Saturday, July 11, 2015

Symbolic confusion

Today as I was scrolling through my FaceBook feed I saw a link to an article that caught my attention. Not only did it catch my attention, it shocked and disgusted me. The link sent you to an article about a group of people calling on others to do something rather disgusting with the American flag and then post pictures of this act on the internet. The goal was to protest certain aspects of American society that the promoters of this protest disagree with. Just so you will know I think I agree with the protesters in that these specific parts of American society, which aren't very important to this article, are things that we should be working against. I can't say for sure though, because the images they showed didn't allow me to focus on the issues they were concerned with. The images flipped switches in my brain that didn't allow me to think about what they were saying, instead I could only focus on how they were saying it. This, in my mind at least, means that there attempt to draw attention to something has failed. Instead of getting people to think about their issues they will mainly cause people to reject them and only think about the poor way they were trying to get their point across.

Something else about this article disturbed me even more than the images of the American flag being disrespected. When I read the comments left by people who had read this article, or at least looked at the images posted with it, I saw people calling for the protesters to be forced out of the United States or stating that they should be locked away in prison, or worse, that they should be beaten or killed. The protesters were disrespecting the flag, but the people posting these comments were disrespecting it just a much if not more.

The US flag is an important and powerful symbol of the United States of America. It symbolizes the rights and freedoms that the vast majority of Americans claim to hold dear. We look at the flag and remember what it is that makes America as great of a country as it is. But we have to remember, the flag, while it is a symbol of freedom and liberty, is itself not freedom or liberty.

The protesters in the article mentioned above, people who try to make a point by burning the flag, even those who some would say disrespect the flag by wearing it on a skimpy bathing suit, these people are making use of the actual freedoms that the flag represents. To say that they should be jailed or killed or forced out of the country for these acts is saying that freedom of speech is something that you don't really respect. Saying these things, or acting upon them, is the most extreme way I can think of to disrespect the flag. You are saying that the symbol means more than what it symbolizes. You are twisting the meaning of the flag and turning it into something that has no meaning. You are doing more damage to the flag than anyone ever could with a match. If we idolize the flag we diminish what it stands for. If we outlaw the desecration of the flag we turn it into a meaningless piece of cloth that represents nothing. Free speech is one of the ways in which America is truly exceptional, in many other countries that have democratic governments, often times more democratic than the US government, in countries where people have the right to speak out against their government, in places where the media is free to operate as it sees fit, there are still laws to limit speech.

In many Western European nations there are laws against hate speech, there are laws banning the sale of particular book, there are laws outlawing the display of certain historical symbols. We don't have these laws in America because we value the right of free speech to a point that we are willing to put up with distasteful and hateful speech. We protect all speech to guard against a slippery slope of laws that could lead to a great restriction of our speech and expression. We do this because we realize that our own personal comfort and desire to not be offended is secondary to our need to be able to express ourselves. This is, to a large extent, what makes us America.

You will often hear that the flag should not be disrespected because of all of the brave men and women who fought for the flag. I don't think this is true. I hope that these brave men and women were fighting for the rights and liberties and freedoms the flag symbolizes, I hope that they were fighting for the things that truly make America special, I hope that they were fighting for their fellow Americans. If they were actually fighting for the flag, fighting for the symbol instead of what it symbolizes, then they weren't fighting for America, they were fighting for a nice piece of graphic design made out of cloth.

The American flag is a wonderful symbol that I take great pride in, but not in the symbol itself, but instead in what it symbolizes. The flag you see flying against a bright blue sky was probably made by underpaid workers in a factory in China, the things it symbolizes actually came from America. The flag itself is employed to sell used cars and soft drinks and amusement park tickets, but what it symbolizes is a great country where we respect everyone's right to think and believe and say what they want, even if we disagree with them. The American flag should, in my opinion, not be disrespected, but we have to remember all of the ways it can be disrespected. Making the flag more important than what it symbolizes, valuing a piece of cloth more than the ideals it represents, is the worst way possible to disrespect the flag.