I’m not the type of person you’ll find at a protest. You’ll be hard pressed to find me at a rally of any sort. I went to the 2014 Pride Parade in Washington D.C. last summer because my roommates went…but I never would have thought to go on my own.
It’s not that I don’t care about Black Lives or LGBTQ issues or the environment, what have you.
It’s not that I don’t believe we should strive for a better planet, a better human race.
It’s not any of that.
I’m considering a career in genocide education for heavens sakes. I care a lot.
I’m just very reserved. I don’t like to draw attention to myself in public places like a protest or a rally. I abhor arguing unless it’s with someone I’m very close to and trust. I’m pretty non-confrontational and generally speaking, would much rather express my urgency for a better world, a better human race through writing or a small group or one on one conversation. Humanity frustrates me a lot. For all the beauty and grace and good there is out there, there is also a lot to be concerned about. Humanity scares me. Humanity makes me wonder how much we as a collective really value this life at all.
But I would feel no satisfaction in marching in a protest, holding a sign up at a rally. In fact, I’d feel unnecessarily in the spot light. And I’d want to go and hide.
So, when I saw the first Confederate flag waving proudly(?) in the front lawn of a private family home in a small Midwestern town, I said nothing. I later texted a friend my disgust, but in the moment, I said nothing.
When I saw the second Confederate flag waving across town on the lawn of a different private family home, I again said nothing. I texted two friends this time as my distress over the two respective flags was raising an urgency inside of me.
I said nothing, but my insides were seething.
I knew I had to write about it. A blog post began to formulate in my head. So here you go.
— — — —
I suppose some of the more outspoken people that I know would take my lack of vocalization in those moments as a problem. Perhaps they would see it as cowardly or a lack of caring. But you see, that’s not the way my mind works. I could have vocalized it…but to what avail? It still wouldn’t change the fact that the Confederate flags were there. It still wouldn’t the very real fact that for all the legislation passed by our government to ensure equality among all peoples, America is still a very racist country.
This blog post wont change any of that either. But, I like to think that the permanence of these words on the interwebs, even if they are only in my little and barely recognizable corner of the interwebs, will make a difference somehow. And that’s something an immediate and frustrated vocalization in the moment would never be able to do.
And so I write.
— — — —
The Confederate States of America was a short lived entity. From 1861 to 1865 the eleven most Southern States in the Union seceded to form their own nation. With Jefferson Davis as their president, they went to war with the nation they used to be a part of. The one thing most U.S. school children learn about the Civil War, if nothing else, is that it was a war over slavery.
And yes, in many ways it was.
While their were plenty of other factors at play–the differing economies, cultures, and ideologies of the North and the South–, while disagreements and strife had been brewing between the North and South for decades, and while the slavery issue didn’t emerge at the forefront of this strife until the 1850s–when we think of the Civil War today, we mostly think of slavery. We think of the Emancipation Proclamation. We think of the pro-South and pro-slavery John Wilkes Booth assassinating Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre. We think of men of all ages leaving their Midwestern and Northeastern towns in order to preserve the Union…a Union without massive Southern plantations and a large work force of slaves.
And thus, because in our American consciousness the Civil War is the war over slavery, the Confederate flag, in the past 150 years, has become a symbol. Economics and culture and ideology, aside, the Confederate Flag has become a racist symbol, a symbol that states that the South and its plantation system and its dependence on slavery–that it was all okay. That Black people are still inferior. That anyone who isn’t a White Anglo Saxon Protestant is still inferior, for that matter.
Since the Civil War, we have made strides. For instance, Brown v. Board, The Montgomery Bus Boycotts, the Freedom Riders, and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” were all occurrences in the 1950s and 60s that made the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-twentieth century so powerful. I mean, lets be real here–the leaders of the Confederacy and those hoity toity plantation owners would probably turn in their graves if they knew we had a black president who was elected for not just one, but two terms of office.
We live in a world where the Supreme Court ruled the U.S. as one of the few countries in the world to legalize gay marriage…
…And yet there are still people out there touting their Confederate flags.
