Flag Language

06/26/2015 02:45 pm ET | Updated Jun 25, 2016

Flags are, of course, symbols. They fit into a level of communication that, in our practice of quantum storytelling, we call Meta language. Meta language uses symbols (above and beyond the idea that all language is symbolic) metaphors, analogies, comparisons and other broad frames of reference to connect lots of stories by "representing" them. To many Americans, for example apple pie represents stories about Mom. A mountain climb can represent all stories about achievement. A panda can represent stories most people would find "cute" or "adorable." A baby can represent stories of innocence and wonder.

Meta language can be useful for rallying people to a cause or producing a general understanding of a concept. For example, Albert Einstein's uncle famously got him interested in algebra when Einstein was six years old by telling him they were "going to go hunting for a rabbit whose name is X." The rabbit, in Einstein's re-telling of this story, is Meta language for all mysteries that can be explained by math.

Flags are not as easy to pin down in terms of their meaning, because their meaning is all over the map, literally and figuratively. They can be highly problematic when they represent stories that are in conflict with one another.

When they represent an "Us" and "Them" frame of reference, two sides of a boundary, flags can cause more division than unity, and do more harm than good. Stories about pandas don't hold anywhere near as much conflict and ambiguity as the stories we associate with flags. This is the current situation we are seeing with the Battle Flag of Virginia, commonly known as the Confederate flag. When a flag is used as it was by the confessed killer of nine peaceful, prayerful people in a Charleston church basement last week, to signify murderous intent and try to instigate a race war, that flag becomes a visible symbol of a huge problem.

Stories associated with the so-called Confederate flag are in deep conflict and emotionally loaded, like clouds charged with electricity. To one audience, the flag represents generations of racism, intolerance, violent separations of families and tribes, and institutionalized oppression of all kinds. To another audience it represents stories of family and tribal identity, valor, love of the land, types of music, types of dress, pick-up trucks, the 1st Amendment, the 2nd Amendment, and the various narratives produced and sold by people for whom the Confederate flag represents business opportunities.

The storytellers most engaged with these opposing energies are almost never able to resolve them:

"The flag must come down!"
"The flag will fly!"
"Hooray, Wal-mart won't sell the flag!"
"Yee-haw, Amazon has it in stock!"
"Give us your guns."
"Over my dead body."
"We need the government to put an end to this!"
"We need to put an end to government!"

The problem is that these polarized points of view is that they don't resolve. Not peacefully, anyway. One reason is that these are the views that are farthest apart and thus hardest to synthesize. To use a couple of familiar political symbols, it is like trying to breed an Elephant and a Donkey. One side will be always frustrated and the other side will always be terrified, and never the twain shall mate. Another reason is that the two positions are a tug of war between a longing for the Past, and a desire for a better Future, and both positions ignore the fact that all possibilities, the only actions available to us, are those we can take in the Present.

Left unchecked, or without other avenues of expression, opposing positions and story lines harden ("reify" is the technical term), and fuel one another like two weather fronts until they collide and create what our friend, the quantum storyteller Dr. Krisha Coppedge, calls the "Hurricanic Turbulences" that destroy communities and limit our future opportunities.

To give ourselves the best odds of avoiding the Hurricanic Turbulences, we have to find ways to reduce the temperature and intensity at the most heated end of the story spectrum, where emotions are highest and where most of the irresolvable conflicts live. The Ku Klux Klan and the NAACP have distinct and opposing notions of the so-called Confederate flag that will never be two sides of the same coin. The Muslim Brotherhood and students at Bob Jones University are not going to hug it out, bro-style, and have a beer anytime soon. There are no odds in trying to resolve conflicts from positions for which there's no possible near-term resolution. It is wasted effort to try.

So how do we do it? How do we avoid polarization and move toward a future where there is more tolerance, more empathy, more opportunity? How do we see our differences as a source of strength not separation? How do we honor the fact that a linchpin of American culture has always been our diversity, because that's where creativity lives. I am me and you are you, and together, we are a Thing neither of us, nor anyone else, could have imagined on our own. How do we build a future where, as the improvisation coach Dave Razowsky says, "We fly solo together"? A future where we can freely appropriate from one another, and give equally of our genuine selves, to bring the New and Improved Thing to market, be it product, culture, citizen or community?

In dividing ourselves into Flag Wavers and No Flaggers we severely limit our opportunities to connect and co-create. Black is black. White is white. In either view, there is no shade. It is, rather, in what the quantum storyteller Dr. Anete Strand, calls "The Between," in the space of our differences, and in the different perspectives we bring to a problem, that we reveal our shared future by co-creating it. It is here that we experience the insights and innovations that carry us into new and more civil ways of conducting ourselves on our brief flight together around the planet. It is in the space Between black/you're wrong and white/I'm right, that we discover the infinite hues of our individual intentions, and the infinite ways they can be synthesized into new materials and ways of being. We are not here to judge one another's differences, we are here to celebrate them.

