By now, you’ve no doubt heard about San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest at Saturday’s preseason match with the Green Bay Packers. Kaepernick sat on the bench during the national anthem and then told NFL.com’s Steve Wyche after the game, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
Cue an Internet firestorm.
Kaepernick’s protest immediately became about disrespect for the flag and the veterans who have fought and sacrificed to defend the symbol of our nation. Meme generators threatened to melt down, so fast were they used to create instant condemnations of the San Francisco quarterback’s words and actions.
Wyche must have felt like Woodward and Bernstein blowing the lid off Watergate.
The reaction, while swift and largely unforgiving, is all over the place. It ranges from defending Kaepernick’s right to do what he did while condemning him for being a bad American, to suggesting a millionaire NFL quarterback has no right to claim he or anyone else is oppressed, to throwing the spotlight on “the true heroes” — our soldiers who have sacrificed for the very flag Kaepernick chose too denigrate.
I know this is a hot-button, Internet argument, and I know this is an election year, but can I suggest that we all take a collective breath and think about this for a moment?
(Careful thought, I know, is not a terribly popular concept in social media, but maybe people could humor me for a couple minutes.)
Dialectic is a word that means two seemingly opposite things can be true at the same time. For example, “I’m really hungry, and I don’t feel like eating anything.” Or, “I’m totally bored, and I don’t feel like doing anything.”
The concept can be hard to accept, because it seems completely illogical that two opposites can both be true. We humans prefer absolutes. We want One Truth to Bind Them All.
Far-left liberals complain Hillary Clinton isn’t progressive enough. Tea Party conservatives vote out moderate Republicans for daring to compromise on legislation. Rigid adherence to ideology is the only policy we support.
And shouting down the opposite point of view on social media is what passes for debate these days.
All of which brings me back to the firestorm Colin Kaepernick engineered.
The U.S. flag and the national anthem are symbols of our democracy and nation. They are sacred to most of those who have served in the military, particularly those who have seen combat or lost friends and family in defense of our country. Honoring the flag is honoring them.
But refusing to honor the flag is not denigrating them or their sacrifices.
The service and sacrifice of our veterans and military personnel are noble and heroic. They fought and fight to defend our way of life.
However, that way of life includes systemic racism that unfairly oppresses citizens of color, particularly black citizens. The way of life white soldiers fight to defend is not the same one offered to their black and brown brothers-in-arms.
And that truth does not make the service of our military personnel ignoble or unheroic.
It is possible to honor those who risk and in some cases give their lives to defend our nation while still acknowledging that we do not always live up to the ideals we ask those servicepeople to defend. It is possible to refuse to participate in the easy patriotism of saluting a flag and standing for the national anthem without denigrating the service of our military.
The dialectic holds.
If Colin Kaepernick committed a sin, it was choosing a form of protest that would obscure his message. By refusing to stand for the national anthem, he ignited the anger of military families and supporters instead of bringing awareness to the issues of systemic racism that inspired his actions and words.
But that doesn’t change any of the facts surrounding this issue. Those who choose to serve and sacrifice to defend America are noble. American society discriminates against minorities.
Two truths. Seemingly opposite in nature, but both true at the same time.
So maybe we should spend less time heaping mud on Colin Kaepernick in defense of one of those truths and spend more time working to make the other one false.