It just doesn’t add up. It doesn’t make sense. It concerns me and it scares me because I see the Confederate flag and, in my eyes, it’s just as offensive as a swastika…and yet, in 2015, people are still raising them proudly…
…And I’m realizing that no matter what the government says, no matter what is or isn’t legal, no matter that segregated public bathrooms and park benches are a thing of the past–no matter that Plessy v. Ferguson and separate but equal are no longer void according to the government–no matter any of that because racism still exists and it is very present, perhaps not everywhere, but in some pockets of the United States and that’s a problem because it doesn’t take much for hatred to spread and I fear it’s spreading.
And at what cost?
Who benefits from this?
What kind of world do we live in that there are still people out there who consider these symbols of hatred to be okay?
26 Replies to “The Power of a Symbol…Or, Will Intolerance Ever End?”
Good thoughts. I am the same way, in that I don’t openly vocalize my opinion on controversial issues, but rather channel my energy into writing about them. Perhaps it’s just a personality thing; some people are more outspoken than others, but doesn’t mean that those who aren’t aren’t any effective. We have different ways of expressing ourselves, and so however we do so ought to be regarded as valuable.
It’s definitely a personality thing. I’m an INFJ and although I often come off as an extrovert because I can be very friendly and warm (hence, why I’m really good at my barista job), I really don’t like being in the spotlight and would much rather work for a better world in a quieter way. I’m very passionate about education (part of the reason Thailand is happening), but I think there are other, more lasting ways of educating people than through protests and rallies. They can be effective, yes, but there are also other ways to stand up for what you believe in.
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Exactly. I’m an ISTJ and I feel the same way about managing relationships. I’m really reserved when it comes to meeting new people at first, but over time, I learn to open up and become friendly with them.
In regards to rallies and protests: I agree that there can be other ways to educate people, rather than through demonstrations that may or may not be as aggressive or as intrusive on other people’s properties. The classroom setting sounds more comfortable for me, as well as through self-teaching via books and Internet. Granted, what one reads might be biased, but then again, nothing is ever neutral, even protests and rallies.
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Your comparison of the Confederate flag to a swastika is quite apt: there are places in Europe where Neo-Nazis, unable to safely/legally display their own symbol, have used the Confederate flag to identify themselves instead. (Or so I’ve heard.) It’s seen as a symbol of racism across the world, perhaps even more so in the rest of the world than in its own back yard, which makes very little sense.
I live in Missouri, which always feels like this bizarre border case when it comes to the Civil War: a slave state that remained in the Union. (Though I’ve always felt relieved that my own ancestors lived in Illinois at that point in history!) But some people around here don’t seem to realize that this was Union territory, because I do sometimes see cars with Confederate flag bumper stickers, and there’s this one house I sometimes drive past that flies a Confederate flag. Worst of all, that house kept flying that flag even after Ferguson. Given everything that was happening in the greater St. Louis area–which said house is part of–I’m amazed one of their neighbors didn’t force them to take it down. Then again, I’m amazed that’s not the case anyway. If anyone in *my* neighborhood started flying a Confederate flag, I’d be looking into every technical little bylaw I could to demand that it be removed.
Oh wow, I didn’t know that! I do, however know, that it is illegal to display the swastika in many places throughout Europe, so it wouldn’t surprise me at all that that happens.
The Border States are always tricky. I think Border State history is absolutely fascinating because we often paint the Civil War as this black and white picture–the North pitted against the South, abolitionists against slave holding aristocrats, industry versus agriculture–and then you look at the Border States and everything gets fuzzy, all these stereotypes we’ve painted about the Civil War get all mixed up and become less clear in these states that weren’t really sure what they stood for…and it becomes clear that nothing about this War was black and white. Not even in the far north or the deep south.
I think the fact that they kept flying that flag after Ferguson really says something about the state of our country. I always hear about how far we’ve progressed with civil liberties, etc…how we live in such a different world than even ten, twenty years ago–and then I hear about something like that and wonder if we really have. The government passing all these laws regarding equality doesn’t mean that everyone’s minds will automatically be changed to become more tolerant in the process. It’s sad and scary, but it’s true.
