TakeAKnee Part 2: The Posturing over the Posture

Pence

This is the second in a 4-part series exploring the ongoing saga of the protests taking place in the NFL. For context, I recommend starting with Part 1, in which I explore the respectability of the posture. In this post I will explore some of the common responses to the protest by those who wish to leverage them in service of varying agendas.

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The Attempt to Minimize

The first inevitable question that arises is, “Aren’t there more important things to be talking about?” There’s something subtly disingenuous about the question to begin with, since (1) the person asking it typically is, in fact, talking about it, in order to express their own opinion on the matter, and (2) that opinion is often (not always, to be fair) not so much that they find other things to be more important, but just that they don’t find this cause to be worthy (in which case, just say that). But even if the answer is Yes—the obvious implied answer from the questioner—we need not subscribe to the false choice of conversations on one issue necessarily taking away from conversations on the others. The conversation around racial disparities in our country is important, whether you believe the NFL protests are effective in advancing that conversation or not. Disaster relief, mass shootings, and tensions with hostile foreign powers are also important. Are they more important? I’m uninterested in taking the bait of that question’s unspoken intent to minimize the issue by virtue of creating a faux hierarchy. They need not be in competition; talk and act on them all.

The Attempt to Dismiss

The common #StickToSports catchphrase is essentially saying, “I tune in to sporting events to be entertained, not to hear your opinion.” Aside from containing a subtle condescending air toward athletes, it smacks a little of the entitled, “You’re violating my safe space” response I addressed in part 1. But I’d make a larger point: like it or not, sports is woven into the cultural fabric of American life, and as such, has always carried intersectional touchstones to other areas of life that transcend mere athletic achievement. Stories of courage and mental conviction, to overcoming adversity, to profound faith, to political provocation, to challenging racial and gender barriers, to breaking down international walls. The examples are beyond measure, from Jackie Robinson, to Eric Liddell, to the pioneers of Title IX, to soccer matches during the famous WWI Christmas Truce, to countless examples in the Olympics through the years… we could go on for days. Not everyone is a sports fan, but it’s hard to deny their power and relevance even if you’re not. And if we try to prevent sports from crossing any cultural boundaries outside the strict corral of physical athleticism alone (whether we agree that would be a good thing or not), that effort is going to fail. History has proven that’s just never going to happen. So we might as well just embrace the conversations it inevitably sparks, disagreements and all.

The Attempt to Discredit

The next tactic usually attacks the protestors themselves as not having earned the necessary credentials to have a voice in the debate. Here’s a common refrain: “They’re not oppressed! They’re overpaid millionaires who get paid to play a game.” Of course, many of those players have overcome various forms of discrimination on their road to stardom (some even more recently, as in the case of Michael Bennett), but even if that weren’t the case, why should that matter? They’re using their platform to bring awareness to a problem beyond just their own personal experience, advocating on behalf of those without as big a voice; so if they’re not oppressed themselves, then that makes it a selfless act.

Again, you can debate the legitimacy of the problem to which they’re drawing awareness separately, but let’s not pretend that their millionaire status precludes them from having a voice in this. They’ve worked hard to get where they are and I don’t begrudge them their money. Are they overpaid? Well, if you believe in the free market, then they’re paid exactly what they deserve as dictated by what the consumers of their entertainment are willing to spend, but we’ll save the economic lesson for another day. It’s just a red herring not germane to the discussion, anymore than a player’s level of on-field skill or whether or not they’re black enough, additional logical fallacies unnecessary to respond to separately.

The Attempt to Co-Opt

When all else fails, make it about something else. This is where the posturing comes in—a prime example being the narrative around the protestors being ungrateful for those who have fought and died for their freedom. Who, after all, would ever be justified in being ungrateful to those who have fought and died for their freedom? Never mind that the players have insisted they’re not ungrateful to those who have fought and died for their freedom—it matters not; in fact it makes the tactic all the more effective. You see, I just repeated the phrase 3 times, and it matters not whether some of those repetitions are explanatory clarifications or refutations—the repetition itself cements in the public eye that that’s what the issue is about. And thus you see how straw man arguments, even though a logical fallacy, can be annoyingly stubborn to counter.

The high-profile figures who employ these straw-man tactics typically care little about the issue itself, and more about rallying support to their tribe. Mike Pence’s staged walkout from the Colts-49ers game last week was an expensive PR stunt clearly meant to galvanize a partisan base that the administration had no doubt it would play well with. All politicians, right and left, do this, but we should recognize it as no more than capitalizing on the political theater of it. In reality, the issue should be independent of the right-left divide, but like everything else, it’s easier to herd the masses into the predictable trenches dug by those tribes than to promote thoughtful dialogue on the issue; the politicians play that game because we too often let them win at it.

The Attempt to Coerce

Far more concerning, however, were the president’s comments on the matter in the preceding weeks. Even if you’re adamantly opposed to the protestors and their cause, if we’re not equally bothered by the leader of the free world, who is sworn to defend and protect our constitution, endorsing punitive action against people exercising a constitutional right, we can’t really turn around and call ourselves patriotic.

