Wednesday, July 3, 2019

The Extremists' Censor

So Nike had apparently created a line of shoes for this Fourth of July with the flag attributed to Betsy Ross on it. They then pulled said line of shoes, after they'd already made and shipped them, due to complaints from Colin Kaepernick. At least, this is what the Wall Street Journal reports. From what I understand, this was based on anonymous sourcing, so I couldn't tell you how accurate it is. Of course, is being taken as ironclad truth, especially on the conservative side, some of whom (at least on LinkedIn) are now loudly decrying the lack of love of country on display.

But I get it. This sort of thing happens all the time. There is an understanding that White Supremacist and other "Alternative Right" groups have adopted the "Betsy Ross" flag as a symbol.

And... so?

Why cede this particular symbol to them? While I understand people being upset about Nike pulling a shoe with what is commonly regarded as a symbol of American history on it, it may have made more sense to push back against the idea that people who wish to deploy that symbol in the name of racism and nationalism should be allowed to retain it.

True, this sort of thing is par for the course. The swastika has been effectively given over entirely to the former Nazi Germany and those who would resurrect its ideology in the modern day, without any real thought to the other people who understand very different meanings for it. I'm of the opinion that we've done them a disservice, but that's neither here nor there. Fleeing from any symbolism appropriate by the wrong sorts of people, lest one be considered the wrong sort of person (or someone who sympathizes with them) oneself is unlikely to go away anytime soon. So instead, people are left to argue over what symbols should or should not be abandoned and whether ulterior motives or "hateful agendas" are actually at work.

The desire to purge discourse of symbolism used by extremists (however one defines that term) is understandable. The fear that extremists will use innocuous-seeming items to communicate and coordinate their actions in the public square, to the detriment of the public, is rational. But it's a game of whack-a-mole that can't ever be won. There are a few words and images that are so ubiquitous that attempting to use them as codes would be fruitless; but a lot of the language is fair game, and so the codes, like euphemisms and dysphemisms, will simply drift from one thing to the next. And the language, and the general body of speakers, will be the people who end up poorer for that.

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