It’s definitely a sign of how many different perspectives there are within any different community. The director of the museum where I volunteer, her reaction to Ferguson was to show her solidarity to the human race as a whole by buying a baseball cap with sparkly peace signs all over it. (Proof that there are still good people in the world, right?) There are definitely ways our country–and the whole world–have improved on the civil rights front, not just legally, but in the overall mindset of the people as a whole, over the last twenty years or so, but…there are sadly still people who haven’t. Probably, there are people who never will, and that’s partially because–and I always feel like a terrible elitist when I say this–some of the worst racists also have a tendency to reproduce a lot, and they pass their opinions on to their children. I always feel like in an ideal society, people with racist and other hateful values wouldn’t be allowed to reproduce and pass along their misguided beliefs. Of course, in a truly ideal society, there wouldn’t be racists in the first place…
If you’re an elitist then I’m an elitist, too. I agree with you on that note. It sounds terrible to say…but a lot of times it’s the least educated people who are reproducing the most.
But that’s a topic for another conversation. 🙂
It’s disgusting to hear that Britta. Your words describe perfectly the situation and your analysis is articulated, fair, informed and full of humanity. Humans like that don’t seem to learn anything from the past. Either they’re really stupid or heartless.
The Confederate flag is very much a cultural symbol for many southerners. Many southerners would argue that the Civil War was more about states rights than anything else and that the Confederacy was an escape from the controlling liberal government of the Union. That said, in seeing the flag as a cultural symbol, they are failing to realize that the culture of the “Old South” was inherently based off of racism and white superiority. People who do fly the Confederate flag are only seeing half the picture…whether out of ignorance or choice.
So glad you enjoyed this post, Lucile. I’m particularly happy to hear that it was full of humanity. That was my goal. I considered bringing in more politics to the post (such as the states right bit), but thought that was besides the point. Politics aside, this is an issue of humanity…and people need to learn to see it that way or the future of the United States and all the legislation we have passed to ensure equality is in great danger.
Your history degree is showing here, Britta. 🙂
I agree with your points completely. What you don’t address here is the other side’s point of view–the fact that most of the South receives completely different teaching about why the Civil War was fought. For them, it’s about state’s rights. For them, the Confederate flag is a symbol of their values and their culture. The thing is, though… the state’s rights in question regarded slavery and the oppression of an entire class of society. Which is a serious problem for all the reasons you already discussed. I’m a firm believer that Confederate flags do not belong on flagpoles, but in museums where we can acknowledge and remember our turbulent history, where our country came from, while striving for a more equal tomorrow. Great post!
Oh absolutely, I know all of that. I know that my opinions regarding the Civil War are a product of my Northern education and that many Southerns view the War and the flag differently. That said, I purposefully kept that out of this post not because I don’t think the other sides point of view is worth considering, but because I didn’t want this post to be about politics. I used a few key Supreme Court cases and other cases of government intervention to show that politics can only do so much. This is an issue of humanity and the people that do see the Confederate flag as a symbol of states rights aren’t seeing the the whole picture. I thought about mentioning that in the post, but I ultimately decided that wasn’t what I was aiming for. The fact of the matter is that the Confederate flag IS a powerful symbol of hatred and politics aside, it is dangerous. I think it’s so easy to get caught up in the politics of an issue these days that we forget that there are actual human beings behind it. While the politics are important to address because they’re a part of life, I really wanted to address the humanity of the issue, here.
It was also a bit jarring for me to see it flying twice in Northern Iowa. It wouldn’t have surprised me so much in the South, given the fact that many Southerners do see the flag as a part of their culture. I still would have been appalled and I still don’t agree with the whole practice, but it took me completely by surprise seeing two different flags flying in a state that was very much a part of the Union during the Civil War. That said, this just shows how much more complex the issue is than we often make it out to be. There were plenty of racist people living in the North in the 1860s and many abolitionists were racist, too. We often paint the North as being this safe haven for blacks where everyone was welcoming but that wasn’t the case at all (Abrhama Lincoln himself was racist) and that’s still the case today. Racism isn’t defined by geographical boundaries and my complete surprise at seeing the flag in a Northern state is based off those assumptions…which isn’t right. either.
Thanks for your feedback, though, and glad you enjoyed the post. I didn’t study the Civil War extensively for six months (albeit, through the eyes of Montgomery Blair, Lincoln’s postmaster general) for nothing. 🙂
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Great post! It still baffles me to this day that there is such hatred in this day and age. I will never understand it.
