The Confederate Flag and other Signifiers

I’ve been thinking about signifiers lately.  Analytic philosophy like that of Saussure and Derrida write in French much about signifiers.  Saussure writes that either everything is a symbol or nothing is.  And Derrida writes that language retreats into an endless series of signifier, and signifier, and signifier . . .  I think that signifiers, or symbols feature prominently in every culture.  The flag is one such symbol.

Before I turn to the flag, I’d like to consider the nature of signifiers in general.  I like to wear Buddhist prayer beads like a necklace.  I do this because I have an abiding sympathy with Buddhist doctrine and life.  To most Canadians, the prayer beads have no significance at all; they don’t know that they are Buddhist prayer beads.  They just look strange around this westerner’s neck and make me look strange.  But to a Buddhist, the necklace is a signifier.  In fact, a Tibetan lady told me the correct way to use them in reciting Buddhist prayers when she saw them around my neck.  Then there is what the beads signify for me.  They remind me of the love beads we hippies used to wear in the ’60’s and ’70’s and recall an ideology I still hold and remind me of a golden age in American culture.  That is another thing that the beads signify for me.  So I was wondering, are the beads a signifier if no one else recognizes the meaning that they hold for me?  Do the beads signify peace and love if no one else sees them that way?  Is signification in the eye of the beholder?  Does signification need to be shared in order to be a symbol?

A related consideration devolves from a traffic incident I experienced.  Once, I was pulling out of my parking space into traffic and an Asian woman didn’t slow down but drove her vehicle right at me.  I kept pulling out and she honked her horn at me.  I very calmly gave her the finger.  But she didn’t react at all.  It occurred to me that she might not share the significance of the finger; she may not even have known what it meant.  Or she just didn’t react.  I got mad because my signifier was lost on her.  It didn’t convey the anger I felt, and that made me mad.  But the question goes deeper.  What if the finger means love for me.  If I give people the finger meaning a show of love, and other people see it as a symbol of hate, what has happened to signification and symbol?

This brings up the confederate flag as a signifier.  I lived in Birmingham, Alabama in what is called “the deep south.”  I was totally charmed by southern culture.  The southern graces endeared me.  My experience of the south was beautiful.  The confederate flag is a symbol of southern culture for white Americans in Alabama.  I was so enamored of the south, I even carried a small confederate flag into the airport when I arrived home in Boston.  I was trying to stir up trouble.  But Boston isn’t still fighting the civil war.  So no one in Boston reacted, no one noticed.

I know why some southerners feel an attachment to the confederate flag.  However, the confederate flag was flown by the confederate armies when they withdrew from and actually fought the federal armies.  And the issue that precipitated the civil war was slavery.  So to African-Americans, the confederate flag symbolizes slavery.  Also, hate groups like the KKK use the confederate flag to outright attack and sometimes murder African-Americans.  So the confederate flag has different significance to different peoples.

We’re back to my issue with the finger.  If people understand the finger as a symbol of hate, it can’t really mean love if I use it as a love sign.  Symbols are shared.  Must be shared.  If the confederate flag is a symbol of hate and slavery to some people, even if we don’t mean those things when we fly the flag, it’s like giving someone the finger a a love sign.  Furthermore, the flag has a history.  It was the symbol of the confederate states who sought to withdraw from the United States of America.  It was and is the symbol of the confederacy.  I think that there are two meanings for the confederate flag.  One meaning is pride in southern culture.  Another meaning is hate and slavery, even racial violence and murder.  If a signifier has an odious meaning for some, and a positive meaning for others, then the offended people win the argument.  It is simply not possible for me to give someone the finger as a love sign.  And the confederate flag can’t mean southern graces to African-Americans.  Those who take the confederate flag as a symbol of southern price must yield.  Historically, and among contemporary hate groups, the confederate flag is an odious signifier.  One can’t fly an odious symbol in public.  It’s offensive.  Removing and prohibiting the confederate flag from flying in public is not re-writing history.  It is prohibiting symbols of hate to be made public and to be part of official government policy.

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