Since the Charleston shooting, wherein a young man named Dylann Roof shot and killed nine people in a South Carolina church, the country has been hotly debating the Confederate flag.
While many people from the South defend the flight of the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of states’ rights, others believe it is inherently racist and should be banned from public property. Many politicians are successfully pushing legislation to remove the Confederate flag, especially in South Carolina. But many others are adamantly defending what they believe the Confederate flag stands for — loyalty and heritage. Those who dare to defend the flag and proudly display it on their social media pages or private property are often labeled racist.
But here’s the deal. The people defending the Confederate flag are not doing so because they’re racist. And they’re not defending it because they’re tearfully proud of their state’s history, or because they believe in the sovereignty of individual states. People defend the Confederate flag because they like the image — because they’ve been surrounded by the flag their whole life. Allegiance to a symbol like this has less to do with the historical/political connotations behind the Confederate flag and more to do with image recognition. After all, the Confederate flag as we know it was barely even used by the American South in the civil war, as this video by CGPGrey explains.
So why are people so protective of the Confederate flag symbol? Because it permeated their life for so long. It’s an attachment based on an affiliation with things they love. Imagine you grew up seeing the Confederate flag flying outside your home. Imagine you bought a Confederate flag phone case as a teenager. It’s easy to associate an image with feelings of happiness and therefore form a protective affinity for objects and symbols.
As Dr. Gregory Mize explains, seeing a person or a thing that we like releases oxytocin in our brain — which is the same chemical that makes us fall in love. Every time you see an image you enjoy, such as the flag you associate with home, your brain releases feel-good chemicals that reinforce your love for that thing.
“We become attached to people and things because it serves a perceived need which, we think, if attained will complete us somehow.”
Similarly, serotonin, another feel-good brain chemical, is released when humans feel like they’re a part of something. People enjoy a surge of serotonin when they feel significant or important, which can help explain why certain people form an allegiance to certain groups and cultures — even bad ones. According to the Huffington Post, “culture brings experiences that facilitate serotonin release.”
People also get a dose of serotonin when they reflect on their past, regardless of whether the memories are good or bad. This might help to explain why people romanticize their home, their history, or their heritage.
There’s also something to be said about the image itself. Sometimes people simply enjoy the way symbols like the Confederate flag look. The best example I can think of in my personal experience is a friend I had in high school who was obsessed with the Communist flag. He loved the hammer and sickle emblem and wore it proudly. He was by no means a Communist, he had simply grown attached to the symbol.
But that didn’t stop his classmates and teachers from feeling uncomfortable around him.
Despite our biological attachment to things we associate with our personal identities, we have to admit that symbols like the Confederate flag have a meaning beyond our own brains.
You have every right to defend the Confederate flag, but everybody observing has every right to assume you’re racist (even if you’re not) and keep their distance from you. In the same way that some people affiliate the Confederate flag with home and loyalty, many others affiliate the Confederate flag with pain and suffering. And to defend that image is to claim your own personal attachment to a red rectangle is worth the harm you may be causing others.
In short, it’s simply not worth the fight. So those who defend the Confederate flag might as well give it up. It’s a lost cause. You can confidently claim you don’t care what others think about you, and that’s fine. Simply being attached to the flag doesn’t make you a racist, or a bad person, or a slavery-endorser. But choosing to defend it does mean you lack a certain empathy for those it symbolically oppressed.
[Image credit: Getty]