A Colorado man made headlines this week for his refusal to remove an American flag from the balcony of his apartment, saying he'd rather be evicted than take down the decoration.
"I wanted to be a patriotic American and give tribute to our founding fathers and our veterans, and to have (management) say the flag is inappropriate or comparable to trash is reprehensible to me," the man, appropriately named Samuel Adams, told the Greeley Tribune.
Mr. Adams's message appeared to resonate with many Americans, as a video he made garnered nearly 40,000 views and thousands of shares across social media.
The manager of Adams's apartment complex explained to the Tribune that the rental policies does not have any problems with residents flying the American flag but maintained residents are not allowed to use their balconies to display decorations, signs or flags of any kind, per their lease.
The Sterling Heights Community "seeks to be fair to residents by limiting displays as there could be signs, flags or decorations that may be offensive and disruptive to the community," Pamela Buchanan stated in an email to the Tribune.
Regardless of the intent of the policy, Adams's complaint and perception that it was an affront to the American flag tapped into a simmering debate about when it is appropriate to display the Stars and Stripes.
The viral incident isn't the first time the flag's alleged potential to offend has caused controversy. Last year, the student government association at the University of California, Irvine (UC Irvine) drew criticism for voting to remove an American flag hanging in the lounge of the student government center. (The resolution was later vetoed, and the flag stayed.)
"[F]lags construct paradigms of conformity and sets [sic] homogenized standards for others to obtain which in this country typically are idolized as freedom, equality, and democracy," the bill read. The American flag in particular could be interpreted as representing "American exceptionalism and superiority," for example, as it "has been flown in instances of colonialism and imperialism."
The story was quickly picked up across media platforms, with backlash so severe that UC Irvine's chancellor, Howard Gillman, released a statement defending the school and condemning the bill as "outrageous and indefensible."
Where an American flag should or should not hang is an entirely subjective matter. But research suggests that the students at UC Irvine may have been onto something when they linked the flag with a feeling of superiority.
Recently, social psychologists Markus Kemmelmeier and David G. Winter conducted a series of studies examining the psychological effect of the flag on Americans. They went into the first study expecting to find that the flag promoted feelings of patriotism among test subjects, Dr. Kemmelmeier tells The Christian Science Monitor, but instead found an increased sense of nationalism – that is, "not a love of one's country" per se, but rather "the belief in American superiority."
"There was a sense of we-ness, but there was always a sense of 'We are the best country, we are the leaders,' not necessarily a sense of national pride," Kemmelmeier explains. (Interestingly, a different study found that exposure to the flag promoted a sense of egalitarianism, more favorable attitudes toward Muslims, and less nationalism.)
A similar study conducted by Kemmelmeier to test Canadian patriotism found that the Canadian flag evoked little to no promotion of national values, suggesting that Americans' strong emotional reaction to their flag is unique. Kemmelmeier attributes this to the omnipresence of the flag in America, combined with civil rituals such as the Pledge of Allegiance and national anthem, as well as associations with the military.
"I think traditionally, the flag and the generation of the flag has come from a more conservative, militaristic perspective on the nation," says John Bodnar, a professor of history at Indiana University, in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor. "The veneration of the flag, and the sort of ritual that goes along with that, comes with a more conservative vision of the nation as one that is beyond reproach, beyond any sort of level of criticism."
In the past, conservative groups have used the flag as an exclusionary symbol to fight immigration, says Dr. Bodnar. For example, he points out, the Ku Klux Klan used to march with it.
It might be expected, then, that a racial divide exists when it comes to perceptions of the flag, with whites having a stronger attachment. Kemmelmeier and his team found a "hint" of this, but the preference wasn't strong enough to be statistically significant, he said.
Other studies, however, suggest otherwise. Psychologist David A. Butz, who studied how an American flag in the classroom impacted students' learning abilities, found that white students performed about 10 percent better on math tests than they did without a flag in the room, but non-white students performed at the same level.
"What we find in studies – and this is now being replicated – is that whites are getting a performance boost, and that's disturbing," Dr. Butz told Miller-McCune, adding that the disparity could be the result of whites feeling more included in the presence of the flag.
Ultimately, experts say, it's impossible to assign an objective meaning to the flag, as it signifies different things to different people.
"As long as you have a political community divided the way it is, you’re going to have this debate," Bodnar says.