People know that I view the phrase “politically correct” in all its forms and variations as intellectually bankrupt. Once upon a time I recall that people who used the term did so to encourage others to be aware of the implications of language. Now it is used negatively as criticism: to bow to political correctness is to give in to the sensibilities of a particular group in ways that the critic finds nonsensical or cowardly. In short, it’s become a buzz term that can mean anything but often doesn’t mean very much at all, and its uses as a sort of rhetorical shorthand that allows the user to evade offering a more precise meaning. As an attack term, it also allows the user to avoid defending whatever he or she espouses.
We hear the debate often when it comes to the display of Confederate flags, most often the Confederate Battle Flag. That’s understandable: it means different things to different people. Although some people point out that the Confederate Battle Flag enjoyed a revival as a symbol of resistance to civil rights and integration in the 1950s and 1960s, it’s also been used simply to express a sentiment of rebellion or rebelliousness. Sometimes its use is ill-defined. Take, for example, The Dukes of Hazzard. I don’t think Bo and Luke were showing their support for segregation. The Dukes were a rebellious sort, and their targets included none other than Jefferson Davis Hogg. But I’m also not sure that the knew a great deal about General Lee, although they named the car in question after him.
Nevertheless, I doubt that today there would be a television show featuring a car with a Confederate flag adorning its top. People’s sensibilities have changed. One wonders whether F Troop, McHale’s Navy, or Hogan’s Heroes would be on mainstream commercial television as well.
Setting the Confederate Battle Flag in context calls for a great deal of thought and a willingness to listen, even to place oneself in someone else’s shoes. For many Confederate heritage advocates, it’s the soldiers’ flag, and in flying it one honors one’s ancestors who served. On the other hand, for those of us with ancestors who served in the United Sates military during the war, it’s the flag flown by people trying to kill our ancestors. For most African Americans, it’s the flag of an effort to protect and promote the enslavement of several million people through securing independence. Others will have their own takes on what the flag in question means to them, just as there are people, including some Native Americans/American Indians/indigenous peoples (each of these terms has been celebrated and dismissed in the culture wars) view the United States flag with skepticism if not downright disgust.
In short, we each have different reactions to different symbols. Those reactions often divide us. Is there a principled way to discuss how to address those various sensibilities when it comes to the display of contested symbols? You tell me.