When I was in college I wrote a paper on the controversial Georgia State Flag, which at the time included a portion of the Confederate Battle Flag. Since I was attending the University of Georgia, I was right in the thick of the debate, and was familiar with the arguments that such a symbol was more about southern history than slavery.
However, my position in the paper was that state symbols should represent all people, and because the Confederate Battle Flag was also a symbol of slavery, I argued that It failed to represent all Georgians, and thus should be removed. My position was bolstered by the fact that the St Andrews Cross was added during the 1950’s, as a protest to desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement.
The state finally did the right thing and updated the flag in 2003. History was not erased because the old flag still lives on in museums, history books, and bumper stickers. There is no censorship or strictures against speaking about or displaying the old flag. History is alive and well.
Since that time, controversy over divisive art and symbols has only grown in fervor, and my position has remained mostly sympathetic to, if not overtly supportive of, movements who seek more inclusive imagery on our public lands. When it is difficult to remove divisive symbols (such as due to structural reasons), particularly ones rooted in slavery and the insubordination of blacks and Native Americans, I have supported solutions that balance things out by including historical footnotes, or diversifying the art on display.
However, I do not support movements who seek to use threats of violence or intimidation against private individuals or organizations who display controversial art, such as what is currently happening at Seattle’s Lakeview Cemetery (just down the street from me), where a confederate memorial exists. The cemetery is currently closed through the weekend due to death threats.
Today the Mayor of Seattle issued a statement calling for both the removal of the memorial as well as a Lenin statue on display in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. No mention is made of the rights of the individual to free speech and to be free from violence or harassment. In spite of the fact that both sit on private property, the Mayor thought it was his powerless duty to command that they be removed, and thus to further contribute to the erosion of free speech norms.
While everyone is welcome to protest or critique the public display of divisive statues, monuments or other imagery, the right to display them is guaranteed by the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution, and the protection of that right is sacred. Public officials have no place in the debate over what 1st Amendment protected behavior a private individual engages in on his or her own property.
Furthermore, using threats of violence and intimidation are hostile to the 1st Amendment, and even if coming from private citizens, such behavior is a direct violation of the sacred rights of the individual. When the sacred rights of individuals are eroded, either through state action or mob mentality, injustice occurs and the marginalized are the first to lose. This is all very ironic considering that many of the groups protesting this memorial are presumably aware of the importance of freedom of speech to the protection of the oppressed. But then again, maybe not.
Additionally, because the United States is a diverse country, people will often disagree on the meaning behind certain symbols. Oftentimes, those against the symbols will have their reasons why they are racist or derogatory, while those who display the symbols will have their reasons why they aren’t. Rarely do both sides agree that a symbol represents injustice or atrocious behavior. In those rare cases, such as the display of a Nazi Swastika, the groups who engage in the behavior are publicly shunned. No infringement of sacred rights is necessary.
But somewhere between the Swastika and Statues of Abraham Lincoln, there lies statues of Vladimir Lenin and memorials to the confederacy. Like the Swastika, many people find them to be highly offensive, and would prefer not to have to look at them at all. Unlike the Swastika, a large number of Americans embrace them both for historical, sentimental or aesthetic reasons that have nothing to do with a stated moral support for injustice such as slavery or totalitarianism. Even if these folks are wrong about what those symbols represent, the point is that being wrong is their 1st Amendment Right.
The best way to settle such disputes is by protecting the rights of individuals to display controversial imagery or art. The most powerful aspect of the 1st Amendment is the right to respond by non-violently airing your grievance in public and/or by erecting your own statues or imagery to counter those that offend you. The alternative is that we become an America of offense, where we settle our disputes through violence and intimidation rather than via the assertion of our own rights. A diverse America will need to decide which direction it wants to go.