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“What kind of world do we live in that there are still people out there who consider these symbols of hatred to be okay?”
We live in a very diverse world. Some questions to think about: If you had been raised in the United States during the time when slavery was legal, and slavery was considered to be a normal part of American life, and you had been taught as a child that slaves were an inferior race incapable of being anything more than a slave, would you have recognized that it was wrong? That question honestly scares me. Doesn’t that reveal a lot about what we have been taught to believe? The problem with stigmatizing symbols like the Confederate Flag is that it often causes us to make assumptions about other people. The Confederate Flag has been used to invoke strong emotions, and I think that’s the point of why it’s still being used today. Some people who display it do it just to get a strong emotional response in others so as to draw attention to their own causes. I think many who display it today are using it as a symbol of rebellion. What I have found is that there are many different kinds of people in America, with different experiences, levels of education, and backgrounds and that I have to be careful about making assumptions about people and their motivations especially if the context is not clear as to why someone has chosen to display the Confederate Flag. I think we need to be careful to not turn our disdain for an object into the same kind of hatred that we claim to be against. I saw this article this week and it really made me think a bit more about this issue:
“The meaning that people attribute to a symbol or movement is malleable and not simply derived from selected components of its history.”
Hi Stephanie. Thank you for your thought provoking comment. It allowed me to think about the situation differently.
That said, it also helped me further understand why I wrote this post and why the power of symbols and how they can play into hatred is so important to understand.
It was never my intention while writing this post to attack anyone for their views or to make grand assumptions about people who I don’t know. I don’t agree with a lot of things other people believe in, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to change those beliefs. I agree that it is wrong to fight fire with fire. Disdain for other’s beliefs is never something I strive for in writing or in life and if this post came off like that, it was merely out of my frustration for the situation in general. You are right that America is a very diverse country and that’s a beautiful thing in many ways. Furthermore, the freedoms that we have in America to express that diversity is something that we should never take for granted. We are very lucky to live in a country where we can express ourselves without fearing for our lives.
That said, regardless of the plethora of reasons that people choose to fly the Confederate flag, it is still a largely racist symbol in the eyes of many and because of that, it is very offensive. This is common knowledge throughout the United States. My point in writing this wasn’t to mull over why people are flying it in the first place, but rather to state that the very act of flying it is a problem in itself–and that’s what scares me. I don’t care what someone’s reasons are–whether it is indeed a statement about race and white superiority or if it’s someone’s way of rebelling, as you pointed out. Regardless, the implications that flying the Confederate flag have is in itself dangerous and the fact that people either don’t realize that or choose to ignore that in flying it is worrisome.
As for the malleability of symbols and movements–I think that is an incredibly simplistic view of our history and our humanity. In theory, yes, all movements and symbols would be malleable, but history and humanity are far too complex for such malleability to be a reality. The fact of the matter is, some symbols are more malleable than others because of their history. History is a POWERFUL thing because humans are powerful beings; a strong collective memory in regards to a specific time period or event is always going to influence how we view certain symbols and movements, regardless of its larger history.
I don’t display the Confederate Flag myself, and I understand what you are saying. It is a very interesting topic and thought provoking as well. Do you think we can choose not to give power to an object or symbol? Why are you afraid of the Confederate Flag? Fear is just an emotion. Is the danger real or perceived? How do we address the issue of having so many different collective memories among us? Why does the Confederate Flag cause you to fear? Does the American Flag also cause you to fear? What about the American Indian and their collective memory or the Japanese and their collective memory or the Koreans or the Vietnamese? What about the KKK’s usage of the American flag? Or the collective memories of those who lost loved ones due to cancer from nuclear testing, Do you also feel that people should stop flying the American Flag? The riots that went on last year were pretty scary too. Do you get fearful when you see a black person now? Will your fear go away when the Confederate Flag goes away even though the white supremacists will still be out there doing what they do? Wouldn’t you feel safer knowing they had identified themselves with a Confederate Flag so that you would know who to be afraid of?
I am not afraid of the Confederate flag. I am afraid of hatred and I think that, in the hands of some people, the Confederate flag is symbol of hatred.
Also, fear isn’t just an emotion. No emotion is JUST an emotion. Emotions are powerful. Emotions can define people and emotions are part of what make life so special. Belittling emotions is belittling the very essence of what makes us human. I could contradict a lot more of what you wrote above because I don’t agree with most of it, but that would take too long and I’m tired.
