Banning hate at OU, the American flag at UC Irvine

Banning hate at OU, the American flag at UC Irvine

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Should we ban apple pies because of fear of apples? Should we ban the Confederate flag because of the KKK? Should we ban the American flag because not everyone is American?

WASHINGTON, March 10, 2015 — The national leadership of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity closed the SAE chapter at the University of Oklahoma on Sunday, suspending all members of the OU chapter.

The behavior on the bus was inconsistent with SAE ideals according to chapter representatives. Those ideals, however, allowed a Confederate battle flag clearly visible in the window of the SAE house.

Asked about that, spokespeople said that the flag was not a symbol of SAE, that it was flying in a fraternity brother’s room, and that he had been asked to remove it.

The Confederate flag, and more particularly the Confederate battle flag, remains an object of contention, especially in the South. It is viewed by many southerners as a symbol of their heritage and as an important part of their history.

The flag’s historical importance can’t be denied. This also does not deny that to many Americans,the flag is a hated symbol of oppression, the Klan, of slavery, and of racial hatred.

It is exactly the kind of symbol you’d expect to see in the room of a racist frat boy at OU.

It isn’t just a symbol of pride in the South, but an uplifted middle finger waved at liberals and northerners, a symbol of contempt.

The California Assembly has passed a bill outlawing the sale of items including the image of the Confederate flag on state property.

Assemblyman Tim Donnelly cast the only “no” vote. He explained to AP,

“We shouldn’t be here picking the kind of speech we like. I am not standing here defending the symbol. I am standing here defending the principle that the First Amendment principles should apply in all state buildings, of all places.”

Donnelly’s objection is more pertinent given the recent 6-4 vote by the Associated Students of UC Irvine to ban the United States flag from its building’s lobby, an “inclusive” space.

The ASUCI Executive Cabinet overturned that decision, but the reason for the original vote was instructive: The American flag “has been flown in instances of colonialism and imperialism,” and its “symbolism has negative and positive aspects that are interpreted differently by individuals.”

According to the ASUCI resolution,

“Freedom of speech, in a space that claims to be as inclusive as possible, can be interpreted as hate speech.”

In other words, the American Stars and Stripes flag was removed as a precautionary step to prevent a “trigger situation.” An undocumented immigrant student might feel upset at the sight of the U.S. flag, interpreting it as a statement of hatred for immigrants.

For many Americans the Stars and Stripes is a symbol of national pride, but some consider it a symbol of oppression, like the Stars and Bars.

U.S. flags have been banned from some California high schools during Cinco de Mayo celebrations for fear that their display will seem hostile to non-citizen students.

It is probably true that some high school students don’t sport American flags on May 5 out of patriotism, but as an upraised middle finger to Hispanic students. But this is the United States.

The idea that the U.S. flag would be banned from schools and other public property is bizarre. Find me one other country that bans the flying of its national flag.

Symbols have power because they have meaning. The meaning isn’t universally beloved.

Americans love our flag for the same reason that some foreigners despise it: It stands as a symbol of our country, its history and its ideals.

The Soviet flag strikes nostalgia and pride into the hearts of many Russians, and dread into the hearts of former subjects of the Soviet empire.

The cross is a symbol of Christian faith and of Jesus Christ, but Christianity isn’t universally loved.

The Muslim crescent, the Star of David, the swastika and the Union Jack all arouse varying levels of nostalgia, respect, loathing and contempt.

If the U.S. flag might be a “trigger,” so might the image of Che Guevara. Any symbol can be a trigger.

The banning of offensive symbols is a fool’s errand and an assault on the concept of free speech. Every symbol is offensive to someone. The same thinking that bans the Confederate battle flag is the thinking that bans the American flag, the cross, Marx, the Bible and Harry Potter: “It offends me.” “I need to be protected from triggers.” “It might make people feel afraid.”

Removing symbols that are likely to be offensive is a matter for manners, not speech codes or legislation. To the extent that we care about others and their feelings, we’ll try not to offend, but no one has a right not to be offended. No one has a right not to be exposed to offensive symbols and words except in one’s own home.

The SAE frat boys at OU behaved in a reprehensible way, and the national SAE organization was right to suspend them in an effort to maintain its own reputation. But no one has a right to be protected from their speech or from the sight of a Confederate flag or from the sight of an American flag.

The incident at OU is another reminder–as if we needed one–that racism is alive and well in America. That should be no surprise. Hatred won’t be legislated out of existence. No speech code will change hearts and minds. Martin Luther King imagined small children, black and white, walking hand in hand in mutual respect and dignity. That will never happen at the point of a legal gun or through codes of conduct.

We need the First Amendment to protect Confederate flags, not apple pies. But as the ASUCI vote shows us, if we don’t protect Confederate flags, some idiot suffering from malusdomesticaphobia will ban the pies, too. Free speech is for grownups. When we’ve learned to tolerate symbols and speech that we hate, we might finally be ready to tolerate other people, too.

Editors Note: Chris Bringaze was incorrectly identified in this story. Bringaze is with the Oklahoma State University (OSU) chapter.  We regret the error.

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Jim Picht
James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics. He teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years doing economic development work in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He has also worked in Latin America, the former USSR and the Balkans as an educator, teaching courses in economics and law at universities in Ukraine and at finance ministries throughout the region. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.