On flags and other subjects

Fair warning: this post is long and will probably bore people who are not interested in exciting philosophical concepts like the difference between subjectivity and objectivity. So, like, pretty much everybody.

As you recall, a few weeks ago many people were demanding the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state capitol on the grounds that the flag is a symbol of racism. At the time, I wrote on Facebook:

What bothers me about this Confederate flag controversy, like most issues, is the almost complete lack of interest on the part of the outraged party to understand the people they are outraged with. Here’s the thing: a flag is a symbol. Symbols mean different things to different people. The symbol “Coke” means something different in the South than it means in the rest of the country. That doesn’t make the people in the South stupid, evil, or wrong. It just means they are interpreting a symbol differently. Clearly, with the spread of information and changing of attitudes about race, the Confederate flag’s meaning in the South is catching up to its meaning elsewhere, and it’s only a matter of time before that symbol is removed from official use. If you want to accelerate that process, the absolute worst way to do it (other than physically removing the flag) is to accuse the people who support it of being stupid, racist, evil, etc. The only purpose that kind of rhetoric serves is to make you feel good about your moral superiority and self-righteous indignation. If you actually want to effect change, start by trying to understand what it is you want to change.

Shortly after posting that, still a bit irritated about the self-righteous attitude of the flag-yankers, I got into an argument on Twitter with Adam Gurri about this very topic. I can’t for the life of me find the conversation back, but as I recall it started with Adam stating that those fighting the removal of the flag were clearly in the wrong because the Confederate flag has an agreed-upon meaning that includes certain racist attitudes. I responded that a flag is a symbol, and that symbols have no intrinsic meaning, so it’s unfair to assume that all other people are using the flag to mean exactly the same thing. I half-jokingly asked what percentage of a society had to think the flag was racist for it to become objectively racist (my point being that symbols never have objective meaning, no matter who believes what about them).

Adam acknowledged that the flag has no objective meaning, but he also insisted that its meaning is not completely subjective, because otherwise everyone could make up their own meaning for the flag, which would presumably defeat the purpose of having a flag in the first place. He suggested the flag’s meaning was “intersubjective,” meaning that the flag has a meaning that is shared among many people. At the time I dismissed the idea of intersubjectivity as a sort of cheat, a way of pretending that there is something other than subjectivity and objectivity. But Adam makes a pretty good argument for the idea of intersubjectivity in this blog post, which I recommend you read now, because otherwise you’re not going to know what I’m talking about. Here’s a puzzling image that you can use as a placeholder while you read it:

Then why is it on your sign?
Then why is it on your sign?

Back? Good.

The fact is that on some level intersubjectivity has to exist. It’s absurd to dismiss the idea of the shared meaning of symbols while writing in a language that depends on the shared meaning of symbols. It seems to me, though, that intersubjectivity is not a property of the symbol/meaning pair itself, but of the relationship between two subjective viewpoints. In other words, intersubjectivity isn’t a thing in itself; it’s an emergent property of a collection of things. Think of it this way: there are such things are parallel lines, but there is no such thing as a parallel line. A line cannot be parallel by itself, and a single symbol/meaning pair cannot be intersubjective. The intersubjectiveness arises as a result of isomorphism between two subjective points of view, in the same way that parallelism arises as the result of equidistance between two lines.

So to the question “Is there such a thing as intersubjectivity?” I would answer “Yes, but only as an emergent property that depends on subjectivity.” It isn’t a new class of thing in between (or otherwise in addition to) subjective and objective. It’s just a description of shared subjectivity.

(A clarification before I continue: when I say a symbol/meaning pair is subjective, I am not using subjective to mean that the symbol/meaning pair is completely arbitrary and up to the individual’s discretion, in the way that people sometimes talk about “subjective morality.” If you’ve grown up in an environment where the Confederate flag denotes racism, then that is the meaning that is going to be imprinted on your brain. You can’t just arbitrarily choose a different meaning for that symbol any more than you could just start talking backwards if you wanted to. Thus your understanding of the flag is going to be subjective, but it’s also going to be largely intersubjective with that of other people raised in the same environment.)

In the last few paragraphs of his post, Adam seems to anticipate my argument about intersubjectivity just being a description of a shared subjective state:

Most people take it for granted that groups exist. Libertarians, as well as economists and social scientists committed to methodological individualism, cry foul here. Only individuals decide, they argue. A “group” is just a shorthand for a bunch of individuals. Maybe they look cohesive because of economic and social processes, but individuals and processes are all that there is.

But wait a minute. What the heck is an individual? Aren’t they just a cluster of cells that turnover on a regular basis? Aren’t they just a bunch of atoms, 98 percent of which have moved on by the end of a year? And what are cells, but molecules and atoms? And what are atoms, but subatomic particles? At any level of substance, isn’t there just some process going on that makes the thing look like a thing? Aren’t processes the only thing truly real, in the end?

