thoughtful piece, and I enjoyed reading it. First whether you have the freedom to fly the Confederate flag is not at issue in my post. People are free to fly the Nazi flag on my view. Although it's unethical for a citizen to promote this flag, the government shouldn't interfere in private citizen's lives on this matter.

      You have an interesting view that the meaning of flags is what the majority of people think it is. This is similar to a view held by Alter. There are objections to him in the literature, however. One of them is this: Certain Native American Indians view the American flag as a racist symbol. However, it can’t have this meaning on Alter’s view since the Natives are in the minority and the association of the American flag to racism is not widespread. However, given the racist treatment of the U.S. government against the Native American Indians, the American flag does at least in part have racist meaning to it.

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  14. Kassandra Mendoza/ Phil 122February 17, 2021 at 10:38 PM

    Hello Professor Park!
    I just wanted to start off by saying you did an amazing job in explaining every piece of information you wrote about. I feel as if you really broke down each and every section and provided as much detail whether it was historically or presently.It was organized very well and everything i read i understood due to the massive amount of information and support you had to back up what you said. Overall it was great work!
    I personally agree with your statement because at the end of the day if you want to use something that already exist chances are it already has a background or may i say record of what it means. When it comes to the confederate flag i think that is a very controversial subject because it can mean many different things to people. Like with the incident at the Capital building. That happening was already a mess as is and by having that flag there was not making it any better. Like you said that flag means different things to different people which i tend to believe true but at the end of the day what majority says it stands for is usually what is heard more about and is stamped into that object. Like when i went to Virginia i went to this very small and rural town far from the city. The whole neighborhood had the flag waving from their front porch. We had to pass this town to get to a different destination and i was in utter shock because to me my whole life this flag has been a symbol of racism but to them it was probably "southern pride" as you sated. It left me thinking how it all really just depends what environment the object was glorified as. Even with our American flag now it's supposed to mean life, liberty, and happiness. But with whats been happening in society recently it has completely turned the tables. At the end of the day it really just depends how you see it and how you feel about it. I personally think it is a symbol of hate with all the history that specific flag has its too much to forget and just get pass by.But i also think what my peer Shelby Ricci has a point when stating that we can literally make anything into a negative symbol if we think about it. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't cancel or let people think whatever they want about it.
    At the end of the day that is just my intake on that topic .

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    1. Angelica Burton/Phil122February 18, 2021 at 10:03 AM

      Hi Kassandra,
      Your comment was insightful and I enjoyed reading it! I agree that Professor Park wrote a fascinating post that offered detail and interesting arguments.
      I agree that the Confederate Flag has a polarizing meaning, whether it symbolizes hate for many, it can symbolize "southern pride" for some as well. Personally, I only see it as a symbol of hate and that is because of the negative historical background which holds significantly much more weight, i.e slavery, compared to folks who see it as southern pride. I think those who proudly fly the Confederate Flag in honor of their southern pride have to also understand that it is mostly seen as a hate symbol. In other words, there are many other ways to celebrate and honor one's southern pride without having to fly the Confederate Flag, while intentionally or unintentionally spreading hate. I like how you mentioned how different the neighborhoods in Virginia looked because it is not uncommon is many places in our country due to the subjective meaning of the flag, as Professor Park mentioned. Some people may honor the Confederate Flag purely because of their southern pride, however, it is known and recognized as a hate symbol. Though maybe some don't intend to be offensive or promote hate with the flag, most still view it this way which itself is significant.

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    2. Kassandra and Angelica, thanks for your posts! Just to clarify, my view while having a subjective element also has an objective element grounded in historical facts. Whenever the subjective element contradicts the objective element, the objective element wins out. Subjective aspects of meaning that don't conflict with the objective historical facts remain as part of the meaning for that person. Also, as my theory takes into account objective historical facts in the meaning of a flag, it's not a view that relies on what the majority thinks is the meaning of the flag, and it's not a completely subjectivist theory.

      In agreeing with Angelica, I think Kassandra has a fascinating story on traveling through VA.

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  15. Hi John,

    I’m sorry to come late to this discussion. I haven’t read either essay, so I will just assume that Alter is correct in attributing a ‘Kripkean-like view’ of meaning to Schedler.

    But Kripke’s view is not a theory of meaning. It’s a theory of reference in which names don’t have any meaning, just a use: to designate some person or object. Likewise for other conventional symbols like the confederate flag, which just designates the Confederate States of America. The flag doesn’t mean anything. (Which explains why Alter’s counterexamples work.)

    Your counter-theory is similar to Gareth Evans’ rival theory of names: the reference of a name is the primary source of the information in the relevant speech community’s ‘dossier’ for that name. The dossier is not a set of descriptions, however, since the referent need not in fact satisfy the information. Indeed the information may be erroneous; what matters is that the object is its source. You are entirely correct in thinking that this is a more plausible account of names in natural languages.

    But what’s needed here is not a theory of reference. What’s needed is a theory of ‘force’: What is the force, not of the confederate flag itself, but of an act involving it? We don’t need a new, special theory for that. The prevailing theory of force is still the ‘speech act’ theory founded by Austin, Grice, and Searle midcentury. Speech acts have a semantic content, their ‘meaning’ as ordinarily understood. But the illocutionary force of a speech act may not be entirely derivable from that content. An utterance of “The screen door is open” can function as a request to close it.

    So, fortunately, we don’t need to appeal to any ‘subjective meaning,’ a notion rendered suspect by Wittgensteinian private language considerations anyway. You can simply appeal to the illocutionary force of waving the confederate flag or sticking it on your state flag.

    Doesn’t this better fit the (entirely correct) point you are trying to make?

    Tom Pyne

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  16. Hi John,

    Me again.

    What is the illocutionary force of putting the confederate flag on your state flag?

    Illocutionary force may be quite complex, as many of the commenters on your post have pointed out.

    For what it’s worth, here’s my two cents.

    The ‘confederate flag’ in question is not, in fact the confederate flag. The real flag had three horizontal stripes (red/white/red) quartered by a blue square with a circle of thirteen stars. For a member state of the United States to incorporate the actual flag of an enemy state would express something either incoherent or treasonous. (Only Georgia manages this unwelcome feat.)

    What is usually called the ‘confederate flag’ (red with a blue X filled with thirteen stars) was actually the confederate battle standard. And this produces what I suspect is the complication in its illocutionary force.
    One on level it honored, in a way that notionally prescinds from politics, the military prowess displayed by southerners during the Civil War. And reasonably so: southern military superiority in leadership and tactical effectiveness was evident for as long as their material condition more or less matched the Union forces. Call this level A.

    On another level, however, it expressed the resolve to use that prowess to maintain a regime of white supremacy embodied in de jure segregation and Jim Crow. Call this level B.

    As you point out, the flag was incorporated into state flags during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, just that period when this social system hardened into its most oppressive form.
    Hence the appeal to subjective meaning is unnecessary. Black southerners understood the force of the flag – all too well – precisely because they understood it the same way white southerners did.

    The complication in illocutionary force allows proponents of retaining the flag, when pressed, to disavow B and retreat to A, in a dialectical two-step similar to the Motte and Bailey tactic.

    I think this ends up in the same place you do in your post, John, but by old and well-trodden paths.

    Tom

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