The Confederate flag has been a lightning rod for criticism in recent weeks and understandably so. However, the flag is far from the problem.
In the aftermath of the Charleston, S.C. church shooting on June 17, a debate has arisen over the modern usage and display of what is colloquially known as the Confederate flag — more accurately identified as the battle flag of the army of Northern Virginia from the American Civil War.
The flag is still immensely popular, not only in southern United States but also in Western Canada where it has no true political or historical context.
In an email interview with the Sheaf, Lucas Richert — a sessional lecturer in American history at the University of Saskatchewan — suggests that the meaning of the flag is unambiguous, even if it’s perceived differently by those who fly it.
“The Confederate flag is tied to the Confederate cause and the Confederate cause was white supremacy. That’s the simplest way you can put it,” Richert said. “These meanings cannot be negotiated or sanitized.”
Richert offered further insights into how the flag is likely interpreted by those who fly it in Western Canada.
“My guess is that the flag is used as an expression of rebellion, but more often than not detached from its historical context. Rebels are often considered ‘badass’ or tough or cool.”
Garrison Zellar, a fourth year economics major at the U of S who was born and raised in Huntsville, Texas, agrees that the use of the flag in Western Canada likely has more to do with rebellion and anti-government ideals than white supremacy.
“I don’t think its use here has much to do with history,” Zellar said in an email to the Sheaf. “For both Canadians and Americans it’s an anti-authority, anti-government symbol. I don’t believe most of them mean it as a symbol of white supremacy.”
So where does this leave us? We have a flag that is seen by many to be innocuous and by many others to represent hatred, inequality and more. In our own backyard, people are alternatively vilifying the flag and jumping to its defense.
Last month, controversy erupted over those touting the flag at the Craven Country Jamboree, while a Regina man filed a complaint with the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission over the flag’s recent treatment.
This current wave of criticism is no doubt vindicating for those who are against the flag and those who fly it. However, while the arrow of criticism is sharp, it still seems to be missing the target.
It’s easy to rail against people who feel that the display of the flag is acceptable, but this ease simply underscores the truth that criticizing and protesting the flag — or its devotees — is not the way to deal with the issue.
Instead, it would seem that the solution is much softer in approach, if not more time consuming. Rather than telling people that they can’t fly the flag, we need to create an environment in which people recognize for themselves why they wouldn’t want to anyways.
This is especially important when considering that many of those who fly the flag in Saskatchewan are likely not supporting its most despicable traits, but rather its more romanticized ones.
We can do this not through the villainization or tabooing of a symbol, but through educating people who fail to understand what it is they’re passively supporting. Rather than being combative, the key lies in handling the issue openly and respectfully. Just because someone fails to see a problem doesn’t mean they have to be ignorant about it.
“We shouldn’t attack people based on their views in general. One, because it isn’t nice and two, because it’s adversarial and that doesn’t convince people to change their mind,” Zellar said. “Instead, keeping an amicable dialogue open is the only way to change minds.”
Regarding the power and relevance of the flag itself, Zellar feels that it “isn’t a substantive issue. It’s a small result of the ever-looming issue: race in America … A flag is an easy but worthless target; instead America should pull itself up by its bootstraps and discuss the hard and uncomfortable facts about race.”
Image: Jeremy Britz/Graphics Editor