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Flag choice is one data point, not the whole story
The pitfalls of symbolism and how we might better go about persuading our perceived opponents.
I was in my early 20s when I had a transformative encounter with the play Les Miserables. In a particularly poignant scene at a failed revolt, a lone student charges to the front of the barricade and defiantly waves an enormous red banner. After a volley of gunfire, he slumps against his lifeless friends.
I’m not even familiar enough with the June Rebellion to know whether I would have supported it. But as I fought back tears in my theater seat, my heart yearned to defend those I love and the ideals worth dying to achieve.
Flags inspire anthems and stir armies. Conversely, protesters burn the emblems of their enemies in the streets and rip their homemade signs from their hands.
As if they weren’t meaningful enough, we frequently give flags, signs, and slogans far more power than they deserve; we allow them to rubber-stamp our assumptions about the one holding them.
From the Pride flag to the Thin Blue Line, from political slogans to cultural icons—you might argue that it’s abundantly clear what these symbols mean, and those who display them obviously and wholeheartedly support that cause.
It’s not always that simple, though; you’d be wrong to think that the American flag I flew for Veteran’s Day means I stand behind everything my government has done. Let’s look at a few pointed examples that show how we may be too quick to assume the meaning behind these symbols, and why it’s not in our interest to do so.
Take the woman that the BBC interviewed in South Carolina who “sparked outrage and protests when she decided to hang a Confederate flag from her porch in the historically African-American neighborhood of Brownsville.” Curiously, on her wall was a picture of then-president Obama (who she says she voted for) as well as other black individuals. She said that she saw no contradiction in displaying both the Confederate flag and pictures honoring African-American leaders.
The point isn’t whether her flag broadly represents racism; it’s that it doesn’t to her. Making judgments from the outside looking in rarely paints a whole picture—it’s when we’re brave enough to cross the threshold that we gain real, valuable insight into what our perceived opponent genuinely believes.
Another case in point was shown by a Norwegian student who brought a sign to an anti-Israel rally a few weeks ago. It had the Star of David in a trash can with the slogan, “Keep the world clean.” Though it seemed to me like an alarming support of antisemitism (if not genocide), the video interview convinced me that she didn’t see it that way. To my surprise, she said that she loves the Jews, and that her sign was aimed at the government of Israel only. She spoke both of freedom for Palestinians, as well as her support of Jews’ right to freely practice their religion absent persecution or hatred.
Here, too, the point isn’t whether or not the original designer of that sign and slogan agrees with her interpretation, or whether she is thoroughly educated on the situation in the Middle East. It’s that my snap judgment of her opinion was way off.
But why does this matter? If their flag positions them directly opposite of me, why do I care if their opinion has a bit of nuance to it?
Two reasons. First, their viewpoint may be a lot closer to yours than you’d think, and reacting to your snap assumptions can hurt your cause.
In the Summer of 2020, demonstrators demanded a raised fist from those in the streets of Washington, D.C. When a woman declined to return the gesture, they gathered around her, shouting. Her arms calmly at her side, it appears they saw her as the embodiment of everything they were fighting against. What may have shocked the demonstrators, however, is the fact that she was very much on their side, and had even marched in previous demonstrations. She later said that it didn’t seem right to go along with their orders in that moment, as she felt coerced and threatened. Had they been willing to listen before shouting, they could have avoided the friendly fire that could have wholly repelled her from their movement.
Nearly every time I get to know someone I thought was crazy or hateful, I discover that we have a similar set of values at our core, but we weigh them differently. Or we trust in different sets of reported facts. And when I learn of their personal experiences that led them to their conclusions, I begin to see where they’re coming from, even though I may still staunchly disagree.
The second reason to look for nuance within your apparent opponent before reacting is to allow yourself an opportunity to persuade. Isn’t winning someone to your side (or at least getting them to think differently) far more effective than having the louder bullhorn? Instead of jumping in with blunt slogans of your own, why not learn how they tick—far more than one symbol will tell you—in order to identify the arguments that will speak to them?
I don’t blame the neighbors for thinking that the woman flying the Confederate flag had racist intent. But conversations from that assumption wouldn’t get very far with her, if they happened at all. When someone starts with what you feel are false assumptions about you, it’s human nature to close yourself off to anything else they’re saying. By first understanding her perspective, though, they could reframe the conversation in a way that would have the best chance at not only getting her to take the flag down, but having her want to do it.
When we see someone displaying a sign, slogan, flag, or piece of clothing that expresses what we believe is a harmful message, try these steps:
Pick the right setting. Don’t seek out an angry mob. Instead, strike up a conversation with your neighbor on friendly terms, or look for a demonstrator away from the noise who looks ready and open for a few questions.
Give good vibes. Offer a smile (even if you hate what they stand for). Break the ice. “That sign has got to act like a sail in this wind. How are you still standing?!” If your goal is to have a shot at changing their mind, avoid filming them: this will allow them to be more ready to listen to what you have to say. They will be less defensive because they won’t be as anxious about saying the wrong thing or losing their employment or status (as happened to that Norwegian student).
Ask a Question. Do this even if the answer seems obvious. Open-ended is best. “Tell me about your sign.” Or, “What does this all mean to you? Do you have family members who have been affected by this?” Invite a sincere answer by asking in a way that conveys your genuine curiosity.
Affirm something about them. Agree with or compliment them on some part of their message. If you truly can’t find anything specific to agree with, you might compliment them on their desire to help make the world better as they see it. “It takes some courage to stand here for what you believe in.”
Give them something to think about. If their explanation doesn’t match your initial impression of their symbol or sign, tactfully tell them what you believe the difference was. If you think they may not know all the facts on the subject, politely ask if they’ve heard of what they’re missing, and whether they’d like to learn more about it. If they detect that you’re their political enemy, they might start to unload on you. But if you’re patient, they often will be ready to listen again once they get it all out.
Temper your expectations. It’s tempting to keep the conversation going until they drop their sign and join you. However, that’s not realistic in your first meeting, and wearing out your welcome will only weaken your impact. Instead, have it be your goal to give them something poignant to think about, maybe exchange contact info, and part on friendly terms. Over time, your conversation may work on them, and they could very well move a few steps in your direction, if not all the way.
Some are unable to stomach this friendlier approach to those who appear to hold abhorrent ideologies. But those who can manage it will see their influence grow. This approach can empower you to reach people like the younger me who was inspired to pick up that Les Mis flag without fully understanding its meaning or the broader picture. Instead of shutting them down, help them identify nuance and channel their energy and good motivations in what you see as a better direction.
With the turmoil and the stakes seeming to rise year by year, it’s plain to me that we’ve convinced ourselves we’re far more different than we really are. While there will always be disagreements and tension, divisive forces are separating us in increasingly toxic ways, keeping us from grounding ourselves in the type of unity that matters most.
We can no longer afford to get it wrong with our polarizing assumptions. It could sometimes be the case that your opponent fits every whit of your stereotype of them. But we must stop allowing symbols to do the talking, and instead start inviting the person to speak for themself.
In the end, it’s not really about which flags we choose to hoist, but rather the world we build in their shadows.
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