This was a clear violation of conservative values in particular, but should transcend partisan divide. The liberty-minded take umbrage when the highest officer of the executive branch, the branch of government responsible for the enforcement of law, expresses an anti-free speech value. Even if he’s encouraging a private, non-government entity to do it (and therefore he hasn’t broken any law, as defenders have pointed out), it’s still an anti-free speech value, and I find that dangerous, because he’s the one sworn to protect those values. If he wants to express those opinions as a free citizen when he’s out of office, fine. There’s a higher accountability necessary for officers of the state on things like this.

That’s probably why even the conservative publication The National Review published an article leveling this same criticism against the president. And why certain NFL owners and others who had supported Trump chose to make a defiant statement against his weigh-in. It suddenly became about more than the anthem; it became about executive overreach, a repudiation of power they understand the government simply doesn’t have, and a clear statement that they won’t be bullied in such a fashion by an agent of the state. Liberty supersedes partisan loyalty, and true patriots will not tolerate government officials suggesting punitive action for constitutionally protected rights—period.

But more on this patriotism angle in my next post. Stay tuned for Part 3 in the coming days.

<< Back to Part 1          Go to Part 3 >>

TakeAKnee Part 1: The Respectability of the Posture

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This is the first in 4-part series of my exploration of the ongoing saga of the national anthem protests in the NFL (which has recently spread to other sports as well). As always, dialogue is welcome. In this first installment, I will explore the protest act itself and the initial reaction it has sparked—namely, that it’s disrespectful.

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First, I’ll preface by saying the method of protest is not one I would have chosen. That said, I’m trying my best to listen and give the benefit of the doubt to those who have chosen it.

Why? Well, in part because I’m a white, middle-aged, middle-class, middle-management male in a prosperous corner of this country—the recipient of near-maximum privilege any way you cut it. Not that I think that’s a show-stopper—I don’t subscribe to the automatic invalidity of one’s opinion on an issue based on their identity. But it humbles me enough that I attempt to give the benefit of the doubt to those with a perspective that I don’t always see because of my privilege. That doesn’t de facto mean they’re right, but I take it upon myself to listen and open my mind to it as best I can.

The posture is probably not as disrespectful as you think

So what do I hear when I listen? Well, enough to at least give me pause before assuming the worst of the protesting players. When Colin Kaepernick first began sitting for the anthem, his teammate, Safety Eric Reid, engaged him in discussion about it, as did long-snapper and former Green Beret Nate Boyer who wrote an open letter to Kaepernick basically saying his initial reaction was hurt and anger, but that he is trying to listen and understand. Reid expressed interest in joining his cause, but expressed concern over the perception of the gesture, that sitting perhaps signified apathy, and they didn’t wish to disrespect the country or veterans. To his credit, Kaepernick listened. Together, and even after a consultation with Boyer himself, they decided to kneel instead. A posture of kneeling traditionally connotes honoring, or at least a greater solemnity, while still making their statement at the same time. As Reid expressed in a recent op-ed, they saw it as more of a statement of bereavement over injustice rather than a statement of disrespect toward veterans or anyone else, and that they imagined the posture resembling “a flag flown at half-mast.”

Now, you don’t have to agree or buy into that rationale yourself, or suddenly adopt it as your own form of protest. But at least we should agree it doesn’t seem like a middle finger, either. It’s thoughtful. Something to engage with. Listen to. Dialogue about. Have a beer summit over. Learn another perspective that might even sharpen us in some way, whether you come out on the other side of that conversation agreeing or not.

What you might mean to say is that you feel disrespected by it

Claiming that something is disrespectful can mean multiple things. That (a) the person has the intent of overt disrespect—toward Americans, conservatives, cops, veterans, you personally—fill in the blank. Or (b) that one or more of the aforementioned parties feels disrespected by the action, regardless of the protestors’ intent. It is also possible that both (a) and (b) are true at once. I’m not convinced (a) is true—i.e. that the act of kneeling during the national anthem constitutes overt, intentional disrespect—based on how the players have articulated it as discussed above. But some will counter that if people are feeling disrespected by it, and they’re still doing it anyway, then it does show disrespectful intent regardless of their stated rationale (so that (b) necessitates (a) by default). After all, they’re not being sensitive to the feelings of those being offended, which serves to divide. Okay, that’s one way to look at it. But frankly it sounds a little like saying, “They need to act out their beliefs in a way that doesn’t offend me or violate my safe space, regardless of whether that’s their intent.” The irony is that many who offer this objection would decry it in other contexts as the millennial, snow-flakey take on it.

Our hang-ups on respectability are likely missing a larger point

So is the chosen method of protest disrespectful? The answer is likely in the eye of the beholder. Maybe it is to some extent, but likely not to the degree that some of the more visceral reactions, with their hyperbolic rhetoric around troop-hating contempt for freedom, would suggest.

