What Does a National Flag Mean?



The meaning of ‘meaning’

What is the meaning of meaning? This is one of my favorite questions – the kind that philosophy students later joke about. When we’re talking to someone, and see a strange or puzzled look come over her face, we’re apt to say,  ‘I mean …’ or ‘I meant to say …’ Why? Either because we think she didn’t understand, or she did understand, and doesn’t like what she heard.  Meaning is primarily a function of language (or words), both spoken and written. But that is misleading. It isn’t the words which mean, but the ideas they express, or convey. Ideas are in minds – human minds. Sounds have no meaning, apart from the  meaning humans give to them.

Some scientists try to prove that animals understand language, but their alleged proofs based on experiments with great apes like Washoe, Koko and Kanzi are scientifically unconvincing. The things animals use to communicate  (i.e. to interact) are audible, tactile and visible signals or signs, and their reactions are at the stimulus-response level. A dog’s growl, or snap, or curled lips mean nothing, but they do signal. Much less are they symbols. Moreover, language as such has a structure – not just words – which allows for its creative use in individual conversation, as is shown in the classic work of Swiss scholar Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics.

There are natural signs which also signal something, for animals and humans alike. Smoke is a sign of fire. Fog is a sign of moist air being cooled. Tree leaves turning their silver sides up signal a coming storm. But none of these natural events ‘mean’ anything. Only humans give, and take, meaning. “I mean …”, or “I take that to mean …”. And that process is very ambiguous.

There are levels of meaning. For example, every secondary school student learns that definitions of words (denotations) are more basic and obvious than their emotional overtones (connotation). Intonation and emphasis add levels of complexity. “Are you going to wear that?” may look like a question, but it’s meaning is something else. Irony and sarcasm are skills that can be developed, even to the point where they can be expressed in fictional writing, like Voltaire’s Candide, but not everyone ‘gets it’. That too requires practice.

Meaning can also involve moral value or significance. If someone reports that ‘divorce rates are going up’, or that ‘marriage rates are going down’, most people understand what the statements mean literally. But if I ask ‘What do those facts mean?’ with that emphasis, I’m asking for something beyond definitions. I’m trying to see those facts in a broader context of the growth or decline of what people think is important or valuable.

Words are initially arbitrary creations, connecting sounds to an idea. As de Saussure says, any word – an arbitrary combination of sounds – can be a signifier, and can stand for any concept (the signified). Moreover, concepts are not the same for everyone; each person has her own version, depending on experience and mindset. So agreement on usage is needed, to set standards for each language. These aren’t usually official agreements. They happen as newcomers enter the linguistic group, by birth or immigration. We’re all used to getting (or giving) strange looks if something is said wrong. Words are easier  to get right than the sentence structures that connect them. But individual words too have limits or ranges of what is acceptable pronunciation, emphasis, rhythm, timing, silence, etc. These ‘agreements’ are all cases of social constructions, which change over time.

Symbols add yet another level of  complexity and meaning. A tree may symbolize life in general, or the gods that give life. (For that reason, Hebrew scriptures forbid worshipping in “groves”, as pagan worship of false gods.) But trees are also used to symbolize family histories. Some symbols seem  natural; others are arbitray. The sun is often used to represent the Divine (as Plato),  but an upturned thumb, or middle finger, seem totally arbitrary. Or are they? It’s an ancient idea that up is better than down.

This last idea – natural symbols – is a frequent theme is the writing of Emmanuel Swedenborg. Like Plato, he talks about the suns of this world and the higher world. In fact, he believes that everything  in the natural world has a counterpart in the spiritual world, from which it derives. He calls this relationship  “correspondence“,  and idea which was picked up by artists and writers of the Romantic era – e.g. in Blake’s “The Tyger” and Baudelaire’s “Correspondences”.

The meaning of any national flag, and the American flag

The Star Spangled Banner has been a subject of controversy since the day it was ordered by resolution of the Second Continental Congress, June 14, 1777. However, there are conflicting claims about its origin and history, which adds to its many meanings. But first, how does any national flag “mean” something?

The word “banner” and its many variations in Latin languages, like band, bandolier, bandit, come from ProtoIndoEuropean (PIE) roots meaning “shine” – i.e. something that stands out, marks, signals, or symbolizes. There are shiny banners for nations, regions, states, cities, public and private institutions, agencies, interest groups, non-profits, professions, associations, businesses, sport teams, … need I continue?

But first, if we want to think rationally, we also need to ask what a nation is. Good luck answering that! Here are 4 definitions from Dictionary.com:

1. A large body of people, associated with a particular territory, that is sufficiently conscious of its unity to seek or to possess a government peculiarly its own.

2. The territory or country itself.

3. A member tribe of an American Indian confederation.

4. An aggregation of persons of the same ethnic family, often speaking the same language or cognate languages.

And what does it mean to “pledge allegiance” to that nation’s flag, or to state that it “stands for” a republic which is “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all”? There are many, many places for analysis and discussion here, but I expect that most people don’t like careful thought. They prefer opinions, and noisy dispute when opinions differ.

Here’s a historical critique on the multiple “meanings” of the Stars and Stripes by Gaius Publius at DownWithTyrrany (2017).

An amusing, provocative look at wearing American  flag clothes, and the ‘flag code‘ requirements (in unenforceable laws) is Troy Patterson’s post at Slate (2014).

Here’s a thoughtful article discussing flying the flag upside down, as a distress signal.

Finally, you’ll find the ‘code‘ regarding upside down display. The Supreme Court ruled, in 1990, that laws against desecrating flag are unconstitutional. That doesn’t ‘mean’, however, that there won’t continue to be rancor and division about the meaning of the  American flag – since so many politicians, businesses and media sources have financial interests in stoking the national taste for a fight.


One thought on “What Does a National Flag Mean?

  1. Hello my old professor!
    I can’t help but think one of the things that prompted this post on flags is the current NFL controversy. I am a Vietnam era veteran and the whole “thank you for your service” cliche we see all around us now was nowhere in evidence in the 70’s. One time you and I and a female teacher sat in some sort booth at Moraine and simply because i said i’d had enlisted, she elected to accuse me of loving war.

    Some vets from that era ended up being flag burners and haters of government; but the vast majority of us are not. People sat that NFL players have the constitutional right to protest. I believe that is accurate but they do not have the right to free speech in the work place.None of us do. Ask anyone who’s been accused of sexual harassment or who has made a perceived insult toward a special interest group.

    In September I went on a bucket list tour of four major league baseball parks, Chicago, Cleveland, Boston and New York.I had tears in my eyes as the anthem was played in at least two of the parks.
    It’s one of the best parts of the game–the Cleveland game was on 9/11 and the anthem was sung by an Asian American Air Force officer. who was simply terrific. I’ve boycotted the NFL since last year. If they want to be activists; no problem. But do it somewhere else. Maybe a lyric from a 1990 country song called ” Did It for Love” by Sawyer Brown sums it up for me:

    My brother fought in the Vietnam war
    He left his job and his family chores
    I never understood when he said he couldn’t let it be
    Now it’s been twenty years or so
    He still talks about how regular joes were somethin’ man
    Defendin’ the land of the free
    They did it for love
    they did it for satisfaction
    It was the rage of the age and the hour of the main attraction
    They finally said, enough is enough
    They played it by ear, it came from the heart
    They did it for love

Leave a Reply