08/03/2015 09:13 am ET Updated Aug 03, 2016

The Confederate Flag and the Lives of Symbols

Recent challenges to displays of the Confederate flag have created an ironic outcome; its presence is in fact more ubiquitous than before the challenges began. This resurgence is not just found among those championing the Confederate flag as a symbol of state's rights, or a symbol of a southern identity (that may or may not include an overtly racist agenda). Every time the use of the flag is questioned or criticized, for example when a picture of two white men waving the flag proudly is recirculated as a reminder of the hatred that potentially drives their actions, it appears again. Thus, in efforts to assure its invisibility, it has in fact become even more visible.

Semiotics, or the study of symbols, may help to explain why this is so. News coverage of the removal of the Confederate flag and disparaging memes of people flying it assume that, when presented in a new context ("recontextualized" in linguist-speak), the flag is given new meaning. Take, for example, a political cartoon in which the Confederate flag is held high by an overweight, white male (these details are not insignificant), the X in the flag standing in as the X in the word toxic. Appearing in this meme, the flag comes to signify new meanings (that its appearance is dangerous), than it did in the hypothetical image being satirized. However, this kind of supposedly unproblematic critical recontextualization of the flag, which assumes it is okay to represent it in a critical frame, also necessarily conjures some of its prior meanings (a representation of institutional slavery and a racist order). Any recontextualization, however critical, can thus reproduce original, potentially damaging meanings.

A similar argument was made recently regarding Obama's use of the n-word. Linguist John McWhorter in a Time editorial piece highlighted the fact that when the word itself is being referred to it should not be treated the same way as when it is being used to refer to someone. Obama was merely repeating someone else's use of the word, not using it himself to refer to someone. His use was thus acceptable, or so the argument goes. But many thought Obama's mention of the n-word, regardless of its recontextualization, was problematic.

This sentiment relies on the notion that, when recontextualized, a symbol can never truly strip away the meanings attached to the original object. Any symbol, in philosopher and semiotician Mikhail Bakhtin's terms, "tastes" of all its previous uses. Some symbols, such as the swastika and the n-word, and now, perhaps, the Confederate flag, have been used in such hateful and oppressive circumstances, that any current use of them, despite the user's intentions, still tastes of this hate.

It is this taste we are reacting to when we are unable to reproduce the n-word in print, and it is this taste that led African-American students to protest the installation of the Confederate flag at Robert E. Lee's burial site on the Washington and Lee campus (the university removed it). When a neighbor flies a Confederate flag outside her house in proud allegiance to "Dixie," its presence, according to this semiotic theory, evokes images of Dylann Roof waving the very same flag. Symbols have lives of their own, which is what makes them so consequential, so powerful across time and space.

But perhaps we can help (re)shape the lives of symbols. Moving them in certain directions, willing them to mean one thing rather than another. Queer theorists have arguably done just this. By forcefully wrestling the word "queer" from its homophobic use and employing it instead as a symbol of pride, Judith Butler and others have shown that through forced recontextualization, a symbol can perhaps overcome its historic tastes and acquire a new life.

The Confederate flag. The N-word. The drachma. Iran. Hoodie. Underground tunnel. Objects, words, place names, and even fictional people can take on symbolic lives of their own, which can serve to bring people together and/or divide them. Certain symbols carry historical meanings for particular individuals and communities, meanings that accrete over time and can never be stripped away no matter what actions are taken in the present-day. To get at the heart of the matter, we need to question how, why, and to what extent our initial impressions are reshaped based on new knowledge and experiences, or if symbols truly take on lives of their own over which we have little control. Since recontextualization necessarily invokes prior contextualizations, the answers to those questions will challenge social justice practitioners to reimagine the tools of our trade.

Robin Conley, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Anthropology in Marshall University's Sociology & Anthropology Department.

Netta Avineri, PhD, is Visiting Professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey.