Honorable disrespect

John Muenzberg

Column by John Muenzberg, lecturer of philosophy 

John Muenzberg

John Muenzberg

During the San Francisco 49ers’ preseason games, quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat down during the playing of the National Anthem in protest.

Kaepernick said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” It is unclear how long he intends to remain seated during the National Anthem.

Kaepernick has received a torrent of criticism and support. The criticisms against Kaepernick include suspicion of his motives and rejection of his cause. The most curious criticisms argue that his protest is inappropriate because it is during the National Anthem, or during his work time or drawing attention away from his teammates.

The reason these criticisms are so curious is that they do not seem to understand the nature of protest. The most effective protests are the ones that irritate people and capture our attention. To criticize Kaepernick because he is not showing respect for the flag is to essentially restate his own words. You do not have to agree with his cause to understand that blind respect for the flag is what he thinks is problematic.

What is more noteworthy about his protest is that he is acting by himself. Protesting alone often requires paying a great personal cost. At the ESPY awards in July, four athletes stood together and voiced support for police officers and the victims of police violence. By standing together they showed solidarity and brought attention to their cause. Any criticisms can also be shared.

On the other hand, when, Emma Sulkowicz was frustrated with the refusal by Columbia University to expel a student she accused of sexual assault, she could have written letters or organized a march. Instead she began carrying her mattress around campus. She carried it to class, to dinner and eventually to her graduation.

Sulkowicz was protesting the same administrators that were in charge of her education. By making that protest she was literally endangering her chances of graduating. This protest also drew national attention and national criticism. This protest was disruptive and was done at great personal risk. It was also quite effective.

One of the most problematic criticisms of Kaepernick is that he is disrespecting the U.S. military. This is a problem of false transference. The U.S. military uses the U.S. flag to demonstrate allegiance to the United States. That does not then make it the flag of the military, nor does it make disrespect for the flag transferable to disrespect for the military.

On the other hand, the NFL has consciously sought to use respect for the U.S. military to gain respect for the NFL. Occasionally before games, there have been elaborate military celebrations that the NFL stated were done to show respect and appreciation for the “men and women in uniform.” What we now know is that many of these were in fact paid advertisements to attract new recruits.

There is nothing wrong with selling advertising. But in this case the time before kickoff was presented as a ceremony of honor instead of an ad. Any network that refused to cover the ceremony could be accused of  not respecting the military. The NFL was not spending their time or money to honor the troops. They sold that time and then lied about its purpose. The NFL was not honoring the troops anymore than they “honored” Pepsi by running their ads.

You can argue that Kaepernick, a person who sat alone and who put his reputation and career at risk for a cause he believes in, is disrespectful. But I wonder if what he does is more disrespectful than a billion dollar corporation selling their honor to the highest bidder and then disguising that fact to benefit themselves. There can be honor in showing disrespect.