Despite Stephen Hawking’s claim that philosophy is dead, every single human action made by every human in Western culture, is, first and foremost, an action with ethical implications and secondly they all contains metaphysical assumptions— alas, philosophy exists in everything we do. Something as simple as buying coffee in a consumable, non-recyclable cup from a national coffee chain like Starbucks is making the implicit ethical claim that the carbon footprint used by people of Western culture is not a problem, that supporting a large capitalist corporation is not a problem and that the exploitation of coffee farmers in foreign lands is not a problem. You may, on some level, find that you are in the ethical wrong but do it anyway, because you do not think your actions make a difference; but ethical indifference through diffused responsibility is still ethical indifference. In addition to making the implicit ethical claims, you are making metaphysical assumptions by implicitly assuming parts of our human reality are permanently rooted— unchangeable, or as John Searle’s calls them: “default positions”.[i] To take the aforementioned ethical stances you would have to take the assumption that we have no ethical obligation to future generations, as to assert the metaphysical assumption that ethical claims are predicated on existing. If you do not exist, you have no ethical claim. Additionally, to assume that the capitalist ideology takes precedence over the quality-of-life of coffee farmers in South America, is to implicitly reinforce that the ethos of the capitalist ideology must be maintained above all else and the allowance of ethically questionable activities can be tolerated in pursuance of maintaining the capitalist status quo; as to assume that all other ideological systems subordinate into capitalism. However, as all action has metaphysical assumptions, even in my argument I am making the assumption that my life is of a higher quality than that of a coffee farmer. As to assume that things like coffee, this laptop, my condo and my Volkswagen automatically add to the quality of my life, to assert that purchasing power creates happiness. In this sense even my anti-capitalist critique is implicitly assuming that the values of capitalism are “default positions” of human flourishing. That is to say, I am implying what makes humans happy, what makes a good society and in essence I am assuming the ethos of Utopia. It could be argued that our actions are implicitly suggesting what Utopia would look like. We are trying to redefine the world over as a constant reflection of our metaphysics and if we do this while thinking we are in some way working towards the promotion of the greater good, we are in some sense creating the contents of our vision of Utopia.
With that said, I would like to look at the recent debate over the confederate flag and ask the simple question of: Would the Confederate flag exist in Utopia? If we ask questions such as, should we support racist symbols, or should the government promote racist symbols— we are in essence predicating our questions on implied value judgments about the flag (and symbols), the purpose of government, the intent of the flag-wavers and racism altogether. I will table those questions and get straight to the meat of the argument:
Utopia, defined as the concept of social perfection — the perfect society; and the Confederate flag, defined as a symbol with racist connotations.
And, hence I will rephrase my question as follows:
Does a perfectly conceived society contain symbols with racist connotations?
Before delving into that question it would be best to assess and deconstruct the concept of a symbol first. The word “rock”, as a signifier, is the word used to symbolize the thing that is a rock (the signified) and the word rock is inclusive of the qualities of rockness: hard, solid, heavy, etc. The relation between the signifier (word rock) and signified (the rock thing) is completely arbitrary, as there is nothing inherent to the thing rock as to assume we inscribe it as the word ‘rock’. Symbols, such as flags, on the other hand are rather different than a rock. If we were to ask a person what the signifier American Flag means, the explanation of its physical qualities (stars and stripes) will not really tell us anything at all. In some sense, you can say that flags, like the American flag, represent ideas and not physical attributes of the flag itself. Say we had to examine these three objects: a pillow, a rock and a coffee mug and without having any previous experience or knowledge of these objects, it would be reasonable to assert that from examining the meaning of these signified objects we could identify their proper signifiers. Conversely, if we were to examine three flags: American flag, Nazi flag and Confederate flag without any previous experience or knowledge of these flags, it would be unreasonable to assert from examining an interpretation of the meaning that we’d be able to know which is which. In other words, the signified object of these flags do not contain the signifiers of freedom, anti-Semitism and racism. Ideas like freedom, equality, racism, nationalism, justice, liberty, pride and heritage are all master-signifiers, which is a term for explaining signifiers that cannot be signified. I can define rock, and see rock, and confirm rock. But what does liberty look like?
A flag, if you take away the ideas it represents, is merely shapes and colors sewn from cloth— this is not meaningful in of itself. Hence, it could be said that a flag only gains meaning by the ideas it represents and not by its physical qualities. But since liberty is not signified, the ideas inscribed upon a flag are arbitrarily placed and not universal. That is to say the American flag could mean one idea to one person and another to someone else. These ideas could be positive, negative or neutral. Or, in other words, there is no objective idea behind any symbol and since flags, as a symbol, have no way of explicitly translating their meaning — it could be said that flags are completely subjective.
I shall return to the question at-hand:
Does a perfectly conceived society contain symbols with racist connotations?
Since the ideas inscribed to flags are subjective then it is possible that somebody, somewhere inscribes racist ideas to all symbols. Meaning, all symbols may be perceived by somebody as having a racist connotation. In that sense, we could say that utopia does not contain any flags whatsoever, or any symbol that are capable of having ideas projected upon them. However, that seems like a rather absurd suggestion, so we will rephrase our question as follows:
Does a perfectly conceived society contain symbols that a majority perceives as containing a racist connotation?
