Discourteous to Wear American Flag Images on Cinco de Mayo?

Maureen Downey (Atlanta Journal-Constitution) writes:

This is one of those stories that turns into a cause celebre and riles up lots of folks. But at the heart of the issue — five California high school students were kicked off their campus Wednesday for wearing t-shirts and bandannas emblazoned with American flags on Cinco de Mayo — is simple courtesy toward others.

Yes, the students at a San Jose high school are entitled to wear patriotic garb, but did they only do so on this specific day to poke at their Mexican-American classmates? And was that intent clear to the school officials?

I would like to know if the boys wore the t-shirts and bandannas any other day of the school year.

Sorry, if my kids donned the country’s colors only as a dig at their foreign-born classmates, it would not be an action that I would applaud or defend.

I know that this is going to set off folks who believe that these kids are true patriots defending American values and culture, but there is a difference between patriotism as principle and patriotism as a rebuke or put-down of others.

I don’t think that’s right, at least based on the material that I’ve read and that Downey quoted. Even if the students wore American flag garb only on Cinco de Mayo, I take it that the message was “you want to stress your Mexican heritage, and we want to stress our American heritage” or at most “we don’t entirely approve of your stressing your ethnic heritage, since we should all think of ourselves as Americans.” This might convey some disagreement, but it hardly strikes me as discourteous; and to the extent that it’s a “rebuke,” it’s the sort of message that people are entitled — not just as a matter of law, but also of good manners — to send. Courtesy doesn’t require absence of disagreement. It requires that the disagreement not be framed in a rude way, and I don’t think there’s anything rude in the messages that I infer the clothes were trying to send.

Now under certain circumstances, otherwise polite symbols might acquire rude meanings; to take the clearest example, if someone says one day “I’ll wear American flag images on Cinco de Mayo to show what a bunch of idiots you are,” that’s itself rude, and it imbues the later wearing of the flag images with a rude meaning. Likewise, one can imagine events or contexts where even otherwise politely expressed disagreement is considered rude because of the solemnity of the event: It would almost always be rude to express condemnation of the deceased at a funeral, or even prominently express disagreement with a religious belief system when a guest at a religious service associated with that belief system.

But the article didn’t point to any such special circumstances: It just pointed to circumstances that suggest that the students might have been trying to express their preference for a purely American affiliation on a day when many of their classmates where expressing their Mexican heritage. And I don’t see anything discourteous in expressing such disagreement by the simple act of wearing American flag images.