All symbols, including the Confederate flag, mean different things at the same time.

One important thing to remember about symbols is that they are dialectical and self-contradictory. In short: they mean more than one thing at the same time. Their meaning depends on many inputs, including, importantly, subjective experience, which is at the least diverse, if not unrepeatable. Symbols are, therefore, prone to re-appropriation for “good” or “bad” uses, as is the eventual fate of many slurs. Some well-known examples — democrat, Tory, suffragette, fag, (one could go on) — were once, and in some circles still remain, pejoratives, but have been embraced as positive symbols by their former addressees.

The Confederate flag, the hijab, the word “capitalism”, the word “democracy”, the American flag, the Constitution, the Bible, the Koran, etc., all contain their dialectical and self-contradictory elements as symbols. The hijab, for instance, is embraced by Western culture as a signal of female choice, but it is historically, and in the vast majority of instances today remains, an outright weapon of female oppression. Some women have spent their entire lives wrapped in one or struggling to escape it. Some of these women find it troublesome that Westerners embrace it freely as part of the multicultural ethic.

This is a symbol of genocide, dictatorship, and aggression.  It is also a symbol of human rights and democracy.
This is a symbol of genocide, dictatorship, and aggression. It is also a symbol of human rights and democracy. Depends on who is flying it and where.

As a less controversial example, the American Constitution is, historically, and undeniably, a racist, sexist document. When the Founding Fathers wrote “men”, they meant “males”, not “mankind”, and many of them owned slaves. But does that make the Constitution a racist document today? Well, yes. And no. The symbol means quite a number of different things, including the opposite of what the Founders meant it to mean in some obvious cases. All texts, all symbols, all words, go through a continuous dialectical process of interpretation, and out of this arrives a range of meanings. To deny the historical image of the Constitution is to miss something important about its, and our, abilities to change. Conversely, to insist documents and symbols do not change, and always must be what they were 100 years ago, or what they remain to some people, or what the dictionary or some authority tells us they are, is to be at best a pedant and at worst a gullible bore.

Or perhaps dangerous. It may be slightly annoying now, the way that ten Christians believe ten different things about the Bible, and have ten different conceptions of Heaven — but it is also a lot better than the historical alternative, which involved no personal interpretation at all. The triumph of the church as existing primarily in the mind of the individual, and less as an imposing, state-supported institution, is a triumph of secularism. The ability of people to read what they want into symbols and texts and words is, in other words, a revolutionary and democratic one.

The Confederate flag was, and remains to some people, a symbol of racism. But it is also more than that, and also the opposite of that. To ignore any of this, to fail to make these distinctions, is to start the argument, whatever your position may be, on the wrong foot. Symbols, like words, are malleable and inconsistent. Their meanings of course matter, but their meanings are not authoritative. Their meanings are to be found in the process of de-homogenizing their image — i.e., in our capacity to see the same image as something other than what it is. “There are no facts, only interpretations.”

When listening to an argument, you will often find its tone belies the width of the disagreement, largely because the individuals involved are using the same words — symbols — in different ways while assuming otherwise. This is something we should all keep in mind when discussing any subject: your symbols, your experiences, your words, do not mean the same thing to everyone in the room. They should extend and expand their vision to see meaning as you see it, and vise versa. This is, in my opinion, a fundamental step in achieving human solidarity. It is how we learn from one another, walk a mile in each other’s shoes, and grow and move forward together.

Otherwise, political discussion really will become — or already is — masturbatory: a ridiculous, but massive, circle jerk of easily transmitted and far-too-easily accepted signals, where the people who speak the same language as you agree with you and nod their heads at any meme, however esoteric, while the people who speak a different language disagree, often on the basis of interpreting the meme, the word, the symbol, differently. Neither side budges, neither side yields to the sift of human exchange. Both sides clutch their solid, shiftless chunk and insist on its purity. Both sides plant a flag in the permanence of their own status quo. Thus our democracy and the dialectics of our discussions become partitioned on, ironically, meaningless grounds.


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