Symbols & Discourse

Symbols & Discourse

The Importance of Symbols in Discourse

Many of our most heated debates in America are focused on symbols like the Confederate statues discussed on the previous page. These icons offer a location for discussion and debate. They provide us a graphic and even physical object and let us talk about how to interpret it.

We use these symbols in our collective national conversation. They become important items in our public discourse. This should be obvious in the case of the Confederate statues. The symbols allow us to debate their meaning and in doing so allow us to define our collective values and national identity.

Iconic Figures as Symbols in Our Public Discourse

Sometimes people are used instead of statues. Thomas Jefferson has been mentioned already as a figure that is now seen differently.

The list of historical figures who have become icons is long, but here are a few names of iconic figures whose meaning in the context of history (or the collective imagination) has changed over time:

  • The boxer Muhammad Ali
  • The political revolutionary Che Guevara
  • The explorer Christopher Columbus


What these figures stand for has changed. Muhammad Ali wasn’t always associated with the high ideals of his moral conscience and the honorable resistance to racial oppression. That is how he is seen today though.

Christopher Columbus has become a central symbol in a prolonged debate about how we should talk about the American past. Once held as a symbol for the American values of independence and individualism, he is now seen as a complex symbol of Western expansionism, exploitation, colonialism, ethnic oppression and greed.

Again, the facts about Columbus have not changed. But the way we talk about him has. And this is true because our views of Christopher Columbus reflect our current cultural moment. His changing place in history reflects our own shifting cultural identity.

Not everyone likes the change. That is why the debate about Columbus has at times been heated.

Before moving on, I’d like to make the point that the elevated emotions of the debates around Columbus and around Confederate monuments seem to highlight an implicit understanding that these debates have stakes. They are important.

If we were just talking about dates and names – objective facts – people wouldn’t get so upset.

Symbols & Discourse: Confederate Monuments

The debate around Confederate monuments contains several positions.

Positions in the Confederate Monuments Debate
Some argue that statues of soldiers and leaders of the Confederate South in the Civil War are objective and value-neutral representations of the past. They aren’t offensive because they simply represent objective facts. They should stay up.
Some argue that these statues represent the values and ideals of a noble history that may have included some unfortunate racism but which still deserve to be displayed as symbols of virtue, despite the flaws associated with them. The statues are not neutral; they’re positive symbols of a complex but glorious past. They should stay up.
Some argue the statues represent racism and the racist ideals that were ingrained in the culture and economy of the Confederate South. The statues are mostly neutral representations of the facts that surround the Civil War and the grievous immorality that marred American history in that period. They remind us of where we went wrong. They also remind us of how a racist system can be defeated and dismantled. They should stay up.
Some argue that the statues were erected during the Jim Crow era and were intended to communicate a return to pre-Civil War understandings of racial difference in the South. They are not neutral representations of fact. They never were. They went up at the same time Blacks were stripped of voting rights across the South. They went up when the KKK re-emerged to terrorize the nation. They should come down.
Some argue the statues represent racism and continue to promote the racist ideals that were ingrained in the culture and economy of the Confederate South. The statues are not neutral, but instead are a symbolic representation of continued acceptance of racist sentiments in America. They should come down.

You’ll notice that these different takes on Confederate monuments may come to the same conclusion but arrive at that position with a quite different logic. Some of them arrive at opposite conclusions entirely.

What they all have in common, however, is the fact that they are all contemporary attitudes.

They are each making an assertion about how we should understand the meaning of these statues as symbols of the American past and, thus, they are assertions about how we should understand the meaning of that past.

These positions take different views on how to interpret the American South and its complex legacies of defeat, independence, and racism.

They all implicitly pose and answer the question: Who are we today and how does that determine our relationship to the past?

The ultimate decision of whether to take down the statues or keep them up will be an answer to the question. The way these symbols of the past are being dealt today very directly proves that history is a reflection of the present moment.

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