29 June 2006

On Flag-Burning and Signification

Marshwiggle wrote: Also, I'd note that the combustion of a physical textile has no relation to the spoken or written word.. surely an english major does not find burning and speaking synonomous. I respectfully submit that we're confusing "freedom of expression" with "freedom of speech" here.

It seems that we have a problem of definition here. It's my fault; I was using an idea from my current reading (discourse analysis; real fun stuff... urgh) and didn't define it very well. Take a look at the comment Marshwiggle was responding to: It is a reconfiguration of a physical symbol, and that, to me, is a speech act.

Notice that I did not claim it was "speech." Rather, I claimed that it was a speech act (though I admit that I am taking the linguist's notion of "speech act" a bit further than more traditional theorists do).

A speech act consists of a physical action that makes use of a symbolic system common both to the actor and observer(s) of said action (this normally involves the voice and a linguistic system). The action is normally undertaken for the purpose of affecting the behavior of the observer(s) of said act.

For instance, if a mother were to walk into her child's room and say, "this place is a mess" within the child's hearing, the child would be expected to either provide some explanation or begin cleaning the room (or at the very least, provide assent to cleaning the room at a later date).

Another example of a speech act would be a preacher standing on a street corner holding a cross and saying, "There is salvation through no other name! Come to Jesus!" The cross, though not a part of the vocative utterance of the preacher, is an essential part of his message -- it is intended to remind the hearer(s) of Christ's death for sin on a cross. His holding of it serves an important, irreplacable rhetorical purpose and therefore would be considered under my schema as a speech act.

What I'm arguing is that the burning of a flag should be every bit as covered under the First Amendment as the preacher's right to hold that cross on the street corner.

No, the burning of a flag does not involve formal linguistic systems, written or spoken. Nevertheless, it still is a symbolic method of communication with conventional precedents and deeply inscribed social and cultural meanings. Thus, I would argue that it is a speech act even though it does not entail utterance or inscription of language.

The burning of a flag is a significant rhetorical move whose effect cannot be achieved in any other way. It is thus an abridgement of free speech to prevent flags from being burnt.


Unknown said...

"What I'm arguing is that the burning of a flag should be every bit as covered under the First Amendment as the preacher's right to hold that cross on the street corner."

Again, an example covered under the free exercise of religion clause. hmmm.. just my last note on the subject (at least for a while....) is it freedom of speech, or freedom of "speech acts"?

LQ said...

So, I was going to stay out of this because M. and I. have argued the anti-flag-burning-amendment side better than I could, but I thought of a couple of things:

First, how about this for an example of a speech act that doesn't connect to the free exercise of religion: a woman burning her bra. As long as she didn't snatch it from Victoria's Secret and is now burning it without having paid for it, it's her prerogative, right? And by burning that bra, she's making a clear statement. Is burning the flag any different, really? If so, why? Or should it not be legal for someone to burn a bra? Again, if so, why?

Second, what if we came at this from the other direction? What is the rationale behind wanting to make burning the flag illegal? It's not because people simply want to prevent others from setting fire to textiles, right? It's because of the sentiment behind the act of setting that flag on fire--what that act is *saying*, if you will.

Expression and speech have been tied together for at least 150 years now. Wikipedia's article titled Freedom of Speech isn't a bad place to start for more info.

Unknown said...

I appreciate TLQ's points. Let's examine why the flag burning amendment is brought up. There are people who feel it is wrong to desecrate a symbol of America. For example, did you know it is a crime to kill a bald eagle or desecrate the washington memorial? It's also a crime to knock over headstones in arlington cemetary (or any other cemetary for that matter). Does me not being able to shoot a bald eagle violate my expression of a speech act? Would not dragging a bald eagle through the streets express the same message that burning a flag does?

If people are so worried about expressing that they hate america, there's aways the "burning an effigy of a president" that seems to communicate the same message as well. My point would be that many veterans, as well as people that are sick of the american flag ((which, by the way, reflects the country and it's history regardless of which president (and his/her policies) is in office.)) being mistreated to the point that it became a states right issue, as all 50 states have requested the amendment. The supreme court overruled the states that did have laws regarding flag burning, so the issue has moved on to a constitutional amendment. The republicans are counting on the idea that this means something to many americans who consider themselves patriotic. Many democrats are counting that it doesn't. November will decide.

LQ said...

Ooh, I hope you're not suggesting that those of us who don't think flag-burning should be banned aren't patriotic...

Also, there are other laws that would prevent one from killing a bald eagle (endangered species act) or defacing the Washington monument (it's public property), so those examples aren't quite identical. Also, if flag-burning were criminalized, who's to say the next amendment wouldn't criminalize burning the President in effigy? Ultimately I think trying to legislate respect is problematic at best...

Far be it from me to make light of veterans' feelings (three of my four grandparents are veterans, in fact), but I think there are plenty who feel as Senator Inouye does, and that shouldn't be discounted.

Unknown said...

hmm.. no, my accusations of unpatrioticness are reserved for the ones burning the flag :) I assume you're probably safe.

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