Jonesville’s Udder Side ice cream shop took some heat for a cinnamon-flavored soft serve that it sold under the name “Red Indian” last month. Some Hillsdale County residents complained that the name was offensive and insensitive and should be changed, while others didn’t see it as a big deal, given that it was just ice cream. Eventually, the uproar died down, the town moved on to other affairs, and Udder Side left the name as is.
Offensive or otherwise, whether intended or not, it was well within its freedom of speech to use that term. This incident, however, highlights an issue with freedom of speech that is not fully verbal: ambiguity. Names, titles, sayings, and even slogans can be so used and overused that the intended meaning is no longer a cohesive, commonly understood message. It depends on the background, education, and context of those who speak and those who hear.
With an ice cream flavor, it is not immediately clear if the owners used the name simply because it describes the color of the ice cream, or if it does have a racial slur connected to it. In order to find out, we’d have to ask them.
This issue is present all around us. If you drive from Hillsdale’s campus out to the I-69 on-ramp in Coldwater, you’ll pass at least three houses flying some version of the Dixie flag, now so commonly understood as the flag of the Confederacy. Sometimes they are paired with some other form of high-flying symbols, sometimes it’s just the one flag.
I’ve always been confused by the persistence of confederate flags in modern culture, given the moral payload they bear (regardless of what you think about states’ rights) and I’m doubly confused by their presence in Michigan — a decidedly northern, union state.
To be clear, I fully support the freedom of these citizens to express their opinions through symbolic speech such as flying a flag. Just like naming a flavor of ice cream “Red Indian,” it’s not salacious or overtly violent, so they have the full force of the First Amendment behind their right to fly a confederate flag. As Hillsdale’s own Dr. Carrington likes to say, it’s “legal, but stupid.”
Once again, the more nuanced problem with these flags is that they don’t clearly convey what their owners are trying to say. Are they anti-federal government, believing wholeheartedly in states’ rights? Do they like Southern culture and don’t like how that region and time period has been vilified in modern culture? Or are they actually racist and want to go back to the days of southern slavery? Probably not the latter but who knows! That flag could say any of those things — and their owners will never get a chance to explain what they mean to the random driver who catches a sight of their flag from U.S. 12.
When we try to say something without words — or even if we’re not specific enough with our words — we risk ambiguity and even a miscarriage of our message. This is because symbolic speech depends upon the way the audience receives the symbol and the particular experiences of individuals.
For instance, when I was in middle school, a good friend of mine purchased a belt-buckle adorned with the Dixie flag for her brother. Being embroiled in the eighth-grade throes of the states’ rights, slavery, secession arguments, I raged at her about how insensitive it was. She was taken aback by my vehemence but otherwise nonplussed. Her apathy confused me a bit, but I got over it and forgot about the incident.
Until this last weekend. I visited her over the Easter weekend and asked her about it. Recalling the incident she wondered aloud as to how she could have missed the implications.
As a young, caucasian preteen growing up in rural Illinois, however, she wasn’t thinking about the connotations that a confederate flag could bring up. Her family loved the show “Dukes of Hazzard” which featured a car called the “General Lee,” emblazoned with a confederate flag, but it was otherwise unconnected with the Civil War. So she thought it was a cute gift, reminiscent of this show that her family loved. Because I happened to be learning about the Civil War at the time, I saw something very different.
It is important to be able to fly a flag in support of a movement, and that absolutely should be protected as speech. It is also important that ice cream shops be allowed to name their flavors without the government breathing down their necks about it.
Before utilizing a symbol, name, or slogan in place of clear speech, however, it is important to consider how that symbol will be received. Does the symbol generally say what you’re wanting to convey? Are you willing to deal with the fallout that might come as a result of the inherent ambiguity? Because you may never be given the chance to clarify.
Tara Ung is a senior studying Latin.