Over the past several months, we've noticed a change in the air. No, it's not the arrival of autumn, but the growing number of Confederate flags billowing in the breeze. From an impromptu summertime demonstration of cars and trucks decked out in the "rebel" flag, to now, local high school students flying it on school grounds, the controversial symbol is flapping around a lot lately.
With that increased visibility comes murmurs about what the flag means and what—if anything—should be done about it. The quick response is to reinforce the right to free speech, regardless of how offensive that speech might be. We certainly support the right of individuals to speak out without infringement by the government.
But we can't stop there. There's a larger conversation to be had about the proliferation of a symbol, ostensibly representative of Southern pride, but that many view as racist. In Bend, symbols like the Confederate battle flag and the "Don't Tread on Me" flag must be taken in both historical and local contexts.
These symbols don't exist in a vacuum. And while it's popular to call the Confederate battle flag a symbol of Southern pride, such claims are disingenuous in the Pacific Northwest. Let's be honest. This isn't a Southern state and we are not celebrating a traditional culture of mint juleps and antebellum lifestyle.
Even in the South, the Confederate flag carries racist baggage. According to a CNN report, the Confederate battle flag appeared only sporadically following the Civil War, typically to commemorate fallen Confederate soldiers. It didn't reappear as a political symbol until the civil rights movement sought to desegregate schools. But even before that reemergence, the flag was born out of a succession movement that had as a primary aim the preservation of the institution of slavery.
In Central Oregon, these symbols take on their own context. Divorced from any real Southern roots, only the racism and anti-government inclinations remain. Those two attitudes in combination can pose a serious threat to communities that value diversity, inclusion, and the rule of law. In a local context, they can only be read as a defiant statement against an increasingly pluralistic society, in which the 14th Amendment—which includes equal protection under the law—is upheld for a growing portion of the population.
It's all well and good to say that the best remedy for offensive speech is not to stifle it, but to encourage a conversation around it. Without that conversation—ideally between those who oppose what the Confederate flag represents and those who choose to fly it—our community could increasingly become a place where those who seek to stifle the rights of others find a home. One's right to fly the Confederate flag freely does not preclude a critical response from the community. We can't—and shouldn't—seek to prohibit speech we find intolerable. But we ought to stand up and say, "That speech is offensive in our community."
There is no good reason for Bendites to fly the Confederate battle flag. Even Gen. Robert E. Lee, who led the men in service to the Confederate Army, distanced himself from the flag after the war, preferring instead to support reconstruction and national unity.
Even Lee could see that the flag and all it stood for was a divisive symbol with no place in post-reconstruction life.Yes, we have a right to display the Confederate battle flag. But it would be more in line with our nation's founding principles if we used that freedom of speech to express something even more powerful—that racism has no place in our community.