What do our symbols mean?

Symbols are important they keep us grounded, they provide us with rich complex messages in very simple and compact ways. Symbols have a narrative, a story bound into their very fiber; symbols are simply shorthand for the telling of these stories. The narratives can be positive calling us toward the good, motivating us to reach for goals, or symbols can be negative, holding us in a narrow niche reminders of our role in society and silent enforcers of that place. The message of these symbols is not always universal, sometimes individuals or groups attempt to rewrite the narrative of the symbols for their own purposes. Currently, our nation is embroiled in a heated debate about symbols and what the narrative behind them really is. This debate comes in large part because there is no single narrative behind these symbols. Everyone agrees that symbols such as the Confederate flag have meaning as symbols, but, there is no consensus on the meaning. Some will argue that it is a symbol of freedom, and a rejection of tyranny. Some say it is a symbol of racism and oppression. Some say it is simply a reminder of a epoch in history with little current meaning.

Now, if I walked into the office of a certain professor I know, who teaches American history particularly Southern history, I would expect to see all the Confederate flags hanging. In that context they probably are reminders of Southern history, tokens of a bygone age with little modern symbolism. However, these debates are not about that professor’s office, nor about specific battlefield memorials that should make us weep about the senseless loss of life. We are talking about specific symbols within our culture, with specific meanings.


I will not claim to have a complete understanding on all such memorials, monuments, and symbols; thus, I will not try to make blanket statements about such items and how they should be handled, except one. The Civil War was a time in American history were people were selfish, greedy, and failed to consider others (on both sides), we must be very careful how we choose to remember it and celebrate what happened. Symbols have meaning they celebrate ideas and causes, they align us with movements and groups, who do you want to be aligned with.

I have asked this question of several people and have yet to receive a response, “What does a Confederate memorial in downtown Lexington Kentucky (a state which never joined the Confederacy) symbolize, and what does a Confederate 1st battle flag (the traditional stars and bars flag) symbolize on the back of a truck? I have heard people say that some of these monuments are reminders of a past that we want to remember and never repeat, similar to how at least some Germans feel about Nazi monuments. This is a valid opinion and a good critique of history, but the question remains is this particular symbol achieving that goal, or is a call to arms for those who would repeat that history? Is this particular symbol a negative and oppressive symbol to those who want to move on from the past and be free? What was the message in the establishment of the symbol, has that message changed, are we seeking to change the narrative?


A Nazi symbol may be a reminder to the Germans of a terrible past which is remembered so that it is not repeated. But, a monument to the Tenth Roman Legion (the Legion responsible for destroying Jerusalem in 70 c.e.) set up in Berlin today surely would carry a different message, a message of returning to those dark times. South Carolina stopped flying a Confederate flag on the State Capitol a few years ago. Ask why was that flag in a position of prominence at that building when it represented a group rebelling against the national government? When did the practice begins, why, what was the societal tenor at the time it began? Sometimes such symbols are meant for positive reasons. Sometimes the meaning of symbols changes over time. Sometimes one group creates the symbol and another group coopts it and transforms it for their purposes. Example: X-Mas was originally a Christian symbol used by people who found the name of Christ so holy that they seldom wrote it (X being the Greek Chi, the first letter in Christ). Today it is an abbreviation used mostly by stores seeks a shorthand for a holiday. (Those of us who know the real meaning see some level of irony here). It is important to take all of these messages into account when we consider what symbols we keep and use. See how this cuts across the argument of Confederate monuments. It is entirely possible that some symbols are being warped into negative messages (as with those who think X-mas is a clever shorthand), but unless the true positive message is actively understood the negative message is the default. If I do not actively spread the idea of X-mas being a positive and reverent symbol for Christ and one which should remain such, other groups are right to protest it as cultural removal of the truth of Christmas. The same is true of these hot-button cultural symbols. If they truly are positive symbols meant to remind people of a horrid past, then that message must be actively taught and understood. It should bring tears to the eyes of those who can identify with the oppressors and joy to those who can identify with oppressed, of that time.

I can have some limited opinions on these issues, but frankly I am not aware of the history and symbolism of each of these monuments and therefore should reserve judgment. My thoughts here are meant to establish a way of assessing what is or is not appropriate. I can look at an individual who claims to be a “patriot” and flies a “rebel flag” and say there is inconsistency in those ideas. (Something I have seen on several occasions.) I can say that that person seems to be unaware of the rich symbolic history of the flag they fly. And in a few of these cases I have seen that this individual has been influenced (usually unknowingly) by a philosophy which equated patriotism with ethnic elitism that stood alongside, if not directly within, those groups who are today calling for ethnic cleansing. I think of individuals I know whose ancestors were associated with the KKK yet who fail to see that they associate the Confederate flag with freedom precisely because of that heritage. These individuals have not expressed sympathy with such groups (at least not as far as I am aware) and their linage does not reflect everyone who holds similar views. But, can we see how the symbolism has filtered, changed, and come to be expressed.

I also understand that some southern individuals see such monuments as symbols of people resisting a foreign culture’s (the North) attempt to impose its will (a type of anti-colonial symbol). As such, for some the fact that this same cultural group is pushing for the removal of the symbols clearly illustrates the point of their existence. In some ways, this is the same cultural war that was fought 150+ years ago. Any serious discussion of symbols will consider this ideology. It is often forgotten in this country that often the rural poor both black and white are oppressed by elites in the same ways other minorities are. Yet, are these symbols a proper claim to power, even among this community? Can these who are in some ways caught in the middle legitimately hold to these specific symbols? I do not know for sure, though I do have some doubts.

It is time for serious and open dialogue on the narratives surrounding our cultural symbols, a dialogue where people are willing to listen to the other side and to consider how these symbols are perceived across the subcultures of the country. I would also suggest that those who should be listened to the most are those who see these symbols as negative symbols of oppression. (Within the debate on Confederate monuments it seems two take this view those who are the descendants of those who were oppressed in slavery and by Jim Crow laws afterward, and those who want to perpetuate this oppression). Sometimes these groups misinterpret such symbols because of brokenness and hurt which needs healing. (Something which other groups should be quick to extend). However, often the complaints of these groups are well founded and should be heard. Within the current cultural debate when the group who was oppressed and the groups who want to continue oppression see the same meaning in a symbol, there must be compelling evidence for a contrary meaning for such a symbol to be maintained.

Again, I am not so bold or educated to make claims on specific symbols; I will not say whether a specific monument or symbol needs to be kept or discarded. However, I do think the national dialogue must improve, we must recognize how symbols are translated in various subcultures. These symbols tell a story, those who say they do not are blind and ignorant. We must consider the narrative(s) we are implicitly and explicitly passing on through these symbols.

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