Okay, enough of the background. Let's get down to tactics. How can we go about pragmatically minimizing the level of conflict associated with the so-called Confederate flag? How can we confront the recurring patterns of extreme of positions, and channel them into less destructive patterns? How do we maximize our opportunities for collaborations in the future?

Here are five things I think most of us can do in the Present to help create a Future that improves on the Past:

1. Act on Adjacencies. Find and act on stories that are adjacent to the flag stories that are most in conflict. This is what the families of the Charleston victims have done so heroically. What is adjacent to their totally human desire to hate on the killer and seek revenge for what he did? Their capacity for forgiveness, informed by their Christianity, that's what. The beauty of their choice is enhanced by the fact that Christianity is also present in the lives of many flag-wavers and their families. Both sides, as it turns out, are adjacent to stories of Jesus. This is just one type of adjacency. Many more are possible.

2. Ritualize Humans crave ritual. It is another form of Meta language. We add rituals to almost everything we do. They bring order and meaning to action. Batters have rituals before they swing at baseballs. Workers have rituals for getting ready for work. Casts perform rituals before they take the stage. To reduce the possibility of future conflicts, it helps us it helps to understand that the lowering of a flag and the taking down of a statue are types of rituals. If we do not consciously create the rituals to accompany these actions, they will create themselves spontaneously, and they will be more likely to combust and bring trouble with them, because they will have been forged in the hottest, most conflicted end of the emotional spectrum. Better to consciously ritualize the act of lowering the so-called Confederate flag and the dismantling of the statues and other symbols of a bygone era hospitable to behaviors we recognize today as abhorrent. The ritual itself is not an abhorrent act, nor will it honor abhorrent stories represented by the flag and the statue. What it will honor is the fact that we are moving on. The rituals will be rites of passage.

3. Re-Contextualize. Different environments produce different outcomes. Moving these flags and other materials to museums, which can accommodate stories from both extreme positions by looking at them through the lens of history, is one way of re-contextualizing them, and diminishing their impact. The so-called Confederate flag, like a lot of flags is composed of simple geometries, and three colors. Rather than trying to eradicate all instances of one configuration of these geometries and colors--at great expense and little chance of it happening--it can be more effective to add more meaning to the mix. We can expand the meaning of the colors and geometries by de-constructing them and expanding the contexts in which they are used. In doing this, we de-emphasize the one composition and its ugliest meanings by diluting them. Think of it like the difference between one kid peeing in an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and that same kid peeing in the kiddie pool. We'd probably swim in one and evacuate the other. The Present is a pool we can all swim in as long as it's sufficiently large, and not too many kids are peeing in it. We can either try to keep kids from peeing in pools, good luck with that, or expand the pool. This a strategy for expanding the pool.

4. Recognize Non-Duality. "The flag will fly!" and "The flag must come down!" are just two versions a nearly infinite set of stories associated with the so-called Confederate flag. For example, there are stories in which the flag is not a symbol at all. It is data, as in the historical narrative of the flag presented as information in a museum. No doubt there are black alumni of Ole Miss who had good experiences there, regardless of any flag flying over the statehouse. The point is to accept that all these stories and world views exist, not just two. Having recognized this, we can then reduce the polarity by moving toward, and connecting with, stories that are neither "Fly the flag" nor "Take down the flag". They are something else. Like stories of forgiving those who have trespassed against us.

5. Make Small Moves. The beauty of small moves is that they are already happening, and most of them are being made by other people. If we pay attention, and are looking for them, they can be as easy to see as birds in the sky. No one person can make enough small moves to matter, but many people, making many small moves can make a big difference. So this action focuses our attention on what is already happening that has a positive outcome, no matter how small it is, and doing more of it. A smile. A touch. Politeness. A prayer. A hug. A phone call. A wink. A joke. A kindness. A song. A visit. A tip. A donation. A gift. A pat on the back. See it wherever it happens. Then do more of it.

Clearly, the time has come to re-claim the spaces, physical and virtual, public and private, used for statues that commemorate champions of slavery and flagpoles where pro-racist flags fly. We need that space for gardens and solar panels and other symbols and acts of unity. Together we can out-story the merchants of, fear, uncertainty and hate, who profit from dividing us. We can end the glamorization of the gun culture and the fear that drives it. But only if all of us do something. Make something happen. Anything. It can be big or it can be small. Just make. Something. Happen. Do it in the name of love, and in honor of the lives of Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Reverend Daniel L. Simmons, Reverend Depayne Middleton-Doctor, and Susie Jackson. May they rest in the peace to which they had dedicated, and now have consecrated, their lives.