Comments on economics, mystery fiction, drama, and art.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Banning the (Confderate) flag

Earlier tonight, I read an article about students at Lapel High School (in Lapel, IN) wearing Confederate-flag clothing to school.  The school reacted by banning such clothing; the students, according to the principal, “said they were trying to support the Southern heritage of the flag and not people’s opinion of what the flag may stand for.”

Leaving aside what is (to me, at any rate) appalling ignorance on the part of the students (or a lack of candor about their intentions)—the Confederate flag is not a symbol of southern heritage—it’s a symbol inextricably tied to the existence of slavery in the south and of a war that was fought to sustain slavery and to create conditions for the geographical expansion of slavery—I find myself oddly ambivalent about the whole situation.  You see, I am old enough to remember how political speech was, in another context, treated in schools across the United States.

In the 1960s, and especially in the latter part of the decade, school officials across the US responded to students who wore clothing displaying the peace symbol, not by discussing it with the
students, but by expelling them.  It took a lot of time, and a lot of trouble, before the courts recognized, and public officials (like school principals) were forced to accept that wearing such clothing was—and is—protected speech.  (So was, it may be remarkable to recall, clothing made from, or displaying the American flag.) 

The only appropriate response to protected political speech is not to try to suppress it; it is to respond to it (or ignore it).  At Lapel, the principal, as he describes it, tried to explain to the students why such clothing was inappropriate:  "We talked about the Southern heritage, and that for many people, that flag stands for racism. We emphasized they need to know what the message (is) they’re sending."  (Although I think he got the message of the Confederate flag wrong—it’s not –just—racism; it’s support for the institution of slavery, and, more specifically, slavery based on race.)  When the students returned the following day, again wearing Confederate flag clothing, the school banned it.  (The students were not personally disciplined.)

I understand the school’s actions.  (I don’t understand the student’ actions, but that’s because I do not share their apparent—as demonstrated by their actions—politics.)  But if we (I) can prohibit political speech of which we (I) disapprove, what grounds do we (I) have for protesting when someone bans our (my) political speech?  In the 1960s, people fought for their right to express their opposition to the war in Viet Nam (which was growing increasingly unpopular, but which still had a lot of support).  I think that, as a society, we now at least sort of agree that it was a war we should not have fought.  And, at least to some extent, we see the protests against that was as justified

Those students are wrong, I think, to believe that displaying the Confederate flag is a benign act.  It’s not.  Their politics are wrong, their beliefs are wrong.  Say I.  But the First Amendment gives people the right to be wrong.  So I wind up not knowing what to do.  Would shunning those students “work”?  I don’t know.  It could just confirm them in their beliefs.  Will banning the Confederate flag “work”?  I don’t know.  It may just drive the whole thing underground, so that it goes unaddressed, unconfronted, unresolved. 

The problem with believing in freedom of speech, unfortunately, is that we have to deal, somehow, over and over again, with things like this.


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