Recently KGW, a Portland (Oregon) television station, had a story about a military veteran who was intensely distraught when some people protesting Trump's inauguration burned the American flag.
Eric Post, who served in the Marines, made an emotional Facebook video that's been viewed over 2.5 million times. His basic argument is that anyone who burns the flag doesn't believe in American ideals, doesn't respect the sacrifices of soldiers, and is a coward.
Of course, flag burners look upon themselves differently. They consider themselves patriots. They view flag-burning as free speech protected by the Constitution, which the Supreme Court has ruled it is.
There's no objective right or wrong here.
Meaning resides in the human mind, not objects. There is nothing in the cloth of a flag that is any different from the cloth in a t-shirt. In fact, people often wear clothing that has images of the American flag. So why would someone get so emotional about seeing some cloth go up in flames?
This is a difficult question.
Even Eric Post doesn't have an answer to it, because none of us is privy to the complicated workings of the human mind. We can sense our feelings, and be aware of our thoughts, but the source of these mental emanations is only dimly known, even by neuroscientists.
I just read a fascinating book by Matthew Hutson, "The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking."
One of the laws is Objects Carry Essences. This seems to be operating in the minds of both people who are bothered by flag-burning and flag-burners themselves. Hutson says:
We all have objects we fetishize or at least take a fancy to for personal reasons. Think of a child's blanky. A wedding ring. An autographed album. What's more human than sentimentality? And yet, sentimentality for particular objects is just as illogical as belief in ghosts.
Nevertheless, you wouldn't be happy with replicas of sacred items, even if the replica was identical in every way. Somehow two things can be physically identical, and yet the original has something else, a nonphysical presence, a special significance beyond the realm of physics or chemistry.
How is it that an object, such as [John] Lennon's Steinway, can carry meaning around with it, independent of its material composition? To attribute personal value -- a subjective property -- to a lump of atoms: that's magical thinking.
Yes, Eric Post seems to consider that burning a piece of cloth, an American flag, somehow is an attack on America itself, or at least on the sacrifices of those who died in the service of their country. Yet he has no way of knowing what was in the minds of those who burned the flag, who, again, probably considered that they also were acting patriotically.
Thus it seems entirely likely, if not probable, that someone angered by the sight of an American flag being burned is under the spell of magical thinking which views the flag as possessing some sort of precious immaterial essence.
Which, of course, it doesn't. "Justice," "patriotism," "respect" and other concepts are subjective mental abstractions. They reside in the activity of human brain cells, not in any physical object.
Another magical thinking law is Symbols Have Power. In the chapter describing this law, Hutson speaks directly about flag-burning.
Symbolism falls into the second law of sympathetic magic outlined by Sir James Frazer, the law of similarity: like produces like, or an effect resembles its cause..,. we treat "ideal connexions" as real ones: if two things are linked associatively in our heads, we suspect a physical, causal link.
Expecting physical reality to work along the same lines of influence as mental associations is magical thinking.
...Similarly a sports jersey could not be confused with an actual person. And our national flag depicts what it represents with even less visual verisimilitude, but people still feel those stars and stripes demand legal protection from immolation. After all, Old Glory stands for the deaths of young men at war, the struggles for civil rights, the one giant leap for U!S!A!
Flag burning certainly sends a message of disrespect, but if the research on belief in the law of similarity has any bearing, the act does something more than communicate a message: it creates the sense that America is being harmed directly.
In a suggestive study of Americans and Brazilians, 34 percent of young adults said cutting up one's national flag to use as rags for cleaning a bathroom in private called for punishment, and 35 percent said the act was wrong no matter one's country's customs.
That is, it's hurtful even if there's no audience to offend. Might we see flag-burning, deep down, as a form of voodoo?
Magical thinking is deeply ingrained in our psyches. It is almost impossible to root it out entirely. The best we can do is understand our tendency to see the world wrongly: as possessing qualities out there that really exist only in here, in the human mind.
Burning the American flag isn't objectively right or wrong, good or bad. This act is meaningful only to the extent that we give it meaning.
Without magical thinking, the American flag is just a bit of colored cloth. It isn't alive. It doesn't suffer. It doesn't have feelings. But people possess these qualities, and that's why flag-burning produces such intense emotions.