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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Free Speech for Me But Not for Thee: Colin Kaepernick and Public Protest


Several years ago the civil libertarian Nat Hentoff published the book, Free Speech for Me but Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other. His central argument, which you can gather from the book's title, is that most people are in favor of free speech as long as they happen to agree with what others are saying. If not, then they try their best to shut them up. I couldn't help but think of Hentoff's book in the wake of the brouhaha over Colin Kaepernick's refusal to stand for the national anthem at least week's San Francisco 49ers game. My sense is that those who support and oppose Kaepernick's stand (well, not in this case) do so based more on the content of his protest than out of any allegiance to the concept of free speech (or the lack thereof). Put differently, if Kaepernick had spoken out against, say, transgender bathrooms, then many of those supporting him in the name of free speech wouldn't have been so quick to rise to his defense (and may have called on the NFL to fine him for his insensitive remarks). Similarly, many of his opponents who think athletes should keep political opinions to themselves would've rushed to his defense (and probably cited the concept of free speech in support).

Personally, I support Kap's right to not stand for the national anthem, just as I support the right of Jehovah's Witnesses and Mennonites to do the very same thing. With many others, I wish he'd lodged his protest in a different way. I think Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman's remarks on the matter are well stated ("Richard Sherman Opens Up, Disagrees With Kaepernick's Method" -- I know, it's hard to believe I'm quoting Richard Sherman). They capture the nuance of what's going on a lot better than much of the rhetoric that's been flying around (that's not too surprising -- he's a Stanford grad):
I thought that was interesting. What he meant was in a good place. He wanted to make a stand. Obviously, any time you don't stand during the national anthem, people are gonna criticize it. And that's the unfortunate part of it -- you can't ever stand against the flag, a lot of people have sacrificed for it -- but there is also a deeper meaning to what he did. 
He's talking about the oppression of African Americans in this country and that has been going on for a long time. And I think a lot of the focus has shifted away from his message -- and shifted to some people, rightfully so -- to him taking a stand against the nation. But I think there's also things in this nation that people need to remember... this country is the same country that had "whites" and "colored" signs on the bathroom. We're still in that country, we're still in that nation and that needs to be acknowledged... 
There are people with that mentality that still exist and that needs to change... there are people that still treat people of color with subjectivity. They treat them a certain way... there are certain statistics that are put out there to make sure that police profile certain people in certain neighborhoods and that needs to change. So there is some depth and some truth into what he was doing. 
I think he could have picked a better platform and a better way to do it. But everyday they say athletes are so robotic and do everything by the book, and then when somebody takes a stand like that, he gets his head chopped off.
The problem with protesting the flag is that, as the sociologist Robert Bellah noted years ago in his essay on American Civil Religion ("Civil Religion in America" see also, "Thanksgiving and American Civil Religion"), the American flag has taken on a sacred status in the U.S. Attacking it is somewhat analogous to walking into a Christian church and throwing the Lectern Bible on the floor (or similarly, damaging a Torah in a Jewish congregation, or defiling a Quran in a Muslim mosque). The emotions that such actions generate can preclude the possibility of having a meaningful discussion about the issues at hand (there is certainly a discussion about what Kap did but very little about the content). That doesn't mean that Kap was wrong about the issues he raised (note that Sherman agrees with him on that point); it just means that there may have been a better way for him to raise them. Still, it's better than going out and shooting someone.

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