Is exercise of our rights to expression, speech and protest meaningful if the message is obscured? I ask because it seems that recent acts of protest – namely refusing to stand, or even kneeling during the playing of the national anthem – have been met with such furious public outrage that it seems that no one is paying attention to why people are protesting. Those offering the outrage will be quick to remind us that their expression is protected as well, and they are correct. If, after all, we only recall the outrage to the protest, then the protest itself must be pointless.
As it turns out, that is not so.
I opine that the furious outrage is meant to drown the message. It is meant to discourage others from expressing discontent. The outrage is just as protected from government interference, but its purpose is ignoble. (Some of this protected outrage, ironically, supposes that “un-American” speech ought not to be protected, which itself is a fundamentally un-American position.) Regardless of whether I am entirely correct in my assessment that the outrage is meant to bury the message, for practical purposes it is ineffective. Speaking against the protest keeps the discussion alive. It provides a forum for people to discuss the merits of the protest, even if the intent was or is to squelch such discussion. The outrage highlights the issue publicly when it might otherwise fall into obscurity.
The current outrageous act of not standing for the national anthem is purported to be in protest of the inequitable treatment of people of color in the US. This inequitable treatment is well documented in terms of policing, incarceration rates, educational inequity, employment opportunity inequity, and income inequity. While we have certainly made progress as compared to 50 years ago or 150 years ago, we are far from crossing the finish line in terms of fair treatment for all citizens (and this is only focusing on one demographic aspect on social inequity in the US). There are some who desperately want to avoid addressing this fact, and I’m left questioning their motives and values. I cannot fathom a rational basis for refusing to see the disparity in treatment other than a desire to ensure that inequitable systems remain in place. What can fuel such a desire other than blatant bigotry?
It is because of this that I find the motivations of those who are so vehemently opposed to “offensive” protests such as “disrespecting” the flag or national anthem suspect. How can exercising one of the rights that these two symbols represent be disrespectful? And why do we ignore the myriad other displays of “disrespect?” It seems that general disrespect is not worth noticing, but when there is a message attached then we must call out the disrespect. So, really, it’s the message we don’t like. It isn’t truly the form of protest, because the truth is that some of us don’t want to admit that inequity exists (or seek to actively perpetuate the inequity). Black Lives Matter (BLM) is an example – they have managed to earn the outrage of the same general demographic that feigns outrage at not standing for the anthem, but without having to commit similar “disrespectful” acts toward national symbols. It seems that some find them offensive simply for holding the position that black lives ought to be valued just as much as others. In the specific case of Kaepernick, he has been associated with BLM by the outraged segment, and even falsely accused of converting to Islam (which, even if true, would be entirely irrelevant). The outrage seems to be fueled primarily by bigotry rather than genuine concern over “disrespect.”
And that is far more un-American than choosing to take a knee during a song.