Shaming South Carolina to Remove the Confederate Flag

Our anger over the murder of nine black church-going individuals in South Carolina is real and justified, but is it useful?

Our anger over the murder of nine black church-going individuals in South Carolina is real and justified, but is it useful? A good feeling may accompany righteous indignation, but our anger is not ultimately practical, argues Rick Hill at Prawfs Blawg (Hill is a professor of law at New York University).

We've documented how resistant individuals become when their beliefs are forcefully contradicted. Rather than amend their assumptions, they double-down on their unfounded notions. So to convince South Carolinians to take down their rebel flag, we'll need to do more than explain to them that their flag is a symbol of racial intolerance, and that flying it on the grounds of the state capitol normalizes prejudice.

Hill's argument against outsized anger takes Jon Stewart and Fox News as representatives of our polarized nation's approach to this tragedy. Stewart slams the white southern Confederate culture that makes black people drive down streets named for Confederate generals and flies the defeated nation's flag on the grounds of the state capitol. Fox News, however, says that white southern culture is primarily Christian, not racist, and that shooter Dylann Roof is "best characterized" as anti-Christian.

Surprisingly, Hill accepts Fox News' approach as the one more likely to result in cooperation with an embattled white southern culture when it comes to, among other things, removing the Confederate flag from government buildings.

"Fox News’ approach has a prayer of creating a cross-racial rural coalition rooted in church and guns. By contrast, Stewart’s Naming & Shaming strategy seems not only futile but dangerous to me: Convince 'mainstream' Southerners that their condemnation of racist violence is inconsistent with their embrace of Stonewall Jackson and the Confederate flag, and you might find that they dump the former rather than the latter."

Hill, once again, is a law professor, and his argument is made with emotional detachment. My own brief experience in receiving a legal education left me feeling cold, as though law were the tool of sophists (and may the better sophist win). Hill's argument leaves me feelings similarly. His conclusion that "sometimes, in short, honesty might not be the best policy," makes moral truth subservient to political expediency.

This is an old saw, to be sure. Is the right course of action to achieve moral ends by strategic means or to just behave morally all the time? In the case of Charleston, South Carolina, we ought to defer to the rights of the victims, whose distinguishing characteristic in the words of the murderer is that they were black.

But the price of offending innocent Southern white culture (should we be charitable and declare it innocent), and the eventual forgetting of the racist antebellum South, is a smaller price to pay than the one exacted on us collectively for failing to face the truth. And social progress is made when slow, trudging truth is transparent about its intentions, not scheming and political.

On the topic of rationality, e.g., hearing an uncomfortable truth and accepting, Dan Ariely offers a fresh perspective. While notions of truth and revenge are irrational, he claims, they are extremely important to society. In fact, says Ariely, we wouldn't want a society that behaves entirely rationally.

Photo credit: MLADEN ANTONOV / Getty Images

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