Flag debate requires broader dialogue

Last month, federal judges in Virginia voted to uphold a Confederate flag ban on new Virginia license plates —  the latest in a series of actions taken by southern states to decide whether to fly the Confederate flag. Indeed, the national debate over the Confederate flag that followed in wake of the June 17 Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting has stirred controversy and discussions about the symbol that shooter Dylann Roof appeared to hold so dear.

The Confederate flag, like many symbols, means wildly different things to different people based on their cultural upbringing. It can represent pride, conviction, equality and unity. It can also represent intolerance, hatred, discrimination and separatism.

A person’s individual interpretation of what it stands for is rooted in his or her cultural and social experience, education and resulting understanding of the symbol. But perhaps bringing the issue closer to home — to campus, even — will show us that symbols are owned by those who claim allegiance.

Negative perceptions that result from symbols are valid, especially within the context of the Confederate flag. But that perception must be tempered with rationality. When people are offended, they have two choices: They can feel upset and decide that they are being attacked individually, or they can question why they feel offended and the motivations behind the perceived offense and begin a dialogue. Let’s begin that dialogue here.

Take the Bruin, for example. To many loyal Trojans, the Bruin represents something that must be vanquished again each November — the enemy. There is a tradition of rivalry, a long-standing dislike of the Bruin for being blue while we are cardinal, for being public while we are private, for being awful at sports while we have 135 Olympic Gold medals.

This tradition exists because it is expected to continue and is actively promoted. We have our differences, but these should be celebrated, not criticized, on both ends of the aisle. What matters is the good that both universities do for their students, the city of Los Angeles, the United States and the world. As long as both universities are promoting higher education and making leaders and entrepreneurs out of young adults, they are performing their roles admirably. If we are so similar, then why do we insist on annually attempting to cause thousands of dollars of damage to their sacred icon, their symbol of self?

If we were to distance ourselves from the social pressure to personify them as “the other,” we’d find that they are as easy to befriend, get to know and engage with as any other Trojan. So let’s not tarnish the Bruin, either. Respect the Bruin as we want Tommy Trojan to be respected.

It is easy to classify a group uniformly as “the other,” especially for both social justice advocates and traditionalists. It is also wrong. It leads to the negative things that some symbols come to represent – intolerance, hatred, discrimination and separatism. We must remember that Americans who live in the South are still Americans. They are our fellows and equals even if they hold opinions and perceptions that clash with our own.

The Confederate flag is often viewed as both a symbol of hate and a celebration of slavery by those who do not identify with it. However, to many individuals who live in the South, the flag isn’t a symbol of slavery or hatred, it’s a symbol of pride. To many of them, it is the flag of their ancestors, a flag that has a prominent spot in their history and identity.

While the Confederate flag and the conflict over slavery and states’ rights does not equate to the rivalry between two neighboring universities, each group has its own very different interpretation of what the symbol means.

It should be the group that identifies most with the symbol that determine its meaning. We wouldn’t want Bruins telling us what to do with Tommy and Traveler or outlining what they really represent. Those icons are ours, and it is our right to revere them, display them and declare what they mean to us as a part of our heritage.

That being said, there should be dialogue between social justice advocates and traditionalists that uncovers the reason behind the drastically different views of the same image. After all, if one simply categorizes another as the enemy, there isn’t much reason to get to know them. That trend of categorization, which lends itself to the cycle of hate, can only be vanquished through acceptance of and engagement with “the other” as “the equal.”