Considering the Power of the Confederate Flag, Other Symbols

Idyllic and picturesque in many ways, Goshen carries the “small Midwestern town” vibe with a progressive bent. Increasingly bike and pedestrian friendly—the local trails are populated with bikers, runners and walkers—we boast a thriving business community, including restaurants that get their produce from local farmers and retail stores that sell local goods and services. We have art, we have music, we have theater. More than just serving as telltale signs of a strong community, the amenities that improve our quality of life also mark Goshen as a place that is welcoming to outsiders. We have a lot to be proud of, and a lot to offer to visitors. Unfortunately, this air of inclusiveness is not a given. The positive atmosphere here can, at times, be tenuous, marred by social, cultural or political divisions.

I’ve written a number of posts about symbols—they are an important part of the vocabulary we use to communicate, and sometimes hold a great deal of power. We see them everywhere: in traffic and retail spaces, at airports and hospitals, on bike trails, or displayed on clothing, T-shirts and flags. And as part of our visual vocabulary, the meaning behind them can foster an environment that is either hospitable or hostile.

For example, the proud display of Confederate flags along Main Street during First Fridays, which was followed (later in the evening) by the tagging of houses in the vicinity with obscenities and swastikas, is a pretty clear reminder that there is still a palpable threat to the positive image we want to portray as a city.

While not completely shocking—I’ve come to expect this sort of thing as a native Hoosier—I still feel embarrassed for my hometown.

We all have a right to our beliefs, which goes without saying. And symbols are inevitably a manifestation of those beliefs. However, there is a fine line between being able to say or do whatever we want to for the sake of personal expression and keeping inflammatory images, symbols and language away from public spaces in the name of civility.

When I was a student at Goshen College, I went with a group of fellow students to protest a KKK rally in Shipshewana. I was motivated by a desire to confront my childhood fears, and though seeing Klansmen in the flesh succeeded in making me less afraid, it was the first time I witnessed the kind of outright hatred I’d only ever heard about, read about or seen portrayed in 80s-style, made-for-TV movies. I wasn’t scared but the experience didn't exactly make me feel safe.

Such is the power of symbols. They communicate a great deal without words, mobilizing people to a given cause and sometimes invoking fear. Do we really want remnants of the Civil War and Jim Crow era prominently displayed during events that are meant to bring people together? What does this say about us? (I have a hard time seeing how this appeals to entrepreneurs or those who are looking for investment opportunities.) No doubt “history” and “tradition” are used to justify the glorification of the Confederate flag but let’s not be coy—without a doubt it is commonly recognized as symbol of hate.

The city feels slightly little less safe than it did a few days ago. On the other hand, just as there are symbols that pit us against one another, there are symbols that unite us. We have it within our individual power to foster relationships that promote peace, and to appeal, through advocacy, to the “better angels of our nature.” How might we use art and design to reinforce our commitment to building a community that embraces diversity?