What a Flag Has to Do with Justice

Flags -- Confederate Cemetery Brices Cross Roads National Battlefield Baldwyn (MS) June 2013 by Ron Cogswell (via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

The June 2015 murders in Charleston, South Carolina, have prompted a remarkable cultural shift in the American South. States around the region are removing or are voting to remove Confederate symbols of various kinds from public spaces. South Carolina and Alabama have made significant moves, and in Mississippi, the Speaker of the House and both U.S. Senators have called for changing the state flag, which presently features the Confederate Battle Flag.

I have argued recently that some heritage can do harm and that denying that Mississippi’s secession had to do with slavery is ignorance, not love, of heritage. For those who acknowledge our troubled history, an important question remains: Why is there such a push to get rid of the flag all of a sudden? What does it have to do with the Charleston murders or justice?

One writer (warning: explicit language in the linked article) decried, “Only in modern day America could a racist psychopath kill nine people in a Southern church and the focus turn to a flag.”

What does a flag have to do with it? Why are we talking about flags? The answer is simple and demonstrates a philosophical idea that can seem abstract and hard to appreciate: Culture is deeply important for justice. Flags are cultural symbols.

Culture can be understood as language, beliefs, practices, and institutions transmitted from one generation to the next. Oppressive powers have long taken advantage of the power of culture, including to teach young people racism and white supremacy.

In a democratic society, we are no longer supposed to tolerate hierarchies of citizenship. At the same time, a building on the University of Mississippi campus is named after the white supremacist Mississippi Governor James Vardaman. He notoriously proposed lynching every African American if necessary for the cause of white supremacy. We usually name buildings after people as a sign of respect or thanks.

Flags commit no murders, but they can emblemize white supremacy. In the wake of racially motivated violence, reasonable people are finally recognizing the connection between the culture and symbols of racial hatred and the explicit cause of Mississippi’s and others’ secessions from the union.

Since Plato at least, philosophers have been concerned about symbols and other influences on the habits and character of young people. When I first read Plato’s Republic, I had the hardest time understanding why he cared which modes of music people played in the ideal city – which on Plato’s account should not include the Lydian, Ionian, Mixolydian, or Aeolian modes (Book III).

Plato’s authoritarianism was excessive. Today, freedom of speech is rightly protected, but individual freedom is consistent with the demand that our government not proclaim undemocratic values, as the flag does. The majority in the recent Supreme Court case about Texas license plates agreed about this distinction.

Plato saw that the habits we develop condition our interaction with the world in many ways. Our appreciation of beauty, for instance, is informed through aesthetic education. Richard Rorty has argued that exposure to literature, to stories about others’ suffering especially, performs an invaluable function in moral education. Books like To Kill a Mockingbird change people for the better.

About 40 people showed up for a rally to defend Mississippi’s state flag. In South Carolina, the KKK is planning a pro-Confederate flag rally. The good news is that such rallies herald the end of resistance to progress. People who are conceptually on the fence see the Klan protest and recognize the need to let go of such extremism.

The Confederate Battle flag is a symbol of the movement Mississippi joined explicitly in defense of slavery. Raising young people with the meanings, language, and beliefs of Mississippi’s cause for joining the Confederacy in the background contributes to a culture of division and hatred. We have seen racially motivated murder in Mississippi as recently as 2012.

After the mass murders in a Charleston church, the heavily Christian South is finally coming around to the recognition of the harms of cultural associations with the Confederacy. There will be resistance to change, but the momentum is promising. The ultimate test will be whether the shift in culture leads to even greater unity. If it does, the future of the South will be bright.