What I will say is this: You are reading way too far into this post that I wrote as a way to vent my frustrations and you ask too many question. Reading all of your comments is actually exhausting.
I’m done with this conversation.
Powerful post Britta. I am much the same as you as well and I feel quite useless sometimes. I believe what I believe and I can’t stand inequality of any kind and I do try my best to educate others where possible but usually I feel a bit voiceless.
Thanks so much, DJ. It’s hard to feel like you can make a difference as one person, sometimes. There’s so much hatred in this world and yes, one person can make a difference, but it doesn’t feel like that sometimes.
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I feel pretty much the same way, not just in your opinions, but, unfortunately, about avoiding confrontation. I’d love to be the one who boldly steps up to speak for what’s right, but usually I just seethe a little and complain to some friends and family. But then, like you, I do have a pen and know how to use it, I just don’t enough.
Thank you, Trent.
I guess there is a bit of social anxiety in the fact that I don’t like to step up and speak out. More so, I think there are often times more effective ways at making a difference. Stepping up and speaking out works to an extent, but I think you also need to allow time and space for people to consider and come to their own conclusions and I personally feel like events like large protests and rallies don’t leave any room for that kind of critical thinking because they can be very in your face.
I like writing because it allows the reader to read through my words, absorb them, and come to their own conclusions about them. Hopefully I can make them see the world a bit differently but if not, at least I tried.
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I understand what you are saying. I did a series of posts on compassion and will continue doing more. One problem is that if I go any place into the realm that is considered “politics”, I feel I can only preach to the choir. People who most need to hear the message will just not get it.
You have a point there. It’s pretty hard to change people’s minds when it comes to politics. That said, I really wrote this particular piece to vent a little bit. I needed to get it off my chest. So, I probably won’t change anyone’s mind…but at least I feel better after getting it off my chest. I mean, I’d love for this piece to make a difference even for just one person, but who knows if that will actually happen.
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INTJ here, No feeling “F”, but we will throw the Introverted “I” out the window to prove a point when we know we are right and something is wrong.
Slavery was not the cause of the Civil War. PERCEIVED threats and fears were the cause of the Civil War.
“The agricultural South was dependent on cotton production and the economic and political elite there feared that as more new states entered the union they would choose to be free-states, shift the balance of power in Washington, and ultimately lead to higher tariffs for the South as well as threats to the institution of slavery.”
The PERCEIVED loss of slavery came with the expansion of the American West and the admittance of territories as free states and the disruption of sectional balance in congress between the Pro-Slavery Democrats and the anti-slavery Republicans.
Lincoln was not an abolitionist, but he was PERCEIVED to be anti-slavery. Lincoln ran for president on the Republican platform to stop the expansion of slavery in the West. (Opinion alert) Lincoln would have been an IDIOT to end slavery as Southern Exports accounted for about 60% of total American exports. Cotton in particular was the backbone of the textile manufacturing industry in the UK and US.
“Between 1793 and 1815, cotton exports from the U.S. grew from 500,000 pounds to more than 80 million pounds. Cotton from the U.S. was the fuel for the Industrial Revolution in Europe and the development of capitalism–and slavery was the key to producing cotton. As Karl Marx wrote from his vantage point in Britain, “Without slavery, there would be no cotton, without cotton, there would be no modern industry.”
The symbolism of the Confederate Battle Flag is the representation of the Confederate side in the Civil War between the states.
“Because the Confederate battle flag did not fade into history in 1865, it was kept alive to take on new uses and new meanings and to continue to be part of an ever-changing history. As much as students of Civil War history may wish that we could freeze the battle flag in its Civil War context, we know that we must study the flag’s entire history if we wish to understand the history that is happening around us today. Studying the flag’s full history also allows us to engage in a more constructive dialogue about its proper place in the present and in the future.” ~ http://www.historynet.com/embattled-banner-the-convoluted-history-of-the-confederate-flag.htm
Now lets think about what can happen when we let our perceived fears get the best of us. Are racial wars really a good idea?
