In the debate over whether and how professional athletes should protest the National Anthem, one thing has become abundantly clear: we have no idea how to empathize with people who disagree with us. In the tradition of Arnold Kling, here’s my attempt to charitably describe both sides. (I recognize that these are generalizations; there will always be irrational/immoral people on any side of a large-scale argument. But we get nowhere by focusing on either side’s fringe.)
The protestors view the American flag as symbolic of many things; some good, and some bad. They don’t protest the flag to mock and/or disrespect service-members; they appreciate their sacrifices. Instead, they seek to use their fame to shed light on issues that anthem defenders are oblivious and/or not amply sympathetic to: police brutality, excessive incarceration, and racism that may not be overt but still is very-much alive.
They increasingly find themselves the verbal target of a man who many anthem defenders support, which is in fact a big deal when that person happens to command the strongest military in the world. They protest the anthem because they love their country and want to make it a better place; many view as exemplars the protesters who helped end the rampant discrimination of the Jim Crow south.
The anthem defenders do not think America is perfect, but they have a different value-set. They place more of an emphasis on order, stability, and authority; they revere the presidency and the country without thinking that either is perfect. They don’t view the flag or the anthem as mere cultural artifacts; each are deeply representative of the sacrifices made. Indeed, most anthem defenders live in areas where military service is the norm rather than the exception; almost all of them have friends or family members who served overseas. Many of their friends and family members have died defending their country.
As such, they are justifiably annoyed and/or offended when the protestors (perhaps unintentionally) disrespect the flag; they see these protests as attempting to invalidate the physical and emotional pain they’ve endured. That the protests emanate from men who are paid handsomely to play a game–which also happens to be the one leisure/distraction many allow themselves–makes it even worse.
My opinion–and it’s just that; I don’t claim it to be objectively correct–falls somewhere in-between and outside of both of these. On one hand, I find the practice of singing the national anthem before every football game to be a bit odd. I respect the sacrifices that veterans have made; I recognize that without them I wouldn’t have the ability to blithely blog from an office space. But I think this flag worship often winds up being exploited to send men and women into harm’s way without sufficient justification. I would also replace random signs of respect and flag-waving with tangible donations of time and money to help veterans recover and re-acclimate to Western society.
I also think that while the protestors’ aims are noble and their concerns real, they’re a bit misguided, or at the very least not properly articulated. The movement’s hero honoring a man who butchered and starved his own people while simultaneously attacking the state of affairs in America was not a good start. And most of their complaints aren’t with the national government; the vast majority of police are employed by municipalities. As complex as the federal criminal code is, most crimes are defined and punished at the state and local levels.
Regardless, we would each do well to not automatically assign malevolent motives to the other side. Because we have far bigger problems in this country than this, and they won’t get solved in such an untrusting atmosphere.