Chun: To Burn a Flag

Discussion is good but attacking others’ dearest beliefs can cause harm.

by Steven Chun | 1/26/17 12:20am

Any discussion of flag burning must start from one critical point: it is constitutionally protected as free speech per the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v Eichman. Last Friday, Timothy Messen ’18 gathered a group of people of different views together for a discussion on flag burning — and I walked away from the Green that day, more confident in human goodness and able to rethink the way we treat those with whom we disagree.

If you somehow missed the large, eclectic gathering of sign-wielding students, leather-clad members of a New Hampshire chapter of Rolling Thunder and curious onlookers, then here’s the skinny: a Dartmouth student wanted to meet to discuss burning a U.S. flag as a response to President Donald Trump’s comments on the matter. Word got out to a group of veterans who organized a counter-demonstration. What happened was a generally polite, respectful and ultimately valuable encounter between the two polar caps of the political spectrum.

Flag burning is provocatively theatrical — but that label doesn’t diminish its significance or power. In the same way that the dissident punk group Pussy Riot uses loud, unsanctioned musical performances to fight against authoritarianism, flag burning uses shock, awe and insult to make political statements. They’re both meant to draw the attention and ire of their opponents. This kind of political showmanship has become a common tool: each side has its provocateurs who revel in angering those across the aisle. Bill Maher loves to provoke with raunchy and sarcastic rhetoric. Milo Yiannopoulos’s entire career is built on reminding people that the First Amendment protects his absurd free speech fundamentalist theater. In many ways, it’s low-grade politics, but it rouses support and riles enemies.

At first, my thoughts on flag burning were black and white. It’s totally legal, and I find Trump abhorrent. Even better, the student wanted to have a discussion — not just to make a statement. I’m not usually one for extremes, but this seemed different. But as events unfolded, the act took on a different form. Those who had gathered to counter-protest were largely respectful — although they occasionally tried to drown out Messen. After Messen spoke, a man from the anti-flag burning counter-demonstrators’ group responded with his own speech. Both talked to many on both sides of the protest thereafter. No flag was burned, and the point had been made. But it was the conversations I heard and had afterward that made me rethink flag burning.

I heard a man express his frustration at the paradox that he fought to protect an act of free speech that he so strongly opposes. I spoke to a man whose strongest connection to the flag was the image of it draped over the coffins of soldiers, friends returning from overseas, who considered flag burning a desecration of the lives lost in the act of service. That resonated with me. How could it not? You can oppose a war, you can oppose violence, but you cannot deny loss and sorrow. That is not political; it is human. While politically valid, burning a flag in front of people for whom it means so much felt cruel.

In more far-left circles, I’ve heard the very act of possessing conservative beliefs decried as causing tangible harm or being an existential threat to Americans. That may be somewhat valid for those on the far right such as anti-Semites and white supremacists, especially when a subsection of those beliefs suggest policies that target certain groups. But if that is valid, then it seems equally valid that burning a flag is causing real harm to those for whom the American flag is a fundamental symbol of their lives and service, especially when it is symbolic of the loss of a friend.

Both actions ­­— being a conservative and burning a flag ­— are entirely legal. What matters is that in both cases, the other side sees that action as an attack on the things most fundamental to their lives. It may be their religion, their service, their access to contraception, their Second Amendment rights or their economic well-being. Whenever the crucial aspects of our lives seem threatened, we are driven not to reasoned discussion and debate, but to desperate action. This desperation seems to characterize the harshness with which both conservatives and liberals attack that which the other side holds dearest.

I’m not trying to address the politics behind this all, but rather the way we treat the other side. If you disagree with this article because of a political difference, then you’re not seeing the point. As this election has brought out the far right and far left, we’ve increasingly gone for the jugular. Our political discourse is crafted not to be the most convincing but to cause the most harm to the other side. We’ve become convinced that because our own political beliefs are the right ones, vicious or ad hominem attacks are justified.

The flag burning event on the Green was beautiful. It was the total opposite of the political discourse I’ve just described. Once each side started interacting with each other, both seemed far more interested in conversation than in scoring political points. I’m afraid that this is much harder to do in echo chambers or online. But if there’s a lesson here, it’s that taking the other side’s feelings into account sometimes makes for a better political outcome. Far-left college students horrified by Trump aren’t “safe-space snowflakes” and conservatives horrified by a flag burning aren’t racist or misogynistic or ignorant. We’re all trying to protect the things that matter to us. We should remember that.