Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Public Sphere and the Confederate Flag

Yesterday while driving through Brampton I stopped at a light and beside me was a man in a pick-up truck with a Confederate battle flag draped over the rear window of his cab. My anger was perhaps only surpassed by my disappointment. Let's leave aside the fact that he clearly obscured his own vision endangering himself and others. It seems unlikely to me that this man, who appeared to be a white man in his late twenties or thirties, was from the American South, but even still it is a remarkably strange symbol to spot in suburban Ontario. I'd like to say it's the first time I've seen such a thing, but Confederate window decals and bumper stickers are oddly common in the province of Ontario.

The Confederate Battle Flag, not the 'official flag' of the Confederacy

Why is there such an attraction to another dead country's flag? It seems highly unlikely to me that these individuals are making common cause with the defence of states' rights. The only association that seems to make any sense to me then is cultural. The Confederate battle flag is, charitably, associated with the American South and white Protestants, but it seems more likely that it is associated with rural values including God and guns. But that's really not the whole story and everyone knows it.

It is difficult to imagine that those who put the Confederate battle flag on their vehicles, or homes or persons are not entirely aware of the racist history behind it and endorse that perspective. Even if they do not they are still culpable. As the expression goes, ignorance is no defence.

Across Canada I've seen people with provincial flags or national flags on their vehicles. It's a clear symbol of pride and identity. If these individuals associate with the American South I have to question why the state flags don't adorn their vehicles. Three answers come to mind: the American state flags are pretty god awful in some circumstances and the battle flag is simple, bold design; the Confederate battle flag is a recognized symbol for that region; they willingly and purposefully take on the meaning.

In society we have a duty to our fellow human beings to smooth out our rough edges, to be polite and thoughtful. Driving around a city with a growing population of black Canadians and non-whites with a Confederate battle flag seems a fairly prominent way to declare your opinion that 'those people' do not belong. That being said, I still believe it is a person's right to purchase and display whatever flag they like. The issue currently in the United States has to do with the display of the Confederate battle flag at state capitals and on the state flag (Mississippi). This seems a simple answer to an outsider like me that for the sake of reconciliation and empathy for the African-American citizens that these flags should be pulled down and replaced.

The freedom of speech and freedom of expression are matched with a duty to be thoughtful, responsible and compassionate. The state should not aim to silence anyone, but I would hope that one day someone would tell that man in the pick-up that his flag might represent the values of the American South, but also its heritage, which includes slavery, wanton abuse and murder, lynchings, marginalization, oppression and a kind of human suffering and indignity that one can scarcely imagine.

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