Before we get into the story of these two students and their chosen vector of hate speech, it might be a good time for all of us to go back to the 11th grade. Back when I was in high school, I had an English teacher who started every class with a little mental warmup called the “Flag Game.” To understand what’s wrong here, we’re going to play a simplified version of the Flag Game.
A symbol is just like any other scribble on paper — it doesn’t mean anything unless we assign a value and a meaning to it. Different people assign different values and meanings to different things. But once you have assigned that value, the thing will always become interchangeable with the value assigned to it. In short, a symbol means whatever we think it means. Or, more relevantly, it means whatever it means according to its agreed upon value. That’s how symbols like the words you’re reading communicate thoughts — agreed value.
The Flag Game works by assigning values to colors and symbols. The teacher gives the meaning of a couple of words or symbols on each of the flags, leaves a few blank, and then the students agree upon a value for the “blank” colors/symbols to create a sentence. Here’s our First Round:
- BLUE = “You”
- GREEN = “Love”
- RED = “I”
What does this say?
Yup — this series of colors says “I love you.” Round 2:
- WHITE = “is”
- RED = “Satan”
- YELLOW = “Ted”
- BLACK = “Cruz”
You got it. The answer here (in more ways than one) is, yes, “Ted Cruz is Satan.” Going well so far. Round 3 is a little harder, because in this round, we’re not going to assign any of the values. You’re going to have to use your personal experience and education to decode this flag, and agree on what it means:
Well, two students at Tahoma High School in Maple Valley, Washington state don’t want us to believe that they don’t get exactly what it means. Because when they wore a pair of confederate Battle flags to class, they sincerely made the argument that it had something to do with “Southern Pride.”
Because if there’s anything less gay than earrings, it’s giant scarves and capes.
The two boys were pretty explicit about their rationale; while they did make some kind of ridiculous excuse about “Southern Pride” (nevermind the fact that Washington is literally as far as you can possibly get from the Confederacy in the continental United States), they also came clean that it was in direct reaction to the display of a gay pride flag by their fellow student.
After refusing to remove the offending flags, the boys were sent home for the day, and suspended for the next day. School officials cited their policy on “distracting” attire.
The local CBS affiliate KIRO said that local residents supported the decision. A concerned aunt there to pick up her nephew commented:
“I can see why we wouldn’t be OK with that. There’s too many ethnic backgrounds that it could offend. It’s about the attitude.”
Right now, it’s unclear as to whether or not the juniors will fight the suspension, or their assumed right to wear this universal symbol of hate at school. But it’s possible. Back in February, the Connecticut ACLU won a suit representing a student named Seth Grody, who wore an explicitly anti-gay T-shirt in protest of the school’s observation of an LGBT tolerance day.
Sandra Staub, the legal director of the local ACLU said that the First Amendment:
“…is not merely a theoretical discussion topic but a real and vital guarantee ensuring that Americans can say what they want. The First Amendment was written to protect unpopular speech, which is naturally the kind of speech that will always need protection.”
And that’s a valid point. Sort of. To that end, your author is going to address a few points raised in the various comments on this particular incident. Just to save some Admin time in responding to any posted below.
“I wish people would stop saying the Southern flag is a sign of hate. It isnt! Its about pride in heritage and everything that means. If these boys want to celebrate southern heritage, they should be allowed to.”
Please see the Flag Game above. A symbol means what its agreed upon value SAYS it means. A swastika used to be a sign of good fortune — now, it represents Nazis. A coiled rattlesnake used to represent freedom from oppression — now, it represents hateful stupidity. The word “adgdcbvrsfcbvr” means “cat” to me…but the agreed upon value for everyone else says it means “epilepsy on a keyboard.” I won’t dispute that to some people, the Confederate Battle Flag (which is what it’s called) DOES represent Southern pride. I’m a Southerner…I get that. But it only represents that (when it does) IN THE SOUTH. Around other people who agree that that is its value as a symbol.
