Americans need a crash course in how to argue.
Inundated by partisan “screaming head” content daily on cable TV and blogs and social networks, we need a refresher on respecting opposing views for a healthy public discourse.
As a college English professor, I’ve been wondering about this as I witness my freshman composition students struggle to explain opposite viewpoints in essays. But after reading about Byron Thomas, a 19-year-old University of South Carolina freshman, I’m encouraged.
Thomas, who is black, hung a Confederate flag in his dorm room window after researching its meaning. Initially there were no complaints, but then university administrators asked him to take it down for violating the school’s anti-racism code. Thankfully, they came to their senses and reneged, realizing they were violating his right to free speech.
The Confederate or Rebel Flag is what Southern states that seceded from the Union fought and lost under during the Civil War against the North. The war was complex, but hinged and swung on slavery, especially as black men joined the Union army, helping to turn the tide toward victory. For many, the defeated Confederate Flag remains a symbol of racism and white supremacy.
In a video blog post, Thomas explained that he understands this history and respects blacks and whites who have fought and died for justice and equality. He believes the flag was co-opted by racists and chooses to see it as a symbol of states’ rights and smaller federal government. Besides, the near extinction of Indians happened under the American Flag, as well as slavery, sexism, legal segregation and the discrimination and racism that remain today. Thomas’ point is that these are shackles of previous generations and he wants his Millennials to have their turn with the banner for a better future. Move forward by changing what old symbols mean.
Of course, this is not a popular position for an African American to take, no matter how well reasoned. And just a glance at some of the negative comments at the CNN blog post about Thomas’ story reveals the intensity of emotion on this issue.
Even Thomas’ parents have challenged him on the matter, to the point that he said he was reluctant to raise the flag again because of their disappointment. As a parent of college students, I understand their concern. But as a Gen-Xer who believes in pushing boundaries, I’m impressed with this young man.
Can and should we change the meaning of symbols? Of course. It often happens with our language over time as words, which are merely symbols of meaning, evolve. “Bad” changes to “good.” “Cool” changes from a description of temperature to a description of one’s popularity. “Nigger” becomes “Nigga.” (Well, I don’t know about that one).
But the point is if we listen to each other, and take time to understand opposing views, we could become better informed in our convictions or perhaps change for good. We might find that we share more in common than not. Symbols and meanings are social constructs. They exist in the mind. If we truly strive for peace and understanding, even evil symbols, such as Swastikas or “stars and bars,” can weaken to worthlessness, especially among those who never suffered under them. The cross was a symbol of pain and condemnation, but Jesus turned it into one of ultimate sacrifice and redemption, right?
Well, the risk of what Thomas proposes is that we forget why the symbol was changed. “Choosing” to see the Confederate flag as non-racist also plays to the agenda of those who, in the name of “honoring Southern heritage,” would delete slavery and black pain from the Civil War narrative. This would be particularly devastating if embraced by young blacks — the generation for whom slaves prayed to God to grant a better future. It is our responsibility to honor our ancestors by “never forgetting” and by achieving dreams that for them were deferred.
Perhaps the younger generation could weaken the Confederate Flag by commercializing it. They could sport “Confed Gear” like how those “X” hats and shirts promoting Spike Lee’s 1992 film Malcom X went out of style when white kids began wearing them, too. I could be wrong, but it seems Thomas is on the right track in understanding free speech and using it for the public good. He told CNN the following:
“I learned that my generation of people are applauding me and telling me they want to see things different now. I’ve gotten so many friend requests on Facebook. They are encouraging me. The generation before has mixed views about it, strong views. The generation before won’t let us think for ourselves. They had their chance to think and run things but we need to have our chance. We will have our turn to step up to the plate and get out of this mess that we’re in.
“I respect where they are coming from. I’m not saying that what happened didn’t happen. We don’t want history to repeat itself, but I see where they are coming from. They endured things I might never endure, but why do I still have to feel grounded, that I have to endure it? They weren’t allowed to go to school with white people but I am. I have never been to a school without white people. Why can’t my generation start making our own history? I respect every black person for the civil rights movement. I just want us to move on from all of the hatred that’s still dividing us today. I’m tired of us still being divided.”
Son, you are persuasive and I’m proud of you for having the guts to make this sound, thoughtful argument.
Your parents raised you well.