Flag Frenzies, Social Media, and the Demise of Human Rights

Flag Frenzies, Social Media, and the Demise of Human Rights July 1, 2015

June was a busy flag month, and I’m concerned it’s costing us our humanity.

In the wake of the SCOTUS decision overturning state marriage laws, Facebook broke out in rainbow flags, and if you run in the circles I do, you saw a rash of yellow-and-white Vatican flags pop up in reply.  So be it.  People like their flags.  But something more nefarious seems to be happening: People are becoming their flags.

We have become such a symbol-heavy culture that we no longer see the humans anymore.  The people are all just symbols.  Our reasonable love of flags has morphed into an irrational hatred of the human beings who symbolize something we dislike.

Watch the back and forth in the wake of the Charleston AME church shootings:

  • Dylan Roof turns nine people into symbols. His victims were not human beings to him, they were tools, objects, signs: Let me use you as my gesture of animosity, as a sign of my venomous rage.
  • The people of Charleston responded by refusing to play the symbols game.  These are people, loved by God and men, who have perished.  They aren’t an excuse, they are human beings who need to be mourned.  They are humans whose lives had an inherent dignity and worth and we won’t settle for anything less than an acknowledgement of that.

There were another pair of actions that followed:

  • People like me started suggesting that now might be a good time to stop flying the Confederate flag in front of the SC statehouse.
  • A madness broke out in which anything evocative of the Confederacy anywhere anyhow anytime was suddenly fair game for public outrage.

These two acts are utterly different.

The decision of South Carolina citizens to resort to our legally-established democratic process to propose the removing of a particular flag in front of our state capitol?  That’s our business, and we’ve been going about it slowly and mostly-courteously since long before the internet let all you social media gawkers get your noses into other people’s conversations.  It is a legitimate thing for the citizens of a state, in conjunction with the work of their elected officials, to make a series of decisions concerning what does and does not happen on the grounds of our state capitol.

This is freedom and civil rights in action.  This a good thing — even if you are in the minority who doesn’t win the argument of the day.

In contrast, calls to suppress the rights of the minority are exactly the opposite of freedom.

The way human rights works in democracies like South Carolina is that if you want to be an openly racist restaurant owner who flies the Confederate flag, you’re allowed to do that, and no one has to buy your barbecue if they don’t want to.  This is because we belong to this country that has a Bill of Rights.  One of those rights our constitution protects is the right to say stupid things. Likewise, if you want to be a non-racist history buff, or a sensation-seeking student radical, or an ordinary yokel of unknown proclivities who flies the Confederate flag, you’re allowed to do that too.

That doesn’t mean your preferred flag gets to fly at the state capitol if we can finally get the thing pulled down, and in the meantime, those of us who don’t want the flag at the state capitol have a right to peaceably assemble and protest its presence.  Regardless of how the due process of law shakes out in this year or that year, the minority gets to do its thing.

We get to have our symbols.

What we don’t get to do is turn other human beings or their property into symbols.  If the KKK wishes to march on the capitol, that’s legal.  If the KKK starts burning churches (which appears to be the case) in response to our fair state’s failure to erupt in race riots, that’s illegal.  Express odious thought: Legal.  Take odious action to harm others and their property: Illegal.

This is how the rule of law works in a state that respects human rights.


Lately though, harmful symbolic actions by the majority against the minority have become all the rage.  (And rage is exactly the word for it.) We’ve lost our interest in protecting the rights of those we disagree with.  Double standards regarding conscience protection proliferate because the humans themselves have become symbols of what we detest, and we demand the symbols be destroyed.  The humans themselves must be retrained to think properly, the way that the majority demands.

This is what hatred is.  Hatred seeks to destroy another person.  Hatred turns a person into an object, and says the object must go because the object is odious.


This fourth of July, resolve to step back out of the symbol world and into the real world.  Resolve to respect the human rights of all the humans, not just the ones you find most pleasing.


Brad Warthen writes about the importance of rule of law and the democratic process, and his whole essay is worth your attention:

There exists only one way to get the flag down that does any good whatsoever, that even has any point to it: South Carolina has to decide to take it down. We, the people of this state, acting through our elected representatives, have to repeal the unconscionable law that requires it to fly there, and order it to be removed. Otherwise, nothing is accomplished. Until they do this, the flag will fly, and the people of this state will continue to be collectively guilty of willing it to do so.

Brad Warthen on treating your ancestors as symbols of your own righteousness.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker on the connection between the rainbow flag and the Confederate flag.

Joseph Pearce on freedom of speech and the Confederate flag.

Brandon @ Siris on the use of men as symbols and scapegoats in 1st century Rome.

Julie Davis quoting Bill Murray on what your offendability says about you.

Fr. Z on the importance of peaceful resistance to unjust laws.

Brad Warthen on the history of the presence of the Confederate flag and monument at the SC Statehouse.

Darwin Catholic on why taking down the flag is not an excuse to trample free speech.

NPR on the investigation into the recent church fires.

The Atlantic on the legacy of racism and the recent spate of church fires.

Me on why same-sex marriage is unlike racism:

Imagine walking up to a child and saying to that child, “It is my desire to show my love for you by making a legal arrangement that ensures you will no longer live with your mother and father.”

We can think of a number of horridly abusive situations in which that must be the unfortunate and painful remedy.  But it is ghastly to say to a child not yet conceived, never met, yet unknown, to be born of parents who may well be as good as any, “The best thing for you is to deprive you of a home with your mother and father — allow me to lay the legal groundwork for this.”

File:James Madison Bill of Rights $5 commemorative obverse.jpg

Image: United States Mint [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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