Anywhere else in the country, around people who don’t associate that flag with memories of iced tea and fireflies, it means “racism, bigotry and treason.” and even among people who do see it solely as a sign of southern pride, that alternative association is ever-present.
YOU, as an individual, don’t get to decide what a symbol means. The thought that the symbol communicates is what it means, and that’s decided upon by OTHER PEOPLE. Sorry, guys…language is very democratic that way.
“So, sodomites can fly their flag, but confederates can’t. Gotcha.”
Oh yes, you’re right. Because gay people are notorious for enslaving entire races, and flying the rainbow flag while marching into war against the people of the United States. Again, the Gay Pride flag is actually about “Pride.” I seriously doubt that a rainbow flag was the last thing anyone’s ever seen before being shot, hung from a tree or dragged behind a pickup truck.
The Confederate “Battle Flag” has always and will always be a BATTLE FLAG. It’s not even the actual flag of the Confederacy as a nation. It’s a flag flown in war against the United States, while shedding blood for institutionalized bigotry. It’s also the last flag that many Jews, blacks and gays have seen in many years since the Civil War. The Battle Flag does now and always will stand for violence in the name of bigotry to anyone who isn’t proudly Southern. Get over it.
“Ugh…more liberalism in our schools. Get your kids out before its too late!”
Well…yes. See, reality has a liberal bias by definition, and also by definition, education has a progressive bias. “Conservatives” conserve, meaning that they defend the status quo and fight any kind of forward progress out of fear. If a student were in an environment where he was taught to be terrified of progress, then where’s the drive toward self-improvement? Why should he try to exercise his mind…strive to be better than he has to be?
It’s no coincidence that teachers are more likely to lean left than right. They have to believe in the future, and believe that they’re working to build a better one. A teacher can’t fear the future, and a student can’t afford to cling to last year’s lessons. Conservatism limits potential. Not to say that Conservatives can’t be smart…just saying that nobody who has ever been conservative in thought or action has ever lived their full potential.
Ah, yes. The First Amendment. The amendment that protects free speech. What are the first five words of that amendment again?
“Congress shall make no law…”
What were the first and last words again? “Congress” and “law.” As a kid who wore an ankle-length, black trench-coat to high-school before, during and after Columbine, I’m pretty well-versed in this one.
A school board isn’t “congress,” and a venue-specific “policy” isn’t a “law.” Remember back in the day, when kids had to wear school uniforms? They didn’t have any say in the matter, and it wasn’t a violation of free speech. Because it was school policy, plain and simple. If you wanted your kid to go to that school, you obeyed school policy and sent them to school in a uniform. The same holds true today for gym class; kids regularly have to wear a certain color shirt and pants/shorts to gym class.
The reality is that kids go to school to LEARN. School isn’t a place for distracting political statements…it’s a place for LEARNING. (Not that supposed Confederates would appreciate THAT particular metric of judgement.) That was the ruling laid out by the Tinker v. Des Moines judgement of 1969, which said this:
“…Although the Tinker decision recognized that students have free speech rights on campus, the court also held that your free-speech rights can be limited when the speech “materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others.” This rule is referred to as Tinker’s “material disruption” standard, or the Tinker test. For example, a school can “prohibit the use of vulgar and offensive terms in public discourse” while you are on campus.”
So, basically, the school only has to show that the thing in question “materially disrupts classwork,” and it’s gone. The school administration makes that decision, and may have to prove it later. But on the spot, the administration makes that call. Considering the fact that it was supported by the local community and parents, this was evidently the right one.
Of course, by that standard, maybe the Gay Pride flag shouldn’t have been permitted either. If it distracted anyone from classwork or studies, then it should be gone, too. Great…school is for learning. But if nobody cared, then nobody cared. But did people care about a couple of yahoos carrying around a sign of hate and violence in “protest” (read: intimidation) of a person who’s part of a group historically victimized by bearers of that same flag?
Hell, yes, they did.
And that’s the end of this Flag Game.