Confederate flag

I just saw a discussion thread rehashing the whole “But the confederate flag also has other meanings” argument. As usual with these emotionally loaded political issues there wasn’t a lot of communication between the discussants. I thought I’d write a brief and hopefully clear analysis to help people think about the topic.

My approach to this kind of question is based on the premise that there is a whole big world out there that exists whether you know about it or not. Since all that stuff exists even if you don’t know about it, it’s useful to understand the cause-effect relationships in that world, because they affect you even if you don’t know about it.

The argument some people are making is that it’s OK to display the Confederate flag because in addition to negative connotations for some people, it also has positive connotations for other people, associated with the culture and tradition of the South. I’m going to describe a parallel example where this argument is unquestionably valid. Then, having established what it takes to validate that argument, we can compare it with the situation with the Confederate flag in the US.

The swastika is an ancient holy symbol in many traditions of India and dates back to the Neolithic. It is indisputably a symbol that has a rich and ancient history and many deep meanings for people of that culture. In fact, in India, you will see it all over the place.

In India, for the vast majority of people, the only significance of that symbol is the traditional positive spiritual symbolism. India was largely unaffected by Nazi Germany and WWII so the newer significance of that symbol is essentially unknown to most people in India, and if they do know about it, it is more of a curiosity of foreign cultural anthropology and history than an emotionally laden issue.

Based on these facts, it’s clear that there are essentially no negative consequences of the display of this symbol in India. It’s also clear that an individual in India who chooses to display this symbol almost certainly has positive intentions, because they are unaware of anything negative about the symbol.

It’s common in moral and ethical philosophy to consider the consequences of, and/or the intention behind, an action when determining the value of that action. In this case, neither one of those things is negative, so regardless of the ethical calculus you’re using, there’s just no problem.

Now consider the case of an Indian individual who is proudly displaying the swastika, and then later learns about the significance of that symbol to some other foreign cultures. Does this new information bring a new obligation to take down the symbol? Not necessarily. They may choose to take down the symbol out of solidarity for the others who would be offended if they were there to see it; or they may enrich their knowledge of the vast diversity of human cultures and experience and leave it at that. In any case the consequences are unchanged, because it is still true that the vast majority of people who observe the symbol will have positive associations with it. Also, the knowledge of a counterfactual (i.e., if this symbol were somewhere else instead of here it would have different consequences) does not mean that the intention is automatically changed; neither logic nor emotion works that way.

(Hopefully any, say, American visitors with different values will have the maturity to avoid trying to impose their own cultural values on their host country.)

That establishes an ethically and morally convincing scenario where it’s OK to display a symbol that has both positive and negative connotations. Now let’s compare with the Confederate flag scenario in the U.S.

Is it possible that an American displaying the Confederate flag has only positive intentions? Yes, that is certainly possible. Although it probably seems strange to most of the people reading something I wrote (because you’re all probably some kind of liberal intellectual) the reality is that there has been enough of a historical revisionist effort in some circles that it’s possible someone in, say, the South might honestly not be aware of the association of the Confederate flag with slavery and oppression. That person could well be displaying the flag entirely out of a harmless sense of cultural pride.

However, for a flag being displayed at a major institution, whether public or private, it’s very unlikely that every single person with any authority in that institution is unaware of the negative associations.

Now consider consequences. When a Confederate flag is displayed in America, if it is only observed by people with positive connotations, then it will only have positive consequences. (In a limited emotional sense.) However, a flag that is displayed publicly will be observed by a wide range of people, and some will have positive, some negative connotations. Will the proportion of people with negative connotations be vanishingly small, as with the swastika in India? I suppose in some contrived scenario that could be the case, but I think that a careful demographic survey would demonstrate that a Confederate flag displayed on a major public building will be observed by a significant number of people who will primarily be reminded of slavery.

So I think it’s clear that public display of Confederate flags in the U.S. is likely to have negative consequences for a significant number of people.

Putting this all together, I would suggest that this means that when the Confederate flag is displayed at an institution, either: a) some of the people involved have negative intentions, in that they want the negative consequences, they want to evoke the association with slavery and oppression; or b) some of the people involved, although they have positive intentions in a certain sense, are also knowingly choosing to disregard the negative consequences.

As far as individual rights go, this is an open-and-shut case: The First Amendment protects everyone’s right to free speech, and the single most important principle of freedom of speech is that the protection of offensive speech is precisely the point. If you want to be a jerk and display the Confederate flag on your t-shirt or your private property or whatever, then you absolutely have the right to do that.

How about government institutions? Should the Confederate flag be displayed at a state capitol? Well, it’s not completely clear to me what the exact legal justification would be for arguing that governments aren’t supposed to intentionally hurt their citizens, but even without knowing the exact legality, I think basically everyone would agree with that. Even the people who are choosing to display the Confederate flag on a courthouse or whatever, would almost certainly agree with that principle.

In short, when a government institution displays the Confederate flag, then they are intentionally causing negative consequences for a significant number of their citizens. The fact that there are other citizens who are happy about it does not change this fact.

Anyone who believes that governments should not intentionally hurt their own citizens must conclude that public institutions should not display the Confederate flag.

The fact that individual citizens have a constitutional right to do so is irrelevant.

The fact that this action doesn’t hurt all the citizens is also irrelevant. If you want to make that argument, just try on parallel logic in other circumstances: “It’s OK for the sheriff to shoot some random people as long as they don’t shoot everyone.” “It’s OK for IRS agents to just randomly decide to take all your money to line their own pockets, as long as they don’t do it to everyone.” “It’s OK for the Mayor to go on TV and insult people’s mothers, as long as he doesn’t insult everyone’s mother.” Clearly that’s all nonsense.

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