Following the widespread NFL protests last Sunday, Ed wrote a thoughtful post in which he expressed that he found “such protests disrespectful” and questioned whether the playing of the national anthem was a proper time to protest. Not stating explicitly whether or not the protests were disrespectful, John countered that “during the anthem is the right time and place for such demonstrations.”
Also disagreeing with Ed, Charlie then responded, “By kneeling, these guys are not dishonoring the flag or the anthem. They are raising the moral argument that our nation has failed the ideals of the flag and the anthem.”
This week, Ed asked me at the office, “Who do you think is right?” I hesitated to answer because, as I told him, it’s more complicated than simply framing it as to who is right and who is wrong. And, frankly, there are more important questions to ask. This is my attempt to offer another perspective and add to the conversation.
Understanding Cultural Meaning(s)
The word “dog” is an arbitrary symbol or a sign that points to a certain category of animals with certain characteristics. It is arbitrary because we could have used “og” or “bzn” or any combination of sounds and letters to serve as a symbol to which we can assign meaning. So today, most would say that identifying a Pomeranian as a cat instead of a dog would be wrong because it violates the broad understanding and agreement over what the symbol “dog” should mean.
Besides words, gestures also convey meaning. As a third-culture person who immigrated to the U.S. as a child, lessons on cultural relativism came early and often. My earliest memory has to do with eye contact. In grade school, I was told by teachers to look someone in the eyes when he or she is talking as a sign of respect and to indicate that you are paying attention. Well, my traditional Korean mother disagreed.
When I followed my teacher’s instructions and looked my mother in the eyes while being scolded, my mother assigned that act a completely different meaning—a gesture that signified a challenge to her authority and superior status as an elder. I wish I could say I looked people in the eye at school and averted my eyes at home, but I didn’t. More often than not, I inhospitably expected my mom to assimilate to the conventions of the dominant American culture.
The American flag and the Star-Spangled Banner are also cultural symbols that carry different layers of meaning and significance for people. For some, the American flag conveys national pride and evokes powerful emotions, including memories of loved ones who served—and perhaps died while serving—in the military.
And for some, perceived disrespect towards the symbol is inseparable from devaluing its referent meaning and all that is associated with it. It’s no wonder many have reacted viscerally to the protesters with anger and accusations.
Yet others may hold a much more sterile view of the flag and the anthem. The flag may be for them not much more than a visual symbol of national identity (not necessarily conflated with patriotism and feelings about the service of military men and women).
For some, the flag may be a symbolic representation of a great but flawed nation that is not living up to its stated ideals of justice and equality for all. The same could be said about the national anthem. How many people even know why we observe this ritual before sporting events? And furthermore, is standing even inherently more respectful than kneeling?
To be clear, I am not suggesting that everything is relative or that we should just leave people completely free to determine their own truths. That would be utter communicational chaos. The point is, to varying degrees, people living within the same society will construct their understandings of reality differently. So given that people believe and assume differently, how do we adjudicate disagreements about what something means or what is appropriate?
So What Is Appropriate?
Some will simply refuse to think beyond their entrenched views. This leads to a communicational dead end. Alternatively, some will appeal to an external authority like a sacred text, or the dictionary for the meaning of words, or laws decreed by our governments when talking about expectations for citizens. Is there a noteworthy external standard that is relevant for all residents of the United States when it comes to dealing with the flag and the anthem?
Actually, there is.
The United States Code is “a consolidation and codification by subject matter of the general and permanent laws of the United States.” It contains federal statutes regarding everything from labor, national parks, property ownership, food and drug regulations, and, yes, an entire section called “respect for flag” and another section that describes proper etiquette during the national anthem.
So that’s it, right? The protesters are being disrespectful, right? Yes and no.
It would be one thing if everyone both understood and agreed that the United States Code on the flag and the anthem is the arbiter of what is appropriate or not. But that is not what is happening.
This is not the same as, say, a street sign in Gurnee that states no turn on red. There is a perpetual reminder of this expectation (the visible sign) and there is a video camera that enforces compliance of this expectation (sadly, my wife and I have separately tested this).
So, outside of people who are part of institutions like the military who enforces flag and anthem codes (the United States Code does not specify penalties), there is a relative lack of shared understanding regarding very specific codes of conduct and expectations. I suspect that many of the same people who have criticized the athletes for disrespecting the flag are themselves guilty of it by the letter of the law.