But in any case, have we considered that this conversation about what’s disrespectful might be a red herring in the first place? It is, after all, a protest. The civil rights movement was born out of protest. Our very nation was born out of protest. And it was all disrespectful to someone—namely, the status quo of the existing power structures. As MLK said, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” You may feel the comparisons are unfair because the current cause is less worthy, and if you’re inclined to stick with me on this journey I’ll explore that angle at greater length in part 4, but in the meantime let’s agree that any protest is going to ruffle the feathers of someone, or it’s kind of pointless. At the very least it’s started a conversation.

It might not have been my chosen form of expression, and I certainly don’t seek to invalidate the feelings of those who take offense to it. But it’s that next step beyond the offense where we ought to pause before becoming prescriptive. As soon as I, as one who benefits from the existing power structures, start dictating the where, why, when, and how the oppressed should feel about their oppression, as soon as I suggest how they ought to act out their frustration toward it, as soon as I demand they do it in a ‘respectable’ manner as defined by me, that’s on my timetable, doesn’t make me uncomfortable, and doesn’t violate my ‘safe space,’ that’s when I’ve gone too far, made it more about me, becoming what MLK described as the white moderate, and need to check my privilege at the door. I’ve failed at that many times in the past, and this time just trying to shut up and listen, understand, and empathize.

Continue to Part 2 >>

Knowing a Tree by its Fruit

“Anyone who knows me knows these words don’t reflect who I am.” So what exactly do they reflect? What do any of our words or actions reflect, if not who we are? My question is sincere, and though the latest Trump flap may be a catalyst for my putting pen to paper, it reflects observations far broader than this man or this political season, as I find the words of “apology” above to be an increasingly common phenomenon, the defense du jour being that it’s not what’s in the heart.

But where did this idea come from that outward manifestations of misogyny, or racism, or homophobia, or [fill in the blank], are somehow less grievous if they’re not really what’s “in your heart”?

A classic illustration of this idea played out in one of Paul Ryan’s numerous attempts to do the two-step in order to toe the party line despite his distaste for his party’s candidate. Ryan criticized Trump’s suggestion that a federal judge was not qualified to do his job because of his ethnicity, saying it was a “textbook” example of racism (which it is). But when pressed in an interview the next day, he walked back the comments and stopped short of calling Trump a “racist” on the grounds that “I don’t know what’s in his heart.”

And thus another unwarranted pass is issued to all manner of vile words and deeds because, after all, no one can really know what’s in a heart. If that’s who the person really is, deep down.

And I understand Ryan’s reluctance to call someone a “racist” in an age where that has become an individually directed epithet with serious gravity. But how, too, did that come to be in the first place? It’s only to our shame that we re-focus our attention on the heart of the offender at all, rather than solving for the negative outcomes afflicting their victims. If certain words, actions, or policies result in disparate negative outcomes for one group, whether it be women, minorities, or otherwise, the damage is done. How and why are the intentions, or the condition of the perpetrator’s heart, relevant?

I don’t believe it was always this way. Sticking with the dreaded R-word as the example for the moment, keep in mind that “racism” was once used in more systemic terms, and in the civil rights era highlighted outward manifestations of injustices for which we were corporately accountable. Although a highly charged word even then, it prompted conversation and debate as to changes we needed to make (and exposed resistance to those changes) at a societal level. One might have described certain rules, laws, societal norms, as “racist” based on the disparate outcomes they dealt to one race vs. another. Those who resisted changing those norms may or may not have been overt “racists,” but that was secondary (as exhibit A, take MLK’s comments on the white moderate).

But now that the term “racist” conveys a more personal character attack, it serves only to shut down conversation, prompting the predictable recoil: “I am not a racist; how dare you presume to know what’s in my heart!” This change in meaning toward a more individual condemnation (even if warranted) is a disappointment, and ultimately does a disservice to usage of a term that should otherwise prompt reflection on how we ought to correct the injustices that produce disparate outcomes.

There seems to be a correlation to this with trends in Western Christianity that have over-emphasized individual salvation, personal relationship with God, and the importance of having Jesus “in your heart,” at the expense of the more corporate work of the church to seek justice and do the things that actually build the kingdom of heaven Jesus described, things the church has done in centuries prior. There is more to unpack there theologically than I have the space to devote in this post, but I bring it up because this concept of a hall pass based on good intentions, or what’s in the heart, is not biblical. When two sons were asked by their father to work in the vineyard, good intentions didn’t win the day, but rather the action to do the father’s will (Mat. 21:28-31). The condition of the heart matters, but we are told we will know a tree by its fruit (Luke 6:43-45).

I could go on, but for my less religiously inclined friends, let me appeal to a pop-culture reference from Batman. When Bruce Wayne’s playboy antics are raising eyebrows, he says to his friend Rachel, “All this… it’s not me. It’s not who I really am.” And her reply, “Bruce… it’s not who you are underneath; it’s what you do that defines you.”

Let’s start a new trend. Instead of defending our own honor by portraying our outward failings as the exception to the rule of an otherwise hidden and virtuous inner life, let’s hold ourselves to a higher bar and ask what we can actually do to love our neighbor practically. I think we’ll find ourselves freed from the self-absorbed obsession of thought, and burden of explanation, over “who we really are.”