By Jennifer Ives
A burning flag hangs in the darkness between protesters with fists defiantly raised, and stone-faced policemen behind riot shields. Certainly an iconic image, and one instantly recognized as divisive and representative of turmoil and protest.
But why is flag burning such a provocative act? Why do so many people seem to instinctively view it as dishonorable or shameful?
Many argue that it is simply an act of freedom of speech, a stance supported by the Supreme Court in multiple cases. Others argue it is a direct insult to any number of people, from the military, to public servants, even to or private citizens themselves.
In actuality there are a few specific psychological phenomena at play when it comes to flag burning and people’s emotional reactions to it.
A national flag representing more than just a national identity is because of its citizens’ identification as patriots. Patriotism of course refers to individuals’ sense of emotional connection or identification with their homeland country.
It’s frequently promoted to demonstrate not only your loyalty, but to emphasize group identity with your fellow citizens. Patriotism can create a sense of connection and bonding with those around you.
And your national symbol, in this case a flag, is a way of demonstrating and displaying your connection and involvement in this group.
This is part of what psychologists refer to as an in-group out-group bias effect, where people instinctively seek to be part of a social group. Once identified with one, they begin to prefer that group and dislike competing groups.
Think of it like opposing baseball teams, or class years. It can be fun and beneficial to compete with other groups, but if anyone does something that can be perceived as insulting towards your group, it quickly becomes an angering action, regardless of its practical harm to you.
Actions like burning a flag that you identify with feel on some level, like a personal insult and attack to your identity. That is why so many people, President-elect Trump included, react irrationally and suggest illegal and overreaching punishments like loss of citizenship in response to flag burnings, and why this is a subject where emotional responses always overwhelm the dialogue.
Many argue that the flag represents our nation, the idea of it, and that’s why it’s so important to assign special protections and honors towards it. I disagree.
A nation, our nation, is not just an idea or ideal we strive towards. It’s also the actions we perform as individuals and as a whole, here and overseas. We are accountable for that, and while striving to do better should live up to that ideal.
And if we aren’t, we have a responsibility to call each other out on it. Burning that symbol is an effective way to do that. It gets people’s attention.
And for groups that already feel outcast or not supported by their nation, it’s a public and visible way to emphasize that feeling. It can be a way of upping narrative tension when trying to incite public action.
The importance of honoring the ideal of a nation will never mean more than the actual violation of real individuals’ rights and dignity due to the system that exists and functions under that flag with impunity.
We should never be so proud of our group identity that we seek to preserve it above all else, to the point of threatening to strip individuals of their citizenship if they disagree.
Disagreement is a vital part of improving our nation, continuing to develop and become better. We must become better.