The “Confederate Flag”1 should be taken down immediately, at the South Carolina capitol and on any other state grounds (in SC or elsewhere). That it took a racist terrorist attack on Emanuel AME Church and the death of nine people to bring this point into the national conversation is a lamentable and reprehensible. I’m hardly alone in this call. There are a number of petitions ( here, here, and here for instance) that one can sign (and I urge you to do so). Here I want to offer a philosophical analysis and rejection of a common argument against removing it.
Allow me to first offer some personal perspective. I was born and raised in Texas. As a young child (4ish), I was given and played with toys that had the Confederate flag on them. Several of my family members (including my mother, aunts, and a cousin) graduated from a local high school that flew the Confederate flag and whose mascot was (and is still) the Rebels. I still remember family debates when in 1996 the high school dropped the use of the Confederate flag after years of pressure from the NAACP. I thought it right, but was in the minority in my family.
All this is to say that I have some personal perspective on those who defend the flag on the grounds that it is a symbol of “heritage, not hate.” I have known and grown up with these people. They claim and strongly believe themselves not to be racist.
In short, their argument boils down to the question of meaning and intent. When I use a word, it means what I intended it to mean. Convention can and should constrain what I intend to mean by a word, but my intention determines the meaning. If I say something and it conforms to convention, but you take me to have meant something else, that is (supposed to be) your fault, not mine.
So, the pro-flag argument goes as follows. The intent behind flying the flag isn’t racist. Furthemore, the convention isn’t racist (since the conventional meaning is about Southern heritage). Therefore, flying the Confederate flag doesn’t mean anything racist. Anyone taking offence from the flag is reading something else into it.
First off, there is reason to be skeptical of at least one of the premises. It is hardly clear that the conventional meaning of the flag is purely about heritage, not hate. Sadly, Dylann Roof and regular overtly racist uses of this flag make all too clear that at least a second, distinctly racist conventional meaning applies to it. So, even if a non-racist flies the flag, the meaning behind it is at best ambiguous as to whether it is racist or not. There is a second dispute about what it takes to be racist. Many of those defending the flag believe themselves not to be racist or their flying of the Confederate flag to be racist. In large part this belief is based upon intent. They don’t intend to do anything racist or intend their displaying of the Confederate flag to be racist. However, whether intention is necessary for racism and to be a racist is at least up for debate.
For the moment, though, let’s set aside these objections and assume them for the sake of argument.2 The argument is deeply problematic. To see why, allow me to make a linguistic analogy. Suppose there is a word W that you and I use regularly. We both understand the meaning of W. Neither of us use it with any intent to offend anyone, and we both know that about the other as well. So, when I use W in a sentence, you fully understand me and recognize that I don’t intend to offend you or anyone else.
Nevertheless, suppose there is some other third person (T) who finds W to be deeply offensive, due to a particular causal-historical story for W that we needn’t go into here. Suffice it to say, others in the past have used W with clear intent to offend T and those like T. Exclusion and oppression were also involved. Given this background, T cannot help but to hear an offensive meaning when I use W, either when speaking with T or with you. T may be thoughtful and charitable enough to recognize that I didn’t intend anything offensive, but T still finds the use of the word offensive.
Let’s ignore whether it is fair for T to hear the word this way and be offended (though I think it is), but instead consider whether it make sense for me to use this word given it’s offensive historical usage. My goal as a speaker is to make my meaning clear. The more I use an obviously ambiguous word (such as W), the less likely I am to acheive that goal. In private discourse with you, I can feel reasonably confident that you’ll understand me. But any sort of public speech to a wide audience will necessarily be less clear if I use W. Some will at least pause to question whether I intended anything offensive, even if they decide in the end that I didn’t. So why use W? It be better for me to make my (non-offensive) meaning clear by some other means. There also remains several issues about how my use of W (in public or in private) serves as a means excluding T. But I won’t go into that now, since many have elucidated this in greater and wiser detail than I can here.
The same considerations apply to the Confederate flag. Let’s suppose some want to fly it solely for the (supposedly) non-offensive purpose of celebrating a particular cultural heritage. Given how many people interpret that flag as a symbol not of cultural heritage but of racist oppression, why use the flag? The intended meaning gets lost. The point is that, even if we grant that Southern culture can be celebrated in a way that is not racist and doesn’t invoke the history of slavery, flying the flag is a poor choice for doing so. That flag has been so widely used in overtly racist ways, that any intended non-racist meaning has been drowned out. Governments should not use it. Neither should any private citizen want to use it, even absent the intent to offend.
1 Merely as a matter of historical accuracy, the flag in question often gets called the Confederate Flag of the Rebel Flag. Technically, it is neither. The Confederate States of America had a few national flags, but this was never one of them. Rather the flag now in dispute was a rejected national flag and was a battle flag for the Army of Northern Virginia. So, it is rather ironic that this flag has become a symbol of “Southern heritage” in general. But all this is besides the point. It should still be taken down.