Symbols are powerful. While different symbols can sometimes mean different things to different cultures, symbology is a shared heritage of all humanity. Some symbols, like the ankh, were particular to a specific culture. Others, like spirals and swastikas, are practically universal in their use across ancient civilizations.
But just like in language, where words can change meaning over time, symbols can change meaning, especially if they are tied to a noteworthy event. The cross, used as a device for torture and execution for centuries, through the development of Christianity became a symbol of hope and life. The pink triangle is another example of a symbol of death completely changing it's meaning. The downward pointing pink triangle was used in concentration camps by the Nazis to designate the people who were thought to be homosexual. Now, in modern society, that symbol that once marked people for death has been flipped to point up and now stands for gay pride and gay rights.
Conversely, when a symbol that for a long time has meant something good is co-opted by someone with evil intent, the meaning changes in a different way. Because of the Nazis, the swastika is now a symbol of ultimate evil to most people. The scope of the horrors committed under that symbol means that the perception of it is irrevocably changed.
Because of a terrible loss of life in South Carolina, another symbol is being discussed, debated and decried in the media. It gets called several names, the Rebel Flag, the Confederate Flag, etc. I've seen plenty of people, in an attempt to downplay the negativity aimed towards the flag, argue that it's not the “actual flag of the Confederacy”, that's it's just a battle flag. While it is true that it bears no resemblance to the original “Stars and Bars” flag of the confederacy, most people don't realize that that design was incorporated into a re-design of the Confederate flag in 1863. There are apologists posting on Facebook about the grand ideals that the colors and design of the flag were meant to represent. None of that matters a bit. Regardless of what it originally stood for, the Rebel Flag represents oppression, division & hate to roughly 40 million people in the United States.
It is the symbol adopted by a group of people who committed an act of treason not to ensure freedom for all mankind, but to prevent an entire group of people from achieving freedom solely due to the fact that their skin was darker. There are plenty of people jumping on the slavery argument as well, insisting that the Civil War wasn't fought over slavery, that it was fought over state's rights. But what rights were those exactly? The cornerstone right that the Confederacy was fighting for was slavery. To say that the Civil War was not fought over slavery is to ignore historical fact. To ignore direct quotes from the leaders of the Confederacy.
Alexander Stephens, who became the Confederate vice-president, gave a speech enumerating the differences between the constitutions, ideologies and beliefs of the Union and the Confederacy. The key difference between the two nations? Here are Stephens' exact words; “Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” Sounds like slavery was a key component to what the Civil War was about to me.
In light of the knowledge that the Confederacy was well aware of the importance of slavery to their ideologies and the cause of the war, and the fact that the flag has been used in the following years by countless other groups of people whose purpose was or is to continue oppressing and harming people who are not white, how can anyone, in good conscience, defend the use of it in merchandising or public places?
If, as a decent human being, you wouldn't be ok with the use the swastika, why would a reasonable person be ok with the use of the rebel flag? Just like the swastika, the rebel flag should be relegated to the museums, another bit of the past that we should reflect upon with shame, and a resolve to do better.
In a nutshell, my take on the Rebel flag flying outside the capital in South Carolina is this. Using a symbol of oppression in a governmental capacity is indefensible. Period. It is only adding to the division of our country along lines of race. If you are a person living in the southern part of the US and want to have a symbol to show your pride in being from the south, please, pick something less divisive, less loaded with negative implications. Life is too short for hate and intolerance.