Humans could not exist without symbols. These representations of objects and concepts allow us to explore relationships between things and ideas in ways not otherwise possible. The American flag is of course a symbol, but a symbol of what? The answers to these questions are, I believe, at the heart of debates between supporters and opponents of laws outlawing burning or desecration of the American flag.
What is a Symbol?
A symbol is an object or image that represents something else (an object, a concept, etc.). Symbols are conventional, which means that one thing represents something else because people agree to treat it that way. There is nothing inherent in the symbol that requires it to represent the symbolized thing, and there is nothing inherent in the symbolized thing which requires that a particular object represent it.
Some symbols are closely connected to what they represent for example, the cross is a symbol of Christianity because a cross is believed to have been used to execute Jesus. Sometimes the connection between a symbol and what it represents is abstract for example, a ring is used to represent marriage because the circle is thought to represent unbroken love.
Most of the time, though, a symbol is completely arbitrary with no connection to what it represents. Words are arbitrary symbols for objects, a red flag is an arbitrary symbol of having to stop as well as of socialism, and a scepter is an arbitrary symbol of royal power.
It is also the norm that things which are symbolized exist prior to the symbols with represent them, though in a few cases we find unique symbols which exist prior to that which they symbolize. A popes signet ring, for example, not only symbolizes his papal authority but is also constructive of that authority without the ring, he cannot authorize decrees.
Symbolic Impact of Flag Burning
Some believe there can be mystical connections between symbols and what they symbolize for example, that one can write something on a piece of paper and burn it to influence what was symbolized by the words. In truth, though, destroying a symbol does not affect what is symbolized except when the symbol creates what is symbolized. When a popes ring is destroyed, the ability to authorize decisions or proclamations under that popes authority is also destroyed.
Such situations are the exception. If you burn a person in effigy, you do not also burn the actual person. If you destroy a Christian cross, Christianity itself is unaffected. If a wedding ring is lost, this doesnt mean that a marriage is broken. So why do people get upset when symbols are mishandled, treated disrespectfully, or damaged? Because symbols are not just isolated objects: symbols mean something to the people who understand and use them.
Bowing before a symbol, ignoring a symbol, and destroying a symbol all send messages about ones attitudes, interpretation, or beliefs regarding that symbol as well as what it represents. In a way, such actions are themselves symbols because what one does with respect to a symbol is symbolic of how they feel about that which is symbolized.
Furthermore, because symbols are conventional, a symbols meaning is affected by how people relate to it. The more people treat a symbol respectfully, the more it may come to represent good things; the more people treat a symbol disrespectfully, the more it may come to represent negative things or at least cease to represent the positive ones.
Which comes first, though? Does a symbol cease to represent positive things because of how people treat it, or do people treat it poorly because it has already ceased to represent positive things? This is the crux of the debate between opponents and supporters of bans on desecrating the American flag. Supporters say that desecration undermines the flags symbolic value; opponents say that desecration only occurs if or because its value has already been undermined and that it can only be restored by the behavior of those who disagree.
Banning desecration of the flag is, I believe, an attempt to use the law to enforce the first perspective. Because it avoids dealing with the possibility that the second may be true, I also believe that it is an illegitimate use of government power to short-circuit substantive debates about the nature of what the flag symbolizes: America and American power.
The entire point of bans on flag burning or desecration is to suppress the communication of interpretations of and attitudes towards the American flag which are inconsistent with the beliefs and attitudes of most Americans. Its the expression of a minority viewpoint about that which is being symbolized America which is at issue here, not the physical protection the symbol itself.