I think what Adam is getting at is that intersubjectivity exists in the same sense that groups of people exist: you can argue that only subjectivity exists or that only individuals exist, but ultimately reducing reality to those terms is just as arbitrary as talking about symbols as having definite meaning or talking about society in terms of the interplay of groups. If that is what he is saying, though, he is wrong. The individual is the seat of both consciousness and perception, and because of that, it is qualitatively different from both its constituent elements and groups of which it is a part. Neither an atom nor a government has ideas, perceptions, a point of view, or consciousness. Granted, we often talk about what the United States “wants,” “believes,” etc., but this is just anthropomorphism: we talk about groups as if they were human beings because we understand human beings, and thinking of groups this way is a useful shortcut to describing the intragroup dynamics that ultimately result in certain external effects. In the same way, we might talk about an electron “wanting” to “jump” from one place to another, but this anthropomorphism should not be take to mean that an electron is conscious, intentional thing, as if an electron were a human being writ small. It is not, and neither is a nation-state a human being writ large.

Some libertarian/anarchist-minded thinkers take this qualitative difference so seriously that (as Adam indicates) they refuse even to use figures of speech that hint at similarities between individuals and groups, insisting that “groups don’t exist.” The problem with this is that you preserve your intellectual purity at the expense of being able to talk in accepted terminology with normal people. It’s virtually impossible to have a sociological or political discussion without acknowledging that the government or other groups exist in some sense (after all, what does an anarchist have to complain about if nation-states don’t exist?). And in the same way, you have to assume that certain symbols have certain widely accepted meanings. Insisting on total atomistic individuality / subjectivity simply isn’t practical. So in that sense I agree with Adam: groups do exist, and intersubjectivity describes an actual phenomenon.

That said, the dichotomy Adam presents between groups being “just shorthand for a bunch of individuals” and groups “actually existing” is a false one. I am willing to accept, for the purposes of efficient conversation, that groups exist. I do not accept, however, that a group is something more than a collection of individuals. Groups do exist–as a shorthand for a collection of individuals. Similarly, intersubjectivity exists–as a description of shared subjective meanings. We can talk meaningfully about both of these things, but let’s not pretend that our ability to identify something as “existing” somehow imbues it with other properties, like consciousness, intention, or moral authority.

So to say that the Confederate flag is a racist symbol, and to base this statement on the idea of intersubjectivity, is, I think, a cheat after all (and maybe that’s not what Adam was saying, but that is my interpretation of his argument). It’s a way of saying “Pretty much everybody thinks X; therefore X is true.” You can’t derive either objective meaning or moral authority from a bunch of people believing something, no matter how many of them there are or how fervently they believe it. And ultimately, that’s what bothers me about these arguments. I honestly don’t give a shit about the Confederate flag. If it offends a lot of people, don’t fly it on government property. What I object to is the characterization of the people who disagree with this sentiment as necessarily racist. Think about what is happening here:

Group A says: “This symbol means X, and that is offensive. Take it down.”

Group B says: “No, this symbol means Y, which is not offensive. I won’t take it down.”

Now the charitable, rational thing for Group A to say at this point is “Maybe it means Y to you, but I want you to know that it means X to a lot of people. So out of respect for those people, you should take it down.”

But instead, Group A seems to want to insist that Group B is somehow objectively wrong in its interpretation of the symbol. So they say, “Look, any idiot can see that this symbol means X, so take it down.” This is a very uncharitable interpretation of Group B’s stated beliefs, and the only way Group A can coherently make this argument is to deny that any valid interpretation of the symbol other than their own exists. That is, they assume that the symbol has an objective meaning, even though this is impossible. To get around this problem, Group A brings in the idea of intersubjectivity (although they may not use that exact term), deliberately fudging the concept so that “Agreed upon by many people” becomes “Objectively true for all practical purposes.”

The problem is this: the moment that you elevate intersubjectivity to the level of objectivity, or pretend that groups have some kind of importance above and beyond that of the individuals comprising the group, you are on very dangerous territory. This is the domain of groupthink and collectivism, where the lone dissenter is marginalized and crimes against individuals can be justified on the basis of the good of the group. After all, if people are to the nation-state as cells are to a human being, then executing a few dissidents should bother us no more than excising a suspicious mole. Unless we recognize that the individual is something qualitatively different from the group, and that the individual viewpoint is irreducible and sacrosanct, we risk falling into the trap of believing that human beings are just collections of atoms or that a single human being has value only insofar as he contributes to an arbitrarily defined group.

Do I feel bad for the benighted hillbilly who can’t understand why his beloved symbol of regional pride is being removed from the capitol? Not particularly. But the same reasoning used to dismiss that hillbilly can be used to marginalize any viewpoint and demonize (or dehumanize) any nonconformist. In a society where widespread intersubjectivity is used as ersatz objectivity, conventional wisdom becomes dogma and the dissenter becomes a heretic. If one has a perspective that differs significantly from that of the majority, she is either evil or insane, and must either be cured or removed from society, like a cancerous cell.

The alternative to this ultimately totalitarian ideology is to view each person as an end to himself, and to see each subjective viewpoint as having intrinsic value. This is the viewpoint that says “I understand that this symbol means Y to you, but it means X to a lot of people. Let’s try to come to an agreement about what to do about that.” To me, that seems like the way forward.
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2 Comments on On flags and other subjects

  1. I’m tired of being told I’m an evil person for being a straight white man. I’m tired of being called an ignorant redneck hick for being a Southerner. And I’ve put up with this for most of my life. I don’t back down anymore.

  2. Thanks. I feel like I took a one-day class in philosophy. And more than ever, I understand my own anger at what happened. I love this line because it is so damn true and nobody seems to understand: “But the same reasoning used to dismiss that hillbilly can be used to marginalize any viewpoint and demonize (or dehumanize) any nonconformist.”

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