In Visual Rhetoric, we study signs and symbols, with signs signifying some basic, universal meaning and symbols telling a story using multiple signs. The confederate flag certainly has a story.
That symbols tell stories implies that their meaning is utterly learned. A smiley face is a simple sign signifying a human face. It doesn’t look much like any one human’s face, but it has dots and dashes proportioned in a circle just similarly enough to all human faces that even small children pick up its meaning with little or no help. For the same reason, we see a face in the fronts of cars, on WallE or R2D2, and really anywhere there is even a remote spatial relationship of elements that could be perceived as a face. Cognitive psychologists call this personification. It’s one reason robots are so scary, because they’re becoming a bit too much like us.
So on the stars-and-bars, the stars are mere signs. They look enough like all stars to be perceived as stars, though no one real star of course looks like those on the flag. But the collection or set of signs that is the confederate flag — in those particular colors — that has to be learned. And it’s in that learning where we sowed the seeds of the current controversy. Many Southern whites learn it to represent Old South heritage, valor, independence and, ironically, freedom. Many Southern blacks learn it to represent white oppression, lynching, secessionist insurrection, and, the opposite of freedom — slavery, as Joe Morton (as Scandal‘s Eli ‘Papa’ Pope) eloquently articulated it on The Nightly Show on June 23. Both narratives are true-ish, and therefore both are culturally valid. (I think it’s important to note that the Pope character stereotypes and prejudices in ways uncomfortably similar to the ways he perceives he has been stereotyped and prejudiced. While eloquent and funny, the soliloquy cedes the moral high ground in an interesting rhetorical choice.)
The question right now is whose learned story should be authorized by mainstream society. For South Carolina as a state, there is the additional question of whether a state government should be in the business of authorizing any narrative for such a controversial symbol. States such as Virginia, Texas, Tennessee and North Carolina are asking this second question, as well. Prior to the Charleston shootings, the Supreme Court ruled that Texas can reject the symbol on its license plates, because the plates are a form of government speech. By that line of reasoning, a confederate flag on the state capitol is the government shouting.
If I’m reading the tea leaves correctly, American society seems to be arriving at a consensus that the flag as symbol is too toxic to remain prominent in American life, including state capitol flagpoles, license plates, WalMarts, Apple apps and, with the exception of Mississippi, official state emblems and flags. This changing consensus makes the flag a classic case study for semioticians studying signs and symbols, because at its most basic level, this symbol is some read, some blue, some lines and 14 stars — not much. Yet its meaning has changed dramatically over time, and oddly at no time was it ever the official flag of the confederacy. This is interesting to note given its near sacred status for some today.
Along with religious-looking garb strikingly similar to that common in the Catholic faith, the stars-and-bars has been appropriated by the Ku Klux Klan. It was appropriated as southern kitsch by the CBS TV show Dukes of Hazzard. And it is often fused with Harley Davidson iconography in a sort of southern tableau of manly manhood. And that’s what happens with symbols — they are created, learned, appropriated and misappropriated. The Nazi swastika originally was a symbol of — and you can’t make this stuff up — Bhuddhist peace.
If anyone is grateful for the current confederate flag controversy, it would have to be the Washington Redskins, because the debate about that team’s own problematic symbolism is sort of lost in the flagpole shuffle.