In the speech I gave calling for the flag’s removal, I said this:
“For many people in our state, the flag stands for traditions that are noble — traditions of history, of heritage and of ancestry. The hate-filled murderer who massacred our brothers and sisters in Charleston has a sick and twisted view of the flag. In no way does he reflect the people in our state who respect and, in many ways, revere it. At the same time, for many others in South Carolina, the flag is a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past. As a state, we can survive, as we have done, while still being home to both of those viewpoints. We do not need to declare a winner and loser.”
Those words were well received by South Carolinians. They played a part in healing our state, and in bridging the decades-long political divide over the flag.
In a recent interview I said much of the same thing I said that day and have said countless times since. But the reaction has been very different. Today’s outrage culture does not allow any gestures to the other side. It demands that we declare winners and losers.
That attitude comes at a big price. Sadly, I’m not sure that in today’s political climate we would have been able to remove the flag.
The reason is not the upsurge in white nationalism. While that is a very disturbing trend that must be resisted, it has not changed the composition of the South Carolina legislature that needed a two-thirds vote to remove the flag. Rather, the reason is today’s media hysteria that makes it far more difficult to have the kind of thoughtful and prayerful dialogue we had following the Charleston murders.
In South Carolina, as in much of the South, the Confederate flag has long been a hot-button issue. Everyone knows the flag has always been a symbol of slavery, discrimination and hate for many people. But not everyone sees the flag that way. That’s hard for non-Southerners to understand, but it’s a fact.
There are a small number of hardened white supremacist racists who proclaim the flag as their symbol. The Charleston killer was among them. I will never understand the dark hatred that fills those people’s hearts.
But there’s also another group of people. It’s a group that today’s outrage culture wants to either deny exists or to condemn in the harshest terms. These are people who do not see the Confederate battle flag in racial terms. While I don’t agree with their view of the flag, I respect them.
Today’s outrage culture insists that everyone who holds a view that’s different from our own is not just mistaken. They must be evil and shunned. That’s wrong. I know too many good people in South Carolina who think differently about the flag but who are not the least bit racist.
The tragedy of all of this is that it makes compromise far less possible.
When I was working hard to encourage the South Carolina General Assembly to vote in favor of removing the flag, I met privately with the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives. In that meeting, I told them about the discrimination my family faced when I was a young girl growing up in rural South Carolina. My father, as an immigrant from India who wears a turban, was not always welcomed in shops and community events. It was painful. I made the case that no child should feel unwelcomed at our state capitol because the Confederate battle flag was flying there. A large majority of Republican legislators ended up voting in favor of removing the flag.
Today’s outrage culture would instead have made the case that everyone who respects the Confederate flag is an evil racist. Not only is that untrue; but more to the point, if I had tried to make that argument, the flag would never have come down. As Hillary Clinton has learned, calling people “deplorable” is not the best way to win their support.
Respect can be powerful and persuasive. It helped bring our state together and bring the flag down. More people in our culture today should try it.