Battle flag

Americans' experiences inform the symbol's potent meaning

For many years, students in speech and mass communications classes learned about "the bullet theory of communication" (later renamed "the hypodermic needle theory"). The idea was that the message was contained entirely in a tidy packet that lodged in the recipient, changing perception and influencing behavior in ways that were beyond that person's power to resist, and affecting every recipient in exactly the same way.

The theory was easy to disprove simply because recipients do not react uniformly. Instead, the information delivered to them interacts with information they already possess.

For example, news of a shooting in a Connecticut school horrifies everyone, but it affects the parent of a child in that school differently than it affects a childless person in Colorado. The difference is not a flaw in the message, nor is it the "fault" of the diverse recipients. It's just the way communication works.

Flags are powerful symbols, culturally loaded not only with information but with sentiment. That's why burning a flag is perceived as such a strong protest, and that's why the current flag flap in Dolores still has so many people worked up.

The American flag brings tears to the eyes of Americans who associate it with patriotism and pride. It doesn't create love for this country; it just interacts with the love and loyalty that citizens already possess, so citizens of other countries are not moved in the same way by the sight of an American flag. To some it's a provocation; to others, it's meant rescue; to many, it may mean very little. A leader who unfurls a foreign flag and cries, "Do you want to see this flying over your nation's capital, your city, your children's school?" inspires outrage and action.

And a flag flown at the front of an advancing military force means something different to those massed behind it than to the enemy confronted with it. A battle flag is supposed to unite those faithful to the cause, whatever that cause might be, and strike terror in the enemy heart.

It's fair for a person who waves a flag, displays another symbol or uses a word to define what it means to him or her.

But because others incorporate their own experiences into their understanding, it's impossible to require that they adopt the same meaning. One of the most basic rights of American citizens is that no one is allowed to tell them, "You aren't allowed to believe that." No one logically can declare, "I didn't intend to hurt you so I hereby decree that you aren't hurt." (That reality may be why the theory no longer includes the word "bullet.")

Anyone who wants to promote an ideal - for instance, love of country music and rural values, which are positive standards - might be well advised to design a new flag, one not yet battered and bloodied. Fly whatever flag you want. That's a First Amendment right, as is burning one - certainly not a protest to be undertaken lightly. However, it's disingenuous to disavow knowledge of what that flag means to others - in the case of the Confederate flag, many others - and what it has been used to accomplish in the past. That claim of ignorance is not the mark of a well-educated person.

If you're going to adopt a symbol, own the consequences of the message. Don't pretend that it has no meaning other than what you choose to invest in it. Don't be dismissive of the rights of others to hold opinions and feel emotions at least as strong as yours. Say what you mean, and face up to the response. That's the American way, and it was the Confederate way too.