So, if a symbol is perceived by the majority of the population at representing ideas of racism — is this sufficient cause to censor the symbol? Is this not rooted in the metaphysical assumption that the majority group has a higher claim to grant meaning to symbols than the minority group? Is this any different than assuming my quality of life — as actualized in my ability to buy Starbucks and expend massive amounts of carbon — takes precedence over the quality of life of people in South America? I am not saying that one group is right and one group is wrong, but rather I am saying the projecting of ideas onto symbols is completely arbitrary and subjective and is almost akin to projecting aesthetic value onto art. At one point in time penises were removed from art, because it was considered to be profane, and now it could be argued that the mere idea of censoring art for religious sensibilities is an act of profanity itself. Is censoring offensive flags the same thing? Censoring and demonizing the symbols that the majority find offensive— as to assume they have a right to make such a claim? Why should we assume that one interpretation of a symbol carries more weight than another? If a middle-eastern country decided to outlaw the American flag would we condemn their blatant censorship of our symbol; while self-righteously wrapping ourselves in our Bill of Rights as to imply under the guise of our freedom of speech we would never lower ourselves to such barbarism? Or, in other words, we as Americans, as the purveyors of freedom can decide that censoring our symbol is an infringement of speech, but conversely, we can choose to censor the confederate flag or nazi flag. This is not a contradiction, because we are the purveyors of freedom and our subjective perception of what is sacred and profane is objectively right— because we dictate the dominant symbolic ideology. Is this metaphysical assumption fair?
It is absurdity to assume that socially and politically ostracizing the minority who does not perceive a particular symbol as racist, classist, sexist or any other profane idea is the path to utopia. It is also absurd to assume that the perception of the majority regarding a particular symbol dictates the reality of that symbol and henceforth makes the minority embody the qualities of the symbol by association. To be clear: if person X projects the ideas of ‘racism’ on to the confederate flag and person Y projects the ideas of family on to the confederate flag; neither idea has more value than the other, and person X cannot make the leap as to assume that person Y is lying, or that person Y includes racism as being inclusive in their idea of family. Person Y is capable of being fooled by their defense mechanisms just as much as person X is. Person Y may be harboring deep-seated racists views that it masks in the notion of family heritage, but, conversely, person X may be harboring deep-seated racist views that it feels guilty about and is therefore trying to hide all the evidence that reminds them of their deep-seated white guilt. Neither view is more right than the other and neither view has a stronger claim to categorically defining the meaning of a symbol.
And besides, utopia is supposed to be perfect, and not just perfect for the ideological views of the majority. Meaning, if we wanted to respect the views of all people in utopia equally, we would remove all symbols that offend somebody in someway. Or, in short, we’d remove all symbols altogether. And it could even be argued that this would have to be extended to language as well. Maybe in utopia we can all just be isolated individuals floating around in tiny bubbles where we have no possibility whatsoever of ever being offended by anybody or anything. Is this a perfect society? Is this what we are striving for? Is this the path to human flourishing?
I would posit that this is the antithesis of a perfect society. Maybe instead of allowing symbols be the wedge that divides us we can use them as the bridge that binds us. If somebody perceives a symbol differently than you do, should we assume they are wrong? Or, should we assume we do not understand their perspective? Instead of casting judgment, is it not better to ask them why they see it differently and foster understanding in lieu of division — as opposed to assuming we are right and they are wrong. If we can move past the ambiguous meaning of symbols and realize that hiding behind the ideology I deem as perverse, is another human being. And this person is not different or better than me, nor am I better than them. Utopia is not a place where we hide away the things that offend and scare us, but rather it is a place where everything that is offensive and scary has lost all its power. Not because we forgot about its dark past, but because we have found a way to transcend our own symbols and not abstract and objectify demographic categories as being dictated by my own prejudices that we encapsulate into abstracted symbolism.
If we want to expel racism out of our culture, this cant be done by literally expelling symbols that we find to be racist. This is merely a smokescreen that gives the illusion that we are working towards the promotion of a racist free society. Does banishing symbols change the hearts and minds of people? Won’t a new symbol eventually replace the symbol you cast into the darkness for being racist? Opponents to my views would argue that allowing the free usage of symbols that have racist connotations is akin to sanctioning and implicitly promoting the hateful ideas themselves. However, I am not arguing that we allow the spreading or promoting of hateful ideology in the name of freedom of speech; rather I am saying we should use this moral indifference about these symbols as an opportunity to talk openly and empathically talk about our collective problems. We should not abstract our hatred and negation-of-hatred into symbols, but rather lay our cards on the table and openly and honestly discuss the open-wounds of our society. The solution to racism is to talk about it, not hide it. And, moreover, the act of hiding it diminishes our willingness to think critically and perceive the other empathically. If we want to transcend ourselves and transcend our society, we need to begin by owning up to our assumptions and all their ethical implications. And regarding our question:
The confederate flag does wave in Utopia— but this fact has no meaning.
[i] Searle, John R. Mind, Language, and Society: Philosophy in the Real World. New York, NY: Basic, 1998. Print.