The Confederate flag has many—nay, even mostly—negative connotations. Absolutely. You fly it in your front yard, you are opening yourself up to all kinds of judgment. I’ve seen people compare it to the swastika. Fair enough; that's someone's opinion. I think it may be a bit of an exaggeration, but that’s only my own opinion. Odds of either party altering their opinion? Slim.
People are pointing out that the Confederate flag is a symbol of hate, of treason, of oppression. Are they right? Of course. But is that all there is to this discussion? I would say no.
Let’s ask the eighteenth-century British how they felt about the U.S. flag as a symbol of treason. Should we ban it, too? (I hope you said no.) But we won that fight, you say. That gives us the right to have that flag, however treasonous its origins. OK. Should we change the names of most of the states on the Eastern Seaboard, from New York through Virginia to Georgia, because they originate from names of the losing side? (I hope you said no to this, as well.)
Let’s ask the Lakota how they feel about the U.S. flag as a symbol of oppression. The Indians lost that struggle. And yet, debates rage about the propriety of the name of the D.C. football team.
Let’s check in with Northern Ireland and India and see how they feel about the British flag as a symbol of oppression. (And yet we Americans use that flag and the British crown as a fashion statement, with numerous “Keep Calm and Insert Platitudes Here” statements.)
Clearly, then, this is not about who wins and who loses at pivotal moments in history. This is about the prevailing attitude of any given people at any given point in time.
With that in mind, let’s ask Dylann Roof how much the flag, by itself, influenced his actions. I am willing to bet that the flag, in and of itself, influenced him about as much as it influenced James Holmes and Adam Lanza. The same flag that played virtually no role in the events of Ferguson or Baltimore, which are much graver representations of the real problem than any flag, ever.
Flags are totems. They are powerful symbols. But the Confederate flag does not stand alone as a symbol of treason/oppression/etc. You show me a flag, I’ll show you a symbol of hate and oppression to some population, somewhere.
Does the Confederate flag need to be addressed as a symbol of hate and racism? Absolutely.
Will its removal from from the war memorial on the South Carolina state capital grounds make some people—I would imagine a majority of people—feel better? Absolutely. And that shared sense of relief at doing what a majority (myself included) considers the right move at this point in time is part of what makes society great.
But will removing it stop racism? Absolutely not. What do you think is going to happen with the segment of the population that resents this removal and takes it very much to heart? Do you think they are going to just roll over and say, “YOU WERE SO RIGHT AND I WAS SO WRONG”? Of course not.
And that, right there? THAT is the conversation we should be having.
The flag, powerful as it may be, is not the correct conversation topic; it is a distraction. It is an easy target and one you don't need to think about too deeply to form an opinion that puts you on the side of moral justice. Its removal is a step in the right overall direction.
But a flag—present or absent—is merely a symbol of the problem—or problems—we should really be talking about and trying to solve.
Some would focus on the issue of gun control as a solution. I don’t think it is, personally. In much the same way that we as a nation are highly unlikely to ban all forms of abortion, it is equally unlikely we are going to eliminate all firearms. The genie is out of the bottle, and there’s little chance of stuffing him back in there. We need to stop having that conversation in lieu of real change. In much the same way that removing our shoes at the airport is not going to stop people who want to blow up airplanes, passing more laws about guns is not going to stop people who want to open fire in a crowded area.
Plenty of people now are creating friction on the issue of “privilege.” Is this a useful dialog? I don’t know. I tend to bristle when I hear that word, and the last thing I want to do is back down when confronted with what (to me) smacks of sanctimony. I resent people telling me I should be trying to make amends for the good things I lucked into. I resent the implication that someone else deserves them more than I do. I’m not sorry I won the birth lottery. If that makes me racist/sexist/hateist, so be it.
I have several identifying labels. I’m white, upper-middle-class, exurban, married, a mother of one. I have many, many advantages. This puts me in a position where any dissenting comment on my part is immediately open to all sorts of Privileged criticism, and there need not be any factual basis in said criticism. And all it takes is one accusation of racism or sexism or conservatism or any other “ism” to render any and all arguments on my part completely invalid. And I resent that. I resent it when I read articles informing me that I should not read to my child because that gives him unfair advantages over other kids whose parents don’t. I find it especially distasteful when it is clear that the people telling me I am overprivileged are clearly not counting their own blessings or thanking their own ancestors for all the advantages THEY have received. I suspect I am not alone in feeling this way. I suspect this sort of finger-wagging does little to improve anything the finger-waggers wish it would.
The role privilege plays in your life (as I impart to the Young Prince more often than he cares to hear) is what you do with it. I try to take what Abigail Adams wrote to John Quincy Adams as my guiding principle: "You came into life with advantages which will disgrace you if your success is mediocre." She went on to add that, "if you do not rise to the head of your country, it will be owing to your own laziness and slovenliness." I am, admittedly, terribly lazy and slovenly, and have no desire to be the head of my country. But I do not take my advantages lightly—nor do I take for granted the people who worked so hard to give them to me, and I try not to let my son get away with it either. Would that more people had more Abigail in them with which to screw up their children.
Others are concerned with the issue of mental illness. Whether you find this a construct of the white media or not, it is a way of approaching the discussion. But it’s probably not the right one, any more than blaming the flag. It might be true in some cases, but probably not as many as we would like to think. And I suppose the argument could be made that you must have a screw loose to want to gun down a room full of people. But I don’t buy into the mentally ill argument. I think that’s a dangerous argument to use in situations like this. I don’t think Dylann Roof is crazy. He knew what he was doing. And what he was doing was not an act of insanity, it was a calculated act of hate and aggression. Most mass killers are completely coginizant of their actions. Calling them crazy and seeking to get them help is not a solution. It’s not even a Band-aid. It's an approach that diminishes the atrocity of the act, and we should not be doing that. It's an approach that is an insult to truly crazy people who really do need help but don't go around killing others.
