Legislating Language

The Confederate battle flag was ceremoniously lowered from the South Carolina Capitol this morning. The democratic process worked as well as it ever does. A duly elected legislature voted to remove the banner from the government-owned building. Nothing to it.

But the debate over flying the flag on state property has spilled into questions about whether businesses should be allowed to sell the Confederate battle flag or whether private citizens should be able to fly the flag on their own property.

Recently, Scott Hancock, an associate professor at Gettysburg College proffered a novel solution to the “problem” of people flying the Confederate flag in their own yard. If he had his way, the town government would pass an ordinance defining what the flag stands for. He does not propose any specific wording for this ordinance, but his suggestion would apparently be along the lines of: “It is hereby ordered that the Confederate battle flag shall be understood to represent treason, racism, and chattel slavery, and that the flying of said flag shall be seen as an endorsement of same.”

Before going into why Professor Hancock’s proposal is a bad one, I would like to acknowledge a few important points that he is correct about. First, he acknowledges that freedom of speech (like all of the rights that are primary to the American way of life) is a negative right. This means that the power of speech is not something that the government gives to its citizens, but something which it cannot take away.  He also acknowledges that the most reasonable and effective method of dealing with the objectionable speech of others is to simply ignore it. Beyond these points, however, Professor Hancock seems to be profoundly misguided.

The most obvious mistake that the professor makes is the determination that a simple majority of people are capable of determining what a word or symbol “means” to everybody. Perhaps in the realm of the purely utilitarian, such is the case. A simple majority could, by democratic vote, determine that a red octagon posted at an intersection means “cars approaching this intersection must stop and yield right-of-way.” But private speech cannot be so restricted. If the legislature passed an ordinance that defined the word “swag” as only “such plunder as is carried off by pirates”, that would have no effect on how frat boys and rappers use the word or what they mean when they say it.

When Professor Hancock says that the Confederate flag does not represent bravery in battle, camaraderie among brothers-at-arms, or an independent spirit, what he is really saying is that the flag does not mean that to him. To everybody who flies the flag with the intention of conveying the aforementioned virtues, the flag absolutely does represent them. And just because one person does not agree with that interpretation of a symbol does not mean that he can legislate what the symbol means for everybody, even if he has a majority on his side.

To paraphrase Wittgenstein, a symbol’s meaning is in its use. If person A flies the Confederate flag to show his pride in the independent spirit of the South or to express his belief that states’ rights are primary to national sovereignty, that is what the flag stands for. If person B views the flag and does not (or chooses not to) understand A’s meaning, then there has simply been a breakdown in the language game. B cannot declare unilaterally that A was the cause of the miscommunication and create new rules to suit his own understanding.

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Beer of the week: Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA – This strong, clear IPA is quite good. It is also very, very hoppy. In fact, the first sip was so hoppy that I was a bit overwhelmed by the strong aftertaste. As I kept drinking, however, I found that the beer actually has a strong malt backbone under all of that hops. Once I got over the initial bitterness I found that this beer is actually quite well balanced.

Reading for the week: Philosophical Inquiries by Ludwig Wittgenstein, §40-47 – This reading shows how we have to be careful in attempting to define the “meaning” of words or symbols. If I say “The Confederate battle flag ‘means’ a certain piece of fabric, red with a starry blue cross,” I am saying something quite different from “The Confederate battle flag ‘means’ slavery, oppression, freedom, or history.” Even the meaning of the word meaning is not unequivocal!

Question for the week: Rather than an ordinance defining the Confederate battle flag as something bad, why not pass an ordinance defining the Confederate battle flag as the official flag of racial harmony? Wouldn’t that be likely to have a more positive result?

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