Monday, March 26, 2012

When is a Flag Racist?


Type O Negative. A band well known for being a pack of introspective jokers whose representative colors are black and green. Their singer and bassist, Peter Steele, invented a symbol based on the Nordic Cross of the flags used by Scandinavian countries and their incorporated territories which is sometimes regarded as a racist flag, or a racist symbol. This symbol is now called the Vinland Flag.

Today, we'll investigate the nature of symbols, positive and negative, their intentional content, and hopefully come to a determination about the flag of Vinland.

Can pictures have intentional content?

In philosophy, the words "intentionality" and "intentional content" refer to something like the object of a thought. If I am thinking right now of my dog Ruckus, then I am having a thought, the intentional content of which is a specific white dog named Ruckus. So, intentionality is a special quality that thoughts, dreams and images, amongst other sorts of symbolic depictions, can have to refer to other things, or to be "about" objects distant in time and space, or which might not really exist at all.

It's clear that certain pictures, in particular situations, can have intentional content, though it may not always be so clear and literal as my mental image of my dog. Picasso's Guernica refers clearly to some imagined moment in time, an occurrence in a particular geographical location which affected some certain people. But if it were titled differently, and we had no idea of who had made it or what had happened in the land this mystery painter came from, would Guernica mean the same thing?

I think we have to say that it wouldn't have identical intentional content, given the changes above. It would depict the same faces, the same, seemingly-distressed hands, but we would be unsure of their relationship to one another, and probably unsure of what was truly happening. One might imagine the animals were going nuts, trampling the people like a Running of the Bulls, and another might imagine that the image didn't depict a location on earth inhabited by human people. Maybe there are people from a distant planet who look precisely as depicted in the painting.

But, because of the contextual information we have, we know that the piece is about a 20th century wartime incident, and that it does not celebrate this incident. We are to feel something negative about what's happening to the subjects of the painting, who do not appear to be enjoying themselves.

Is the intentional content of symbols universal?

As above, certain contextual information is sometimes needed to gain a complete understanding of some such symbol. What does a large pentagon with a green circle inside of it mean to you? Probably nothing at the moment.

If you knew that on Neptune, that exact symbol were used widely and for a long time to signal a distrust of southern hemisphere dwellers by the wealthy northern hemisphere, the symbol is defined, (by a "baptism" much of the sort discussed by Saul Kripke in Naming and Necessity) and from now on, your apprehending that symbol proudly displayed will indicate a relationship between two groups of beings, and a given stance on that relationship. In contrast, your sight of some being desecrating that same symbol will indicate that being's stance in opposition to what the symbol represents when it is displayed outright.

So, the intentional content of symbols seems to be context-dependent and contingent upon some information not contained inherently in the symbol. In other words, the intentional content is not universal. It must be specified.

What makes a symbol a racist symbol?

Given that the content of a symbol is not universal, its meaning comes from a certain specification, or explicit declaration of meaning. So, in the sense that some symbol may be a racist symbol, it must simply be specified to stand for some such racist stance. Imagine the difficult example of the Hakenkreuz symbol of the German National Socialist Party. This is not known to be a racist symbol because of a literal single event in which a proclamation was issued declaring it to stand for racist ideas. In some sense, it is not literally a "racist symbol" in the sense that some part of the symbol is inherently racist, but it is a symbol used by people who promoted racist ideas and extreme, racially motivated violence. (Note: this is a philosophical distinction between intentional content gained via transitive association and inherent intentional content. I am not saying swastikas are not racist symbols, nor am I defending or justifying anything related to the views or actions of the NSDAP. I'm saying that symbols cannot simply be racist on their own. They experience a process which assigns them a racist meaning, and this one was specified transitively. A visitor from Neptune, ignorant of all of earth's history, would not simply know that swastikas were offensive by virtue of their shape, but would learn the nature of their meaning when introduced to the context.)

The swastika is a difficult example because it's an emotional example, but it's a well-suited analogy because it wasn't invented by the people who made it such a shocking symbol today. Ancient Asian cultures used the form of a swastika for very different reasons.

If I use a symbol in a racist way and you do not, is that symbol a racist symbol?

The form of that question is misleading, because it seems to inquire as to whether or not the symbol objectively means something offensive, or to inquire about who has the "right" to use such a symbol publicly. But, as we've suggested, the symbol doesn't mean anything until a meaning is assigned. What we have to deal with now is competing claims to the meaning of the symbol, (both context dependent), and more importantly than all of that, who is asking this question.

If I ask the question about the swastika, I'd have to say the symbol were an offensive symbol, because I am familiar with the racist context, and I am mostly ignorant of the usage by Asian cultures.  But if I rent a room in my house to a man from India and he gives me a scarf with a swastika on it, I have no right to throw it in his face.  Does this indicate something about the intended use of the symbol?

