"A GARMENT, AN AUTOMOBILE, A DISH OF COOKED FOOD, A GESTURE, A FILM, A PIECE OF MUSIC, AN ADVERTISING IMAGE, A PIECE OF FURNITURE, A NEWSPAPER HEADLINE—THESE INDEED APPEAR TO BE HETEROGENEOUS OBJECTS. WHAT MIGHT THEY HAVE IN COMMON? THIS AT LEAST: ALL ARE SIGNS." — ROLAND BARTHES, THE SEMIOTIC CHALLENGE
I count the sudden and mass outrage regarding the still flying Confederate flag in the wake of the Charleston church shooting both warranted and welcome, but at the same time, am also saddened by the reality that it has taken this long and this much for people to take such critical notice of this destructive and deplorable symbol. I mean, shouldn’t we have noticed the problems with this cultural artifact long before the killings in Charleston rather than after?
This is one of many reasons why I’m vexed when people say things like it’s just semantics or it means what you want it to mean in conversations... and expect such a statement to be taken for granted. A symbol like this and many others show us that semantic assessment and intentionally sought for meanings are vital to the ways in which our culture conceives of the world and the people in it.
Which is to say, discussions about the racist and oppressive ideologies inherent to the Confederate flag should have taken place long before 2015, because there are many symbols in our culture that can never be accepted, danced around, redeemed, or talked out of. Because even if we’d like to say that this or that symbol is about heritage or whatever else that would make us feel better about our ideological and practical errors, it’s a moral failure to leave out the broader and deeper context of any symbol that harms or hurts.
And so I think there’s a dual responsibility that all of us are presented with in these moments. The first being the more obvious one: that people continue to or start categorically rejecting the flying of the Confederate flag in any way shape or form. The second being the less obvious one: that we begin to interrogate other cultural symbols and artifacts that we have passively received, tolerated, or even worn with pride. Because they’re not just semantics and they don’t mean what you want it to mean.
These symbols mean something. And their meaning matters.