Symbols often drive controversies because they seem to represent, articulate or personify events in a way that serve as intellectual shortcuts to understanding long-brewing or distressing situations. Think Trayvon Martin's hoodie, the "garbage barge" sailing around America in the late 1980s symbolizing diminishing landfill space and even Tom Brady becoming the latest personification of ongoing resentment toward the New England Patriots for playing dirty.
And now, with the tragedy in Charleston, the Confederate flag, which has been around for over 150 years, is back in the news with calls from leading politicians to remove it from the South Carolina state capital and Amazon.com, Walmart, Sears and eBay all pulling it from their catalogues.
Symbols can profit or be harmed by controversy. Mayor Rudy Giuliani became a symbol of strong, empathetic leadership on 9/11 largely by being on the scene. During the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal, football coach Joe Paterno was instantaneously - and inaccurately - assumed to have had perfect information about Sandusky's activities and then chose to cover them up.
When terrible things happen, human beings understandably demand punishment. Something or someone has to be removed from authority or prominence even if its connection to the offending event was attenuated or indirect. Whether that punishment is considered just or not depends upon our pre-existing biases. I was raised in New Jersey and given my roots have associated the Confederate flag with slavery for as long as I have known of its existence. It will be impossible to dislodge that perception from my mind however hard I may seek to be open-minded.
Other symbols are easier to knock down. While I understood the pain of Ferguson, the "Hands Up Don't Shoot" meme didn't ring true any more than the too-perfect initial storyline about the Duke lacrosse players who were falsely accused of participating in a gang rape held up.
As I argue in my book on scandal, Glass Jaw, once a symbol, meme or incendiary statement gets sucked in to the vortex of controversy it has become increasingly difficult to defend or re-characterize it because of the sheer volume and velocity of old and new media attention. Accordingly, some of the largest on- and off-line retailers opted to rid themselves of the most recent symbol in order not appear tone deaf to Charleston. Media in the Digital Age, despite its purported diversity, tends to move in the direction of immediate catharsis - the unloved symbol, right or wrong, has got to go.
In the case of the Confederate flag, I can't say I feel awful about it.
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