In some sense, no, because the man from India did not hand me a Nazi flag.  His symbol was not identical, but merely similar to the one I identify as the offensive symbol.  But still, there is something important to be said when we excuse him for using the same shape in a different context, and context is the key word here, for the sense in which he used the symbol correlated to the contextual information which gave that instance of the symbol a meaning distinct from the context which we find offensive today.

So, a symbol's creation, specification of meaning, application and presentation are all relevant when considering its meaning.  We must also be aware of the boundaries of our own subjectivities inre: the use of symbols.  I am entitled to raise objections when my neighbor flies a Nazi flag (though not entitled to destroy or invade his property over it), but my entitlements change with my friend from India, whose use is not indicative of racial animosity or violence or really anything to do with me at all, and so he should not be enjoined to alter his behavior.

What does all this have to do with the Vinland Flag?

It has come about in recent years that some organizations promoting racist ideas use or advocate the use of the Vinland Flag as representative of their organizations.  Some non-racist groups advocate its use as well, as a heritage pride flag.  The non-racist application leaves essentially no room for debate, because Steele created the flag for just such a purpose, which, by itself, has no connotations of racism or racial superiority.  In that context it is identical to the flag of Italy which my neighbors fly in real life, which I do not find offensive, and the flag of Ireland I hang in memory of my grandfather, which, as of this writing, no one has raised a stink about.

But, when the racist groups say they would like to use the Vinland Flag as a symbol of racism, what should the rest of us do?  Simply give it up and let the racists have it?  We could.  There isn't a great reason not to except that we would prefer not to.  Let's inquire about a different symbol, however.  If those racist groups suggested using an unaltered, current American flag as a symbol of their racist ideas, (technically not such a ridiculous idea), would other uses of that flag become infused with the racist intention of the racist minority?

I think we can't say that when a Klan member flies a current American flag with the intent of racist expression, the flag outside the White House should be taken down because it too has become racist.  The meanings surely compete, whether or not the challenge to the original meaning is particularly strong or publicly regarded at all.  It's just a claim made by some person who doesn't really have the right or ability to redefine the symbol.  The symbol certainly can be redefined by a more powerful group, for example, if some violent fascist coup overthrew the American government and continued using the traditional 50-star flag.  But this minority usage doesn't stand a sincere chance of redefinition.

Unfortunately, the racist groups actually might co-opt the Vinland Flag entirely, because the average man is ignorant of its origin, and because the racist application may become more common than the original usage.  But, this cause will only be advanced by our abstinence; throwing out your Type O shirts will guarantee that more instances of the usage of the Vinland Flag are racist, and the content of the meaning will sway in favor of the negative.

Is the flag of Vinland a racist symbol?

Today, right now,  no.  It comes from the albums of a certain rock band from New York City, and was "baptized" as a band logo representing the relationship of the singer's heritage to his sense of identity and, consequently, some of his political beliefs.  Steele was not a racist, and there is no evidence to suggest the symbol is anything more than a piece of artwork.  It does not correspond to a political party, to any particular state or nation, though it can be said to correspond to people of northern European descent.  Most importantly, it has no connection to any sort of violent behavior at all, and it has no connection to philosophies of violence.  

If you do not find this line of argument satisfying, consider an appeal to artistic irony.  As is often the problem with aggressive forms of music, the humor is often lost as a result of the package it arrives in.  Fans of Cannibal Corpse like myself are not, for the most part, getting a sadistic thrill from the group's lyrics.  They describe horrifying acts, none of which have occurred in real life, which often involve zombie-related violence.  They are written because they are the most startling, abhorrent sorts of violence we can conceive of, and that is exciting because we can explore behaviors in relationship to morality, and especially violence, from a safe distance which ensures that real examples are not required for our understanding to increase.  Desensitization is simply a propaganda word which relies on the most rudimentary understandings of Pavlovian conditioning and faint mental images of the therapy sessions from A Clockwork Orange in order to establish nomothetic, collectivist explanations of all of our surroundings at once.  This may lead to feelings of safety, but is in no way scientific.

In the same way that Cannibal Corpse describes violence ironically, a case can reasonably be made to suggest that any fascistic connections the notably sarcastic boys from Type O make with their imagery is quite literally part of the act.  Did society learn nothing from Marilyn Manson?

Anyway, that's not the argument I mean to advance, just an attempt to anticipate objections.  Still, though now the Vinland Flag is not a racist symbol, it is entirely possible that it will be subsumed into a charnel of forbidden imagery, and in that event, I'll have to get rid of the patch on my backpack.  Until then, however, I'll wear my Type O symbols with the intent of indicating no deeper philosophy than the fact that I like their songs.