I had a debate the other day with a friend who was wearing a hat with a rebel flag patch on it. I personally find the display of said flag offensive, and said so. A lively discussion ensued, in which several points were made and countered.
Some highlights of the discussion included whether the rebel flag is still the flag of the south, or if because the Civil War has ended and we are no longer two nations, the American flag is the flag of the south; whether the rebel flag stands for oppression, instills fear in people, and indicates that the wearer is a racist, or if it’s just a misunderstood symbol of southern pride and has nothing to do with race; and whether wearing the rebel flag is just like wearing the rainbow flag, in that it is about pride, or if one is a symbol of oppression and the other a symbol of standing up to oppression.
One of the most interesting portions of the debate, for me at least, was when a story was related to illustrate that not all people of color are offended by the rebel flag. It was the story of an African-American man who is a self-described redneck. He lives among, is married to, and is accepted and respected by other rednecks, all of whom display the rebel flag regularly. This does not seem to bother him. In fact, he is apparently so unaffected by the inherent racism around him that he goes by the unfortunate moniker of “N****r Jim”. By choice. Seriously. He introduces himself that way. I can’t make this stuff up. (It’s not really Jim, I changed it for privacy, but it really is the first part.)
Up until then, I had been feeling pretty confident in my argument. I was self-righteously and assuredly making my points. But that derailed me. I mean, what do you say to that? I manged to get out something about the reclaiming of hateful words and suggested that perhaps it was defensive, as when the character in the movie Pitch Perfect refers to herself as Fat Amy so others won’t do it behind her back.
OK, here’s where it gets good… I regrouped and tried a different approach: I asked how my friend would feel if I were to display a swastika on my hat. I was sure I had landed on the thing that would clinch the argument for me. No one can be okay with that, right? But after some discussion it was decided that I would have every right to do so, just as she has every right to wear the rebel flag. And I realized she was correct: she does have the right to wear whatever she wants, just like I do. And that realization led to the greater realization that I was being intolerant and oppressive and trying to sway someone over to my way of thinking, rather than respecting their right to their individuality. I was being the very thing I was condemning!
Now this is not to say that I am suddenly okay with the rebel flag. I still believe it is a symbol of oppression and it still offends me when I see it proudly displayed. I still believe the wearing of it says something about the character of the wearer. But while I am no more tolerant of the ideology of the rebel flag, I am more tolerant of the right to display it. I will continue to speak my truth on this issue, because I believe it’s the right thing to do. I’ll just be speaking more gently from now on.
And so I leave you with what this Deadhead learned from the rebel flag: Beware of holding so tight to what you’re sure is right that you turn your truth into a weapon. Do not bludgeon each other with your beliefs. Defend the right of others to be, think, and say things that offend you, because that is what ensures your right to the same. We do not have to agree, but we must respect. And finally that as Jerry sings in Scarlet Begonias, once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places, if you look at it right.