Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Peace symbols and Rebel flags

When we were in Barnesville last weekend, we walked to town from the Olney guest house--the Edgerton House-- and saw a Confederate flag flying in front of an old-fashioned clapboard home. I was startled. Will called it racist. I cast about looking for some meaning in the iconography of the flag beyond the evident racism. I found intimidation. There's something scary about a house that flies a Confederate flag. But maybe the owners are, on Memorial Day weekend, remembering relatives who died in the Civil War. I think about the Sheppard Fairey control icon (discussed in my first post of a few months past) that had no intended meaning. So possibly I am projecting my own interpretation onto this flag. Maybe it means something entirely other to the people flying it.

My reaction to the Confederate flag made me think of other people's reactions to the peace symbol. As I would drive to a job in Laurel a few years ago, I would pass a peace symbol someone had drawn on the wooden backing to an American flag draped over an overpass to Route 95. One woman who saw the peace symbol wrote to the local newspaper that it disgusted her and turned her stomach because it was a sign of hatred of America. I also remember news reports of a woman in Colorado who objected to her neighbor displaying a peace symbol in her window during the Christmas holidays.

Some people I know who embrace the peace symbol get angry at the suggestion that for many people, it stands for something other than peace. "It's just a peace symbol," they say. "How can anyone object to peace?" But is it truly a peace symbol if other people see in it hate, chaos, drugs and rejection of their values? If it makes them fearful? In that case, it can be like putting up a swastika and saying, wide-eyed, "oh, but it' just a symbol of ancient India."

While I can't say for others why they display either rebel flags or peace symbols, one thought is that they are expressing their identity and reaching out in a public way to the like minded. I've heard members of both groups get defensive about their "right" to show their symbols and their sense that it is other people's problem if they misunderstand the intent. To many, I suspect, the symbols bring back warm fuzzies from childhood. I know in my case, the peace symbol was a positive sign in my childhood, and I've had to step back and see it through other people's eyes. At first, I was surprised that others would object to it. Now, I try to be sensitive to that fact, and see that displaying a peace symbol is perhaps not the best way to build peace.

People do have a free speech right to display symbols that create a fear reaction in others. People who display rebel flags and peace symbols are probably right to say that their most vocal opponents misunderstand them. However, in the interest of civility, should some symbols, like the Confederate flag and the peace sign, that evoke so sharp an emotional response, be handled with greater care?

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