The Confederate Flag

November 4, 2011

Political Theory


As the United States is currently commemorating  the 150th anniversary of its Civil War (that’s the Sesquicentennial for all you Latin fans out there), and having been born and raised in Virginia, where one can’t go for very long without being reminded of that war (e.g. my high school was named after Robert E Lee with one of our rivals being Jeb Stuart High), I decided to read a book analyzing this American (Southern in particular) obsession with the war: Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic. In his book Horwitz, journalist by trade, travels through much of the South to attempt to learn why the war is so engrained in the Southern-American psyche. Horwitz of course encounters the Confederate Battle flags throughout his trip through the modern South as well as many personal reasons for displaying it by its owners.

The Confederate Battle flag

Obviously the Confederate Battle flag invokes some sort of reaction out of most Americans, regardless of background. The flag remained a symbol in the 146 years after the Confederacy surrendered in 1865 for both descendants of the CSA and also for hate against African-Americans as it became the standard for both the Ku Klux Klan in the Reconstruction Era South, and for the Anti-Civil Rights groups of the mid-20th Century. The Confederate Battle flag has been the focus of controversy in the United States in the past two decades or so, as Southern state governments and grass-roots organizations in those states campaigned to either keep the symbol of the war or remove it from capital buildings and other state institutions. Georgia is an example of a state who removed the Battle Flag from its state standard in 2001. States such as Mississippi and South Carolina, however, still continue to fly the Confederate flag either directly on its state flag (Mississippi) or fly the Battle flag above various government buildings (South Carolina). Other Southern states offer residents who request it state-issued license plates with the controversial flag.

Of course freedom of speech in the United States protects private citizens’ right to fly whatever flag they wish on their own property but my question is should state governments continue to be allowed to fly the Confederate Battle flag and open protect it, as Mississippi, South Carolina, and others have done for so long, when a large minority of their populations see the flag not only as offensive but as symbols of past oppression and intimidation? Would this still lie under Mill’s definition of “free discussion” to be protected, if it can be seen as an ever present reminder to the African-American minorities in those states of intimidation, especially intimidation with the intent of stopping their free-speech (e.g. KKK and Anti-Civil Rights governments’ attempts to stop Blacks from voting, serving in government, etc)?

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3 Comments on “The Confederate Flag”

  1. jrphilli Says:

    In my opionion, no because of what the flags symbolizes. The majority has no right the shut out the minority, meaning even if the citizens do not agree with this, it is still apart of their freedom of speech. And the hanging of this flag would be protected by Mill’s free discussion. Mill saids that truth drives out falsity, therefore the free expression of ideas, true or false, should not be feared. So, even though this flag can bring back fear and intimidation into African Americans, Mill’s believes that one should not let someones elses free expression scare them.

  2. jkb34383 Says:

    Freedom of speech has always been one of our country’s core values. Whether the form of media that is being published is offensive or not, it is still in every Americans right to speak their minds freely. In this case, citizens who choose to fly the confederate flag are exercising their freedom of speech. The most common misconception regarding this topic is that the confederate flag symbolizes slavery. Most people get the wrong idea that those who fly the confederate flag endorse such an inhumane concept. Most citizens who fly the confederate flag rather are making reference to their ancestor’s, roots, or a historical moment in this country.

  3. ldahbour Says:

    The fear, hatred, and even sometimes violence induced by the presentation of the Confederate Battle Flag does not align with Mill’s conditions of free expression, in fact Mill claims that if a form of expression was to experience the things listed above, then one does not have a right to express it. I understand that the flag has different meanings for different people, but its historical representation does explain the discontent that people experience when they see the Confederate flag being flown. As long as the flag is kept in an environment that does not have the potential to induce harm, hatred, or fear, then it can be expressed in that environment. However, to associate that flag with institutionalized buildings affiliates the state government (as in the case with Mississippi and South Carolina) with the induced negative feelings.

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