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July 2, 2015 / Congau

The Meaning of a Flag

The heat of debate often increases when the object of disagreement is lacking in substance, and nothing seems to kindle public feelings as much as empty symbols. Unjust distribution of scarce resources may certainly ignite anger, but the collective mind only gets really furious when merely symbolic items are perceived as unjustly distributed.

The debate about gay marriages (yesterday’s blog post) is a case in point and so is another dispute that has recently erupted in the same world leading land. In the midst of violence and destitution there seems to be nothing more urgent to discuss than which flags should be flying on which roof tops.

A certain piece of fabric dyed with certain colors in combination, is supposed to be loaded with subtle meaning. Historians are summoned to explain its detailed past significance and laymen readily testify about their present unfailing emotions. Is it a banner of hatred or one of patriotic love? Does this cloth embody evil or good? You may search for an answer in history or in your heart and be equally convinced about its validity, but the reality of the matter you can never reach, for it doesn’t exist.

Symbols are nothing in themselves and standing alone they are devoid of reality.

But the flag represents a reality, you say. How can it when there is no agreement about what it means? The words of a language are symbolic representations of some reality and they function as such because the speakers of that language agree on their meaning. If there were no agreement, there would be no meaning and the words would not stand for anything and be mere sounds. Now, no one knows what a flag stands for. There may be some vague conception about elusive terms like “country,” “people,” “freedom,” “blood,” and “bravery,” but for any two persons those mental images would surely look different. (And in the case of the confederate flag the variety seems to be particularly great.)

It could be tempting to strike a conciliatory note and say that the flag means whatever it means to any one person, but that would be as nonsensical as granting a meaning to words in a language that is only spoken by one individual. Besides, one shouldn’t pretend that there is meaning in a meaningless conflict and thereby continue the struggle for nothing when there’s no shortage of real problems in the world.

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