28 July 2015

Evil symbol vs. evil symbol?

The Blog

While the elimination of symbols of the Confederacy may be a necessary, if belated, way of combating injustice, we must be careful not to be drawn into a battle of symbols that is ultimately as superficial as the symbols themselves.

That is the warning issued by top social scientist Immanuel Wallerstein. Alluding to the apparent distinctions between the flag of the US federal government and the former Confederacy, Wallerstein wrote, "It is all too easy in the struggle against one noxious set of symbols to install in our collective value system another noxious set of symbols".

Included was of course the recognition that "symbols matter", but what matters more is changing what the symbols stood for. The absence of Confederate flags would have done nothing to prevent the numerous police killings of unarmed Black people that continue to stain the reputation of the United States as a supposedly multiracial and tolerant society. Removing the Confederate flag does not guarantee "less racism" as racism is a deeper problem than the allegiance to a flag (a contagion that exists everywhere today including among government officials and is not unique to racists in any way).

Wallerstein reminds us that symbols, as with many institutions of the modern state, are designed to exclude and even kill people on an arbitrary basis. Dislike of something as trivial as women's headwear in Europe is now the basis for much discrimination and also political discussion in western countries now, which represents a fascination with superficial cultural trappings and scapegoats.

Ultimately, all people in the human family are part of multiple and overlapping groups and we have to make compromises about symbols rather than getting into some kind of match where one symbol of a murderous state is pitted against another symbol of a murderous state, as if one is really the antithesis of the other.

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