Honor, shame, and the Confederate flag

I made my case here why I think it is time for my native South Carolina to remove the Confederate Battle Flag from the Statehouse grounds. Now I want to make a cultural observation about my people and suggest a narrative strategy for actually getting the flag removed.

The cultural observation is this: there is an honor/shame component that runs deep in the cultural blood of South Carolinians. Rod Dreher commented on honor/shame in the South in The American Conservative here and here. Dreher writes,

“How does it play out in everyday life here? Well, loyalty is hugely important down South. To be disloyal to your people, your place, and your family is a source of shame. To fail to stand by them is shameful.”

I had a history professor who once quipped that South Carolinians are a lot like the Chinese: we’re short, we talk funny, we eat a lot of rice, and we worship our ancestors. Her racial stereotyping of the Chinese notwithstanding, the joke was on South Carolinians. As a people we are borderline idolatrous in our revering loyalty to our ancestors. To not revere them would be disloyal, shameful.

Where this honor/shame element meets our current issue—removing the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds—is that South Carolinians don’t take too kindly to outsiders telling them what to do. Being told what to do is shameful; it is a loss of honor.

We have a long history of telling outsiders to get lost.

Not realizing this was the key mistake that opponents of the Confederate flag made back during the 1990s, when the flag still flew atop the Capitol dome. The narrative was, take that racist flag down you bunch of white-supremacist racist bigots!!! That this narrative came out of the mouths of race-hustlers like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton did not help the matter.

South Carolinians dug their heels in for years. Such blunt attacks on honor only stirred up racial tensions.

So my first suggestion in forming a strategic narrative to actually getting the flag removed is to suggest what the narrative should not be. It should not attack South Carolinians. The narrative should not be take the flag down you backwoods hillbilly bigots!!! Now is not the time for scoring political points.

South Carolina has been wrong about keeping the flag in a place of honor as long as she has, but rubbing her face in this fact is not the way to get it down. She doesn’t take kind to outsiders meddling.

Rather, we should play to her honor. Taking the flag down now, in the wake of the Charleston massacre, is the right thing for a state with such a rich heritage to do. Yes, she has sinned much in her past. But she has made and is making great strides in racial reconciliation. Did you not see the outpouring of support from both black and white citizens? Did you fail to recognize the lack of rioting and looting? Yes, her history is complex—a mixture of righteousness and unrighteousness, grace and great wickedness. But today she stands strong, ready to take the right next step, confident in who she is today and humble enough to take down the flag.

A narrative somewhat approximating the previous paragraph would go a long way toward getting the flag down. I am not suggesting that South Carolina is sinless or that she has eradicated racism from her midst. Not even close. Rather, I am making the cultural observation that shrill shaming from outsiders will trigger deep-seated honor/shame reactions, causing many South Carolinians to dig their heels in and flaming racial tensions. Thus, I am suggesting a strategic move that plays on the honor (or perceived honor) of South Carolinians in order to get the Confederate flag removed from the Statehouse with as little racial tension and protest as possible.

I am in no way confident that this is what will happen. There is too much money to be made by news organizations and activists alike by stoking the fire. But this is what should happen.


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