Personally, I think the issue we need to be tackling is one of civility. I think we, as a nation, have ventured entirely too far down the road of “I want,” “I deserve,” “I am a speshul snowflake,” and “ANYONE WHO DISAGREES WITH WHAT I THINK IS WRONG AND THEY ARE AUTOMATICALLY SOME KIND OF HATEFUL SOMETHING–IST WHO DOESN’T MERIT CIVILITY.”
Speshul snowflakes melt, y’all. Let’s start working harder on the Golden and Silver Rules.
Think about it for a second. Isn’t that really what we object to in racism? “I’m polka-dotted, you’re not. That somehow means I’m superior to you and don't have to treat you the way I wish to be treated.” Isn’t that what we object to in sexism—on both sides of the argument? “As a man, I'm superior and deserve to talk over women.” “As a woman, it is my right to wear hooker boots to my job at a construction site, never mind if it’s an OSHA hazard or puts others at risk. And don’t you dare look at me funny for wearing something so clearly impractical, because that means you are objectifying me.”
Maybe we need to work harder on, 'Hey, we all work in this office building, let's all try to avoid stopping up the toilets and flooding the bathrooms." Maybe we need to give more credence to the code of behavior that stipulates, "you kiss who you want, and I will at least pretend not to notice—positively or negatively—and you do the same for me."
And as long as I’m on this soapbox, I might as well point out that I also object to the term “hate crime” on these grounds. This term is divisive and only further contributes to atmospheres of entitlement and resentment. Why is the motive behind a crime somehow more relevant than the crime itself? Shooting a church full of people who are the same color as you is not a “love crime.” Shooting a church full of people should be a crime, no modifier, period. Pure and simple. Do the families of the Emanuel victims somehow have a monopoly on grief not claimable by the families of the Sandy Hook victims? I certainly hope we don't think that. Murder is murder, no matter who is slain and regardless of the thought process that went into the commission of the act. Why do they get separate labels?
I read a thing recently about a woman who decided she was going to stop moving aside in hallways for men and see how many slammed into her. She did not say what she was doing when on a collision path with other women. I find myself torn on this. Yes, people should try to get out of each other’s way. But isn’t it sexist to just expect men to get out of your way? I have seen women take offense at men who open doors or who step aside. I am pretty sure a memo went out that there would be no more letting women stuck in the back go first when exiting elevators or sinking ships.
Why not treat all people equally and address each situation as it comes? If the person walking toward you has their nose buried in a book or an animated conversation, and you see this, isn’t it on you to get out of their way? If you are laden down with bags and boxes and hauling a dolly and the person coming toward you willfully stands their ground, of course you are in bounds to plow over them. But if it’s simply an equal-footing game of chicken, I daresay that lowering your head like a bull charging a toreador will be taken as a challenge.
I understand that change doesn’t come about without a certain amount of anger and resistance. But, like privilege, it’s what we do with the anger that matters.
Martin Luther King or Malcolm X? (Again, a matter of perspective. And perhaps it is racist white America that gave King a memorial in Washington, D.C., and relegated Malcolm X to Washington Heights—but even so, I’d still pose the question about whose approach a majority of all modern Americans considers more effective.)
Sheryl Sandberg or women who Tweet #killallmen? (Every time I see that—and as the daughter, wife, mother, niece, cousin, and friend of males, I see it WAY more than I’d like to—I wonder where the #killallwomen response is, and how that would be received by the general public.)
I realize this next statement will come off as ridiculous, but what if we start giving others the benefit of the doubt in daily discourse? (I’m not talking about giving Dylann Roof a fair shake. I’m talking about putting Dylann Roof and Jeb Bush in the same cubbyhole because the latter wasn't emphatic enough in his assessment of the events that transpired.)
How about we stop insisting that everyone who is Other is automatically Enemy? And how about we start self-monitoring whether our rhetoric is going to advance discussion or insult and alienate and put on the defensive those who might otherwise respectfully disagree? Plenty of us feel outrage and anger. Few of us express that by going to such lengths as advocating genocide or perpetrating mass murder. Those who do should be subjected to the full force of a disapproving society (In my opinion, up to and including physical punishment). But those who merely express a tentative idea, or a preference to reserve judgment, or a hesitant suggestion that perhaps the other side might have some scintilla of a point—those people don't deserve to have their heads figuratively smacked.
The problem, of course, is that nobody wants to stand down and be the first one to listen—really listen, not just sit there waiting til the other party is done talking and creates an opening for lashing out with one's own passionate attack. How about we stop running to Facebook and branding as racist anyone who ever read a book by Shelby Foote? How about we start examining our history, applying the lessons that worked, and finding new things to try, instead of incessantly bitching about all the places where we have come up short?
I’ve always liked the idea of judging others by the content of their characters. The problem is that in today’s society, it’s really, really hard to divine that content in the amount of time we are willing to spend examining someone else’s character. It’s much easier to see one Tweet, snap out a judgment about that person’s entire life history and ethos, and move on in your bubble, cleaving only to those whose bubbles are on the same wind current as your own. To hit the “like” button without reading past the headline. To pick a fight online with someone who likes blueberry more than strawberry, because you don’t have to look that person in the eye like you would if you were defending your pro-strawberry stance in person.
And we wonder why Congress can’t get anything done. At least in Congress, they all have to be in the same room once in a while. Maybe we should give that a try, too.