Flags, Free Speech, and Kneeling

One of the major fronts in all the controversies about free speech in America today has been over the choice of NFL players to kneel during the national anthem as a protest against the treatment of African Americans by police. Naturally, a lot of people are irritated by that act of protest, because even though it is nonviolent, it’s a very powerful statement. It says to the country, and the world to a lesser degree, there is something really wrong in America; she’s not living up to her self-proclaimed values.

nflNow, I think one’s attitude toward the protests largely depends on how valid one thinks the NFL players’ objections are. If you think that there is a serious problem with the way policing is done in the United States today, especially as it affects young, black men, then you’ll probably see the act as a powerful way to bring attention to a problem that needs fixing. If, however, you think that the problem is overblown and politicized, then you’ll likely see their protests as silly and disrespectful. Our country is pretty divided over whether the problem is legitimate or not, and that’s a conversation that needs to be had. Unfortunately, due to the emotional volatility of our culture right now, that’s getting harder to do.

This last week, the NFL decided that players who want to kneel should stay in the locker room during the national anthem, or else their team can be fined. This move aims to ensure that the NFL’s bottom line will no longer be hurt by offended viewers who choose not to watch or go to games and support the disrespect of the American flag. It’s not really a statement about patriotism, it’s simply a PR move all the way down.

As this news broke, I came across two great articles, written by conservatives David French and Rod Dreher. Here is the link to David French’s New York Times piece. Here’s the link to Rod Dreher’s. They’re both worth a read.

I agree with French and Dreher. The NFL as a non-government entity is free to have whatever codes of behavior it chooses. But, I think that in this case they have chosen to enforce a code that is ultimately bad for the health of our culture. I think the right move would be for them to let the players kneel. But, the NFL thinks in terms of making money. Anything that doesn’t serve that end, or could hurt it, needs to go.

Viewers are free to be offended and not watch the NFL, of course. However, I think that if one claims to care about freedom of speech, one has to protect the rights of those whose speech is offensive to you. French says as much:

In our polarized times, I’ve adopted a simple standard, a civil liberties corollary to the golden rule: Fight for the rights of others that you would like to exercise yourself. Do you want corporations obliterating speech the state can’t touch? Do you want the price of participation in public debate to include the fear of lost livelihoods? Then, by all means, support the N.F.L. Cheer Silicon Valley’s terminations. Join the boycotts and shame campaigns. Watch this country’s culture of liberty wither in front of your eyes.

As a Christian, I think there is a strong theological case to be made for this position. It’s smart to remember that in the early years of Christianity, they were persecuted for not participating in the rituals that Romans believed to be their patriotic duty. They were  labeled enemies of the state. The state at that time demanded literally religious loyalty, but Christianity’s survival and influence led to the separation between the state and the divine that we take for granted in the western world today.

If Christians worry about increasing cultural bias against them, and they care about freedom to express one’s convictions nonviolently, then we should support the rights of others to do the same. Even if it is deeply offensive to us.

I don’t care so much about the NFL or football. What I do care about is thought-policing. Whether it comes from the government, online mobs, or wealthy corporations that exert cultural control doesn’t matter to me.

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