Panic vs. Tolerance: Gay Marriage, the Confederate Flag, and Wade Hampton

the rainbow flag of the LGBT movement
Some Americans are panicking right now. Some are panicking about gay marriage becoming legal across the country, which just happened today. Some are panicking about the Confederate Battle Flag losing its official status and being taken out of stores, which has been happening at a rapid pace over the past week. Quite a few are probably panicking about both. Some Alaskans are even panicking about our governor deciding to rename Alaska's Wade Hampton census area, named for a slave-owning South Carolina Confederate who had nothing to do with Alaska.

I'm not just exaggerating, either: I know these people are panicking because they're making extreme comments about the state of our country, the decline of our democracy, and the downfall of society. One of these people is even Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

At the root of this panic is a fundamental issue that everybody struggles with: tolerance and open-mindedness. People are panicking because they're struggling to accept (or refuse to accept) ways of life and perspectives different than their own.

With gay marriage, the case is clear: One woman marrying another woman does absolutely nothing to harm anyone, but millions of Americans have opposed this simple act, essentially out of the belief (expressed in a variety of ways) that it would be wrong to modify the tradition of heterosexual monogamous marriage. Whether they used religious justifications, or arguments about what is "natural," or what's healthy for children, gay marriage detractors all opposed a simple change in tradition because they couldn't accept the idea of people living their lives just a little bit differently.

In the case of the Confederate Battle Flag, it's apparent that there are large number of Americans who continue to revere the flag as a symbol of Southern pride and heritage, even a symbol of rebellion against the Federal Government. However, there are also many Americans for whom it is painfully obvious that this flag is a symbol of white supremacy and racial injustice, designed by soldiers fighting to preserve slavery, carried on by the KKK and other white supremacists that spread terror throughout the South for a hundred years, and even displayed in South Carolina starting in the '60s in reaction against the Civil Rights Movement.

some of the negative responses to my criticism of the flag
Those who love the Confederate flag can get pretty worked up about defending their understanding of the flag as the only correct view. Just look at these responses I got when I dared criticize the flag on Twitter (at right). However, the understanding that the flag was used first and foremost as a symbol of white supremacy is heavily supported by the historical evidence, regardless of how innocent some people think it is today. Additionally, who in a tolerant and diverse society would insist on continuing to use a symbol that is understood by so many as one of racial hatred of a minority? Any way you slice it, the stubborn defense of the Confederate flag comes down to refusal to see anyone else's perspective and a failure to prioritize tolerance.

Lastly, in the wake of the recent debate over Confederate symbols, Alaska's governor Bill Walker announced that the name of the Wade Hampton Census Area would be changed. Wade Hampton was a slave-owning Confederate whose son-in-law became a judge in Alaska and named the census area for him. Census areas aren't particularly important designations, but it seemed like a pretty small and commonsense decision for the governor to change the name to a more appropriate Native one.

some of Governor Walker's Facebook comments
Apparently it wasn't, at least according to many of the commenters on the Governor's Facebook post. Instead, his name change decision was an attempt to "erase history," or a terrible waste of money and time, or simply another despicable example of "political correctness." I wonder if these people have ever considered all the Native names that have been erased in Alaska because Americans refused to acknowledge or honor them. Do they really believe that all the place names in the U.S. should be simply the first ones white men recorded, preserved forever without modification or review?

I don't suppose they've considered that this name change would cost virtually nothing, either, considering it's a name used solely bureaucratically and will probably take a few minutes of time away from a few officials to change the wording on paperwork. Wade Hampton never even came to Alaska, let alone did anything positive for it. Surely there shouldn't be a problem in removing his name and substituting a more appropriate one—but I suppose for those opposed to change, even the smallest alterations are a threat.

As a historian, I believe honoring the past and preserving traditions can be incredibly important. At the same time, however, I recognize that societies change over time, and no tradition or historical memory can be preserved forever unaltered. In a society as diverse and multicultural as the United States, it pays to be tolerant and open-minded, especially when so many have suffered in our past when dominated by a single group and worldview.

I believe the recent progress on fronts as varied as gay marriage, the Confederate flag, and the changing of names signals that our society is becoming more tolerant and open-minded. My hope is that trend will continue far into the future.