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On “Desecration”

July 29th, 2007 · 5 Comments

As a legal matter, the case of the North Carolina couple arrested for “flag desecration” seems awfully clear-cut. The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly and unambiguously that political speech is constitutionally protected, even if a flag is folded, spindled, or mutilated in the course of making a point. There’s actually something weird and surreal about the coverage of the case, with lots of local politicos talking as though this were somehow a debatable topic, rather than a clearly settled point of law, The chatter about the need for “balancing” free speech against the reverence due national symbols is just pointless: They lack any discretion to do so.

What is interesting, though, is that it seems to be widely accepted that “desecration” is an accurate and neutral way to describe what’s at issue here, when it strikes me as implicitly adopting the perspective of those who favor restricting speech. A standard definition for desecrate is to profane, to abuse, to violate the sacredness of. It’s an intrinsically normative term: To describe something as “desecration” is already to characterize it negatively, as something that ought not to be done. There is, perhaps, a looser sense in which even some people who (say) burn flags would be prepared to describe their protest as a kind of “desecration,” in that they are denying the sacredness of the symbol or of what it represents. But it’s not even clear that this is applicable here.

The couple charged in North Carolina had hung an American flag upside-down (a traditional sign of distress) and pinned signs to it, including a photograph of George W. Bush with the words “Out Now” and an explanation of the meaning of the inverted flag. They’ve claimed they didn’t intend this as a display of disrespect for the flag, and I find it perfectly plausible that they conceived their protest very differently from that of, say, the anarchist kid with a gas can and a zippo, whose intention is to attack the symbol and what it represents. They would probably characterize themselves as, say, “making use of a flag in a political statement,” not as “desecrating” it. So why use a term that privileges the interpretation of people who took offense over that of the people making the statement? There are, after all, conditions under which you’re supposed to invert a flag (as a distress signal) or burn it (to dispose of it). The objective actions aren’t what constitute “desecration”—the meaning of the action is. The use of the term as a description, therefore, entails a judgment about the meaning of the action. Why grant the critics even that much?

Tags: Language and Literature



5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Adam // Jul 30, 2007 at 9:33 am

    I feel it is because reporters fear alienating the portions of their audience who do support anti-flag burning laws.

    When someone who support’s the Supreme Court’s holding that flag burning is permissible hears the phrase “flag desecration,” it doesn’t bring up an emotional response. I doubt most people really think very hard about the negative connotation that phrase brings, as opposed to “flag burning.”

  • 2 Julian Sanchez // Jul 30, 2007 at 10:11 am

    It is when we don’t think very hard about it that a negative connotation is most potent. And in this case, it’s not a “burning,” but an action lots of people without strong prior views might not find as offensive if simply described neutrally. Compare: “The couple desecrated the flag” and “The couple hung an inverted flag, a traditional signal of distress, to which they had affixed an anti-war message.”

  • 3 Adam // Jul 30, 2007 at 7:10 pm

    I agree that flag “desecreation” has a great deal of connotative difference than any other description of what this couple in NC did. It’s a charged phrase. But don’t those who are burning, altering, or otherwise using the flag to express disapporval over something counting on that negative, shocking reaction from people? The NC couple probably would not have flown their flag upside down and altered if they did not intend to get people’s reaction and illicit a response. A simple yard sign that said “We don’t like Bush & Co.” would not have the same effect on passerby.

    It is interesting that people on the other side of the aisle use Old Glory’s powerful image all the time for their own purposes: politicians use red, white, and blue bunting at their rallies, people wear Old Glory do rags and bandanas to display what they feel is patriotism, and there are several tons worth of little American flag pins bouncing about DC on the jackets of elected officials and bureaucrats alike. These people are using the flag to project a message just as much as Gregory “Joey Three Guns” Johnson was in the case Texas v. Johnson.

    I do not think that the double standard is very fair just because the one use of the flag has a positive connotation and other other a negative one. Sadly, proponents of a flag-burning amendment would censor one kind of speech, but preserve another – a very macabre result, no?

  • 4 Anonymous // Aug 2, 2007 at 3:44 pm

    “So why use a term that privileges the interpretation of people who took offense over that of the people making the statement?”

    Because the term itself frames a debate around events which don’t naturally spur any. If not for the component of patriot pissing contest which makes for some spectacle in the public square, what we’re left with are mere (and slightly complex) questions of legality – answered questions, all of them. Talk of saboteurs and national identity is more fertile and certainly more facile than rehearsal of legal precedent.

  • 5 Kaye // Oct 19, 2008 at 4:05 pm

    I’m trying to find out when, where, why, and how, American soldiers in uniform started wearing flags with the star-field in the bottom right corner of the flag with the strip flying upward and what the meaning is. I also saw the flag displayed this way in a recent movie. Thank you