BACK IN 1994, the public was warming up to the new idea of relocating the Confederate flag from the State House dome to a monument on the grounds when the state Republican Party put a question on its primary ballot that deliberately left out that middle-ground option, forcing voters to choose between up or down, in-your-face or out-of-sight. So even as public support continued to increase for the sensible center, Republicans who were swept into power that year felt bound by the faux referendum, and the debate was stymied for six years.
I was reminded of that false choice last week, after USA Today conducted a national poll about attitudes toward the Confederate flag. Normally, I wouldn’t care about this, because we’re dealing with a purely South Carolina matter. It doesn’t matter to me what people in Wisconsin or California or anywhere else think about the flag, and it shouldn’t matter to any of you either, no matter which side you’re on. But this poll so clearly demonstrates a central misperception about this debate that it’s worth talking about.
The headlines said the country was evenly divided on support for the Confederate flag, which seems pretty stunning.
In fact, though, the poll didn’t actually find that, because the poll didn’t ask a question that would tell us what the country supports. Like the GOP primary question 21 years ago, the poll artificially divided the issue into two extremes. It asked respondents to decide whether the flag “is a racist symbol and should be removed from state flags and other official locations” or “is representative of Southern history and heritage and is not racist.”
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Those are the extreme positions, and they are not the only positions. As more and more South Carolinians understand, there’s a middle-ground option, one that has grown exponentially in popularity — at least in our state — in these past four weeks. It is this: To me, the flag is about heritage, but I recognize that it is deeply hurtful to others, and so I don’t think it should be flown on government property.
My own completely unscientific conclusion — based on fielding phone calls and reading scores, probably hundreds, of emails and letters to the editor, and watching our legislators, and talking to friends — is that the middle option very likely would poll close to 50 percent in South Carolina today.
This shift has occurred as a direct result of the grace of the people of Emanuel A.M.E. Church. This has touched nearly everyone in our state, and the ensuing softening of our hearts has opened them to appreciate the deep pain that the flag causes so very many of our fellow citizens, and to ask why in the world we would want to continue to inflict that pain.
Yes, there are people in our state who insist that to remove the flag from the seat of our government is to spit on the grave of their ancestors, that anyone who dares disagree is worse than scum and, if serving in elective office, must be run out of office. And there are people in our state who insist that anyone who has warm feelings about the flag is a racist who might as well have burned crosses on front lawns in the last century and owned slaves in the century before.
But they are a distinct minority, these people who refuse to extend grace to those who have been hurt by the flag — or to those who love the flag but realize it is too hurtful to remain where it is. The people I hear from most either tell touching stories about their love for their ancestors or some vague notion of “Southern heritage” or else acknowledge that others are motivated by such touching stories. And in growing numbers, both groups are ready to retire the flag.
Of course, in refusing to accommodate such people, pollsters are much like our politicians and pundits and TV talking heads and special-interest groups. They are determined to divide the world into polar opposites — my view vs. the awful view that my opponents have.
Yet on issue after issue after issue, most of us fit into the “none of the above” category. But the more we are told that those are our only options, the more we are willing to give in and pick one. And that will be the undoing of our nation.
On the flag or any issue, we make progress, we get things done — and our politicians serve the public — when we stand firm and say we will not let someone else draw the parameters around our opinions. We will not be boxed in to one of these extremes.
By all appearances, that is what the great majority of South Carolinians have been trying to do for nearly four weeks. It is what most of our legislators are trying to do this very week. It is what extremists on both sides of the issue are working to stop us from doing. We will not let them succeed this time.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.