Race Baiter: HOW THE MEDIA WIELDS DANGEROUS WORDS TO DIVIDE A NATION
“This book is an attempt to decode the ways media outlets profit by segmenting Americans. I call it the Tyranny of the Broad Niche; what happens as the biggest pieces of an increasingly fragmented audience are courted at the expense of many others.”
Oh dear, I was done with this conversation yesterday.
That said, I have a few things to point about your relating of “the facts.”
I have a degree in history and studied the Civil War and the years leading up to the Civil War extensively for the better part of seven months. I could have told you most, if not everything you just cited already.
Okay, so you got all fancy and quoted a bunch of articles. Cool beans. I could do that, too, but I have a lot stored in my memory from school. Simply put, the minds of much of the American public, the Confederate flag is associated with racism because the Civil War has BECOME in the minds of the American public, a war over slavery. I as much as said that in the original post: “While their were plenty of other factors at play–the differing economies, cultures, and ideologies of the North and the South–, while disagreements and strife had been brewing between the North and South for decades, and while the slavery issue didn’t emerge at the forefront of this strife until the 1850s–when we think of the Civil War today, we mostly think of slavery.”
Yes, there were tons of other factors at work that ultimately led to the Civil War, as you so painstakingly took the time to cite above. That said, after Kansas-Nebraska and Dred Scott v Sanford, slavery DID emerge at the forefront of the strife that eventually led to the Civil War. Of course, everything was perception. The U.S. government never specifically looked at the South and threatened to take slavery away before the Civil War. Still, perceptions are powerful. Perceptions are often times fueled by fear and uncertainty–and events like the raid on Harper’s Ferry and Bleeding Kansas certainly fueled those fears. It is no surprise, either, that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was published in 1852. The 1850s were extremely tumultuous in respect to the issue of slavery and it is not surprising, then, that the Civil War rolled around during the second year of the 1860s. Also, LOTS of abolitionists were racists. Lots of abolitionists wanted slavery to be abolished for economic reasons. That was the main platform point of the short-lived Free Soil Party. Some of Lincoln’s most outspoken cabinet members believed slaves should be freed and then recolonized to South America. I know that Lincoln didn’t come into his presidency with the intention of abolishing slavery. Not only was he himself a racist, but he wouldn’t have been elected at all if he had promised that. The historical records show that many of the most ardent abolitionists in politics at the time were also ardent racists. Still, belittling the impact that slavery had on the beginnings of The Civil War is a gross misunderstanding of the historical record. No, it didn’t have the type of impact we would expect in today’s world; no, the primary factor in the the drive to abolish slavery wasn’t concern over racism; and yes, there were many other factors at play. That said, the slavery issue was CONTINUIOUSLY addressed throughout the 1850s and did eventually impact the beginnings of the Civil War. No, it wasn’t the primary reason for the beginnings of the Civil War–but it was an important one.
All that said, most Americans have barely a grasp on the nitty gritty of the Civil War and what led up to it. They don’t teach you any of those details in high school U.S. History–at least not in any U.S. history course I took before college. In fact, I didn’t learn any of this until I started my own independent research about Montgomery Blair, Lincoln’s postmaster general.
Since we’re talking Myers-Briggs, here, I’m an INFJ. The Confederate flag has no real reason to offend me given that I’m a white Mid-western millennial.That said, I’m very aware of the way it has the potential to impact other people, and that is why I’m so passionate about this. I know the history of the Confederacy and I know that we have blown the slavery aspect out of the Civil War out of proportion in the last century and a half…still, I’m very aware of other people and I know that, regardless of the history, the flag is still seen in a negative light. The fact of the matter is, this is how the Confederate Flag is perceived today by many and us sitting here arguing on one post I wrote (as a way to really vent my feelings and frustrations, might I add) is not going to change that.
The problem is that you are not reaching the people who need to hear it because there is a condescending attitude coming from most of the people who hold your views. Your attitudes to not convey that you really care all that much about the ignorant folks who are waving their flags, you know, the ones who received a white washed lesson in history that told them the Civil War was about states rights and rebellion and they believed it because that’s what they were taught. I don’t see much care or compassion in that. So, now the question is how do you go about doing things in a way that promotes effective change without creating a greater divide than the one that already exists? Unless your compassion is one sided, and you are really only seeking affirmation from others who share your views.