Respect comes in many forms and gestures. But it should only be provided when it is earned. Failure to show respect for those who deserve it is agonizing to witness. It’s one of the reasons watching players take a knee during the national anthem has been so heartbreaking.
You shouldn’t care because they are professional football players and they are somehow supposed to set an example for us. They are just people like you and me. They are no more or less important than the sales associate at your local bike store, the postal worker who delivers your mail or the receptionist at the local car dealership. Everyone is important, but none more than another. In addition, it’s not just NFL players who have been making this statement. Numerous college and high school players have also adopted this symbolic gesture.
But none of it matters if we choose to not listen and understand why the issue has become so divisive. It, like so many other hot topics that dominate our social media feeds and posts, has once again managed to force people into thinking they must be on one side or the other. If you side with the kneelers, you cannot possibly be a true American because what those players are doing is a disgrace to every veteran, and their families, who died or survived defending the ideals of this nation. The flag is the very representation of what every military family holds dear about service and dedication to our nation and fellow soldiers. Disrespecting it in any shape or form is akin to spitting in their face
However, if you castigate the kneelers, you are also willfully giving the green light to trample on the First Amendment and disregard an individual’s ability to express himself in a way that has meaning and purpose, whether you agree with it or not. The message Colin Kaepernick was attempting to deliver when he opted not to stand for the national anthem last year was his disappointment and anger toward the social injustices faced by many blacks in America. In one sense those who take a knee, if they truly understand the reasons behind their actions, are showing respect for those soldiers because had they not fought to defend this nation, all of the freedoms we enjoy would not be possible, and that certainly includes the opportunity to take a knee during the national anthem.
For those of us who stand every time the national anthem is played, we do so out of respect for the flag and all that it represents, and that includes all of the soldiers past and present who have fought defending our way of life. There is no way any of us can repay that debt because it has come in the form of lives lost, obliterated limbs, cancerous diseases, and consequences to the rest of their lives that no human should have to endure.
Personally I am saddened to think of the pain this must be creating for all those families and spouses who have lost loved ones to combat. Not acknowledging how this might be affecting those families would be reckless, ignorant or lacking any empathy.
But taking a knee, for the right reasons, does still demonstrate that respect for those soldiers and our flag, yet delivers the statement about societal issues that remain unsolved. We can understand the argument that there is a time and a place for demonstrations and doing it during the national anthem is not the right time. But for many maybe it is absolutely the right time. We won’t know for sure, though, until we start trying to understand somebody else’s perspective. But that means we must listen first.
If we are unwilling to do that, none of it matters.
That, more than the kneeling, may be the real challenge facing this nation’s future. If we cannot move beyond our line-in-the-sand way of thinking and take the time to hear the pain, the argument or dilemma, and perhaps gain valuable insight of a different perspective, the great experiment will fail. Supporters of the kneelers are not all bleeding heart liberals who are bent on dismantling everything that is great about this nation. And not everyone opposed to the demonstration during the national anthem should be labeled as ignorant or part of the “white privilege” that has caused society’s issues. It’s clearly more complicated than that.
People usually have reasons or a purpose for doing something that will bring widespread awareness. We don’t always need to agree with what somebody is saying or doing, but we can only become a stronger nation when we take the time to understand an alternative perspective and what that means to the larger society.
Forcing your opinion on somebody without offering others the opportunity of expression is not a democracy. The mechanics of how a democracy plays out in daily life may not always be comfortable, and sometimes may run completely contrary to our personal beliefs, but it is part of a necessary process in a free society. At some point we must choose to work together for a common good, but that can only happen if we move beyond our silos and try to understand the issues that prevent us from improving lives for everyone.
Keith Anderson is director of news for ECM Publishers.