There has always been a lot of misunderstanding about what a flag is. A flag is a symbol of something, quite often a country, though it could be a symbol of a movement or a governmental body smaller than a nation. In America, States have flags, sports teams have flags, cities and municipalities may have flags or shields that serve the same function. Symbols are very interesting, and we need to understand them as different than signs. Signs only reveal something. For example, the sign at the right of this paragraph tells us we should stop. It doesn’t mean or imply anything else, even about the nature of stopping. I means, and only means stop – even in neighborhoods where they are largely ignored, stop signs still mean stop.
Symbols are distinct from signs in that they both reveal and conceal something about that to which they refer. Consider the American flag, for example. What it reveals is the United States, in that the United States is a country that exists and can be located on the map or on a globe. If you are like me, you sometimes see a flag and have no idea what country it comes from. This especially happens when I watch the Olympics. You probably didn’t know that the flag at left, for example, is the flag of Ecuador. In 2015, there were one hundred ninety-six countries in the world, making it a huge task to memorize all of the flags for all of the countries. Even if you did manage to do that, all you would know would be what the flag reveals. You would know what country the flag represented and where in the world the country is located.
What flags conceal is everything else about the country. The includes the name of the country (in most cases), the population, the culture, the type of government, the language
spoken, the history of the country and its people, and everything else about the country beyond its location. If we want to know those things, we have to learn them from sources other than the flag itself. When we learn those things, we then can “see” them whenever we see that flag. Those of us who grew up during the cold war had a certain reaction on seeing the flag of the Soviet Union (at right). More recently in the news there has been great controversy over the so-called “Rebel flag,” which is an example of a flag that was never the flag of a country or even of the Confederacy, but rather emerged during the Civil Rights movement in 20th century America as a symbol of racism and hate. Obviously, flags can be symbols of political positions, too, as the continued use of the Nazi flag by hate groups clearly proves.
There is a distinction, however, between a symbol and the thing it represents. A symbol is never the thing it represents, it only points to it. Were that not the case, all America would have had to do to win the cold war was to destroy the Soviet flag and the Soviet Union would have disappeared. Flags, however, can never fairly be said to represent individual people. Those who claim that when people use the American flag to make a political statement they are disrespecting Uncle Fred who served in the military and died during WWII misunderstand what a flag represents. The flag doesn’t represent Uncle Fred, it represents the nation, and in a nation with free speech people are free to make political statements about that nation using the flag. Uncle Fred died defending the Constitution, and the Constitution guarantees free speech. In perhaps a counter intuitive manner, trying to impede free speech does more to disrespect Uncle Fred and what he stood for than burning a flag could ever do. Not understanding that causes us to cross from patriotism into nationalism, a most dangerous move indeed.