Con­fed­erate Flag/ Wiki­media Commons

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.

  • Alexan­derYp­si­lantis

    Without question, the First Amendment gives us the Right to practice Freedom of Speech without restraint-and that includes using speech that can be hurtful to other folks. Just because we have the Right to be hurtful doesn’t mean we have to use it indis­crim­i­nately.

    It would have been the decent thing to do for the owners of the ‘Udder Side’ to rec­ognize the name of their ice cream was hurtful to some folks, even if it wasn’t intended that way. Cer­tainly they were aware of the con­tro­versy and chose not to respond to it. That is their Right to do so, as business owners and as Amer­icans. They could have spun it into a win-win yet chose not to do so for whatever reason.

    It is my view they acted without much concern for the feelings of others, even if it is their Right to act that way. And it is my Right not to fre­quent their business and I will not. While they were acting Right­fully, there is a greater standard we should endeavor to practice-and that’s to act with empathy and under­standing. Why hurt someone else if you can make a simple choice and NOT do it?

    Just because we have a Right to do some­thing doesn’t make it ‘right’. We have God-given judgement to filter those rights through.