Symbolic interaction is formed at the subconscious level. Because of that it is harder to explain and identify…and damned-near impossible to change.
The theory has been applied to numerous disciplines, most notably advertising, where companies spend billions trying to induce a positive “symbolic interaction” between the consumer and their product. Ask any ad agency how hard it is to get people to change their perceptions once your product has a negative association.
I’ve been thinking about this amid the latest incarnation of the public debate over Confederate imagery. This week, the City of New Orleans is in the process of taking down four monuments. The most controversial marks a failed 1874 insurrection by the Crescent City White League. 45 people, including 13 police officers were killed in the violence along Canal Street. This isn’t directly a Confederate or Civil War monument. The rebellion was in response to the provisional government the US had installed in New Orleans in the days of Reconstruction. But in the coming days, the city will remove three statues of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard and Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
It is the latest episode in a wave that began when Dylann Roof murdered nine parishioners at a Charleston-South Carolina church. Because he had been pictured holding a Confederate flag, coupled with the clear racial overtones of his killing spree; many in South Carolina re-doubled their effort to have the Stars and Bars removed from the State House. The wave of emotion was too much for flag supporters to overcome.
At the time, I and many others said the next, logical step after attacking the flag would be to strike the names of Confederates from memorials, roads and bridges. Not to mention the numerous schools that bear the names of soldiers from their respective neighborhoods. This has been happening steadily over the past 18 months. There is even an effort continuing in Memphis Tennessee to disinter the remains of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forest and move them away from a public park where it’s been for more than a century. Worries about literally “digging up history” may very well come to fruition.
Of course, this is an exercise in power that is as old as human history itself. In ancient times, victors would erase any remnants of a people they conquered; replacing it with their own. It was a not-so-subtle reminder of their defeat. It also served as an effort to intentionally re-shape that people’s history into a fashion that better suited the victors.
I have several wise friends who disagree with me on a variety of things. We look at the same evidence and come to different conclusions. But when we arrive at differing conclusions based on *subconscious* stimuli, like a flag, we are almost assuredly never going to find common ground. We can debate facts; but not feelings. But here’s the good news. Two people can look at the same thing and come to vastly different opinions about it. And both of them are right!! Your reaction to a symbol cannot be wrong.
So—how do you properly put symbols in their place? You think. If the Confederate flag appears at a KKK rally, I have a pretty good idea what message it’s intended to convey. If I see it a Confederate cemetery or at a Sons of Confederate Veterans meeting, it’s intended message is very different. This is a radical concept, so hold your breath: a symbol can mean more than one thing. The Confederate flag is racist when racists use it, and when non-racists use it, it’s not. In order to differentiate, you must THINK, not FEEL.
Because of our compulsion to purge all public viewing of Civil War imagery, there may come a time when anyone of prominence during this seminal period of our nation’s history will be relegated to the future’s equivalent of the Rosetta Stone. Known only to a few scholars; and no longer part of the day-to-day fabric of this great nation. That’s what happens when we judge people of the past by modern-day standards—then demonize them when they inevitably fall short of our oh-so-lofty standards. We live in a perpetual state of “now-ness…” of instant gratification and instant resolution. We intentionally separate ourselves based on every possible criteria—then wonder why are so damned angry and disconnected.
If the only goal here is to denounce racism and bring us together, I’m all in. But I am not getting that vibe. I get the feeling from both sides of this debate that neither is terribly concerned about the other—and that’s sad. We must realize that we are dealing with raw emotions. That means we are highly unlikely to win any converts. With that realization, maybe the debate can take a new turn.