For example, if you have worn a shirt with a flag on it, or a flag bandana, or have proudly used flag cups and napkins at a Fourth of July bash, or have used the flag in any way in an advertisement, you have disrespected the flag code, even if you had patriotic intentions. I think it’s fair to say that there is much wider societal agreement over what “dog” means compared to what it looks like to respect the flag.
Do We Really Care to Understand?
In healthy relationships, we take into account not just actions, but also intentions. When someone says or does something that would appear on the surface to be an affront, a true neighbor or friend would grant the benefit of the doubt and seek to understand the rationale before judging.
So it’s one thing to say that according to the letter of the law (in this case the United States Code), the protesters were defying rules of etiquette; it is a much greater leap to say that all protesters are intentionally devaluing the meaning and significance that you associate with the flag and anthem. In the absence of such unanimity on the meaning and significance of certain symbols, there will be misunderstandings and disagreements.
As such, to move beyond this impasse, it is necessary to step back and recognize that people attach different kinds and degrees of significances to symbols and gestures. Rather than framing this as a question of absolute right and wrong and judging the matter on the basis of our own imposed values and beliefs, we should ask one another, What do these things mean to you? How can I accommodate without causing unintended offense?
Regardless of your feelings on Kaepernick’s protest, his decision to go from sitting to kneeling after speaking with Green Beret Nate Boyer is a good example of listening and accommodating without capitulating his convictions. I think this is an example that we should all learn from and follow.
Also, the public conversation often drifts towards the rights of the athletes to protest. Yes, they have the constitutional rights to protest during the anthem (although, as Ed rightly pointed out, exercising your rights may come with consequences as employers can exercise their rights to terminate their relationships with employees). In fact, with United States v. Eichman, the Supreme Court ruled that it is a violation of First Amendment rights to prohibit someone from burning the flag in protest.
I believe the more significant and pertinent question is not can they but should they. And here, both John and Charlie disagree with Ed’s assertion that demonstrating during the singing of the national anthem is “unhelpful.”
The “should” question is a much more difficult question. I am sympathetic to John’s point that “in light of injustice, there is never a proper time and space to exercise one’s free speech.” Those with power yield significant control and influence over the content and flow of publically disseminated ideas and values. Though sometimes it may defy social conventions and etiquettes, there comes a time when one needs to interrupt or yell in order to be heard.
And What Do We Hope to Accomplish?
That being said, I think how we answer the should question depends on what protesters hope to accomplish with these particulars protests. That is, what are their ambitions? Who are they seeking to influence and to what end? Is this wise? Asking such questions can help anticipate and avoid unintended consequences.
The big tragedy that I see is that it seems people are talking more about patriotism and respecting cultural symbols than what the protests were intended to do—namely, to prophetically call the country to recognize and address the reality of racial injustices within the criminal justice system and other domains of our society.
That is, people are gawking at the signs rather than paying attention to the reality that the signs are pointing to. It has accentuated our disagreements rather than propelling us to confront pressing societal issues.
I may be way off here, but looking at the poll numbers, my sense is that the protests during the anthem may have been effective in rallying people who are already sympathetic to their message and maybe were previously relatively unengaged in the fight. If that was the objective of the protests, along with generating publicity, then perhaps it was warranted.
However, the protests may have also put-off and even alienated those who may have also been sympathetic to their cause but could not get past the noise (of the perceived disrespect for the flag and all that it represents to them) to listen to the message and get on board. I also doubt that the protests did much to persuade the not-already-convinced about the prevalence of racism, especially those who follow the flag code.
As I mentioned, there are times that call for us to cause disruptions, but when we do so, we incur the risk of offending and creating distractions which become obstacles for our message to be heard and considered. It is not good to have zeal without knowledge. And it is wise, as good cross-cultural missionaries, to reduce obstacles to belief and commitment. We will not convince everyone, but it seems self-defeating to alienate people who might otherwise be advocates.
What started as a quiet, inconspicuous act of protest by Colin Kaepernick has fanned into a big, loud controversy, but also an opportunity. I believe what those of us—who at least agree and support the spirit of the protests—choose to do and focus on now (with the significant momentum garnered by the protest) is what will contribute towards meaningful change.
Because soon, as it always does, Americans will move along with the rapidly changing news cycle until the next ‘news-worthy’ event on racial injustice causes us to again turn our faces towards this problem.
Beyond the right/wrong and can/should questions, let’s use our influence to steer the conversation towards the real challenges and injustices within our racialized society.
Michael Hakmin Lee, PhD, is research fellow for the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College.