Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Freedom from Speech

By now, San Francisco 49er's quarterback Colin Kaepernick's decision not to stand during the pregame playing of the national anthem has been bandied about so much on both sides of the argument that the original reason for the protest has been overshadowed. As he explained after his first protest, he wanted to use his refusal to participate in the ceremony to bring attention to racial inequality and police brutality.

Many people saw his protest as a show of disrespect for the flag and for American servicemen and women and reacted in anger. When I expressed my own opinion of Kaepernick to my friends on Facebook, pointing out that good judgement was something that he neglected to learn in college all the while he was concentrating on throwing footballs to someone who could catch them, they made a point of defending the quarterback's right to free speech. This is what always happens when a protest, like the Black Lives Matter movement, degenerates into a free speech debate. Even when a Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, chimed in on the subject, calling Kaepernick's actions "dumb," "ridiculous," "offensive," and "arrogant," social media erupted in harsh attacks on her. Probably amazed at the shitstorm her words elicited, Ginsberg has since walked them back, mollifying the same people who had cheered her the last time she shot her mouth off, dismissing Donald Trump a few weeks before. Her critics were merely citing the First Amendment, somehow forgetting that the Justice's job is to remind people of their Constitutional rights.

My remarks about Kaepernick's protest - and Justice Ginsberg's - were a response to the protest itself, the form in which Kaepernick chose to express his protest. I didn't say anything about depriving him of his right to make the protest. So why is everyone so vehemently (and so safely) citing the man's First Amendment right in response to everyone who disagrees with the manner - not the substance - of his protest? Why was Kaepernick's freedom to speak, by taking a knee, worthy of merit and mine (and Justice Gibsberg's) was not?

When I first learned of it, I thought about the reason - the real reason, not the avowed reason - for Kaepernick's distaste for having to stand up before every game. I thought about all the times I, too, had to stand up in movie theaters on military posts throughout my life, from when I was a boy into middle age before I left the Army at 42, in Albany, Georgia, Columbia, South Carolina, Okinawa, Japan and South Korea. In a movie theater there wasn't even an actual flag - just a projection of one on the screen. I remember a buddy on Fort Sill, Oklahoma one summer evening in '97 giving me a beleaguered look when he realized he had to stand up before watching Inventing the Abbotts. We were both drunk, and my friend even fell asleep during the movie, snoring so loudly that I had to wake him to make him stop.

Kaepernick probably resents the fact that his announced motivation has been overshadowed by the usual useless controversy about his First Amendment right of free speech. If pressed, what opinion would his defenders give about his protest? Would they express an opinion at all, or would they go on hiding behind the First Amendment? Freedom of speech doesn't exonerate one from speaking.

This is nothing but political correctness, which, as critic Robert Brustein once put it, is "freedom from speech." Arguing that Kaepernick's protest is purely a matter of free speech does several things to the substance of his gesture. The first thing it does is effectively neutralize it: instead of Kaepernick's solidarity with victims of racism in America, another front of the Black Lives Matter movement, taking center stage and getting all the attention, the issue of free speech takes precedence and obscures the meaning of the speech itself. It also insulates people from charges of racism. What they don't seem to understand is that using the old Voltaire line "I may not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it" announces their disagreement with the substance of the speech while silencing further argument. And one more thing that it does is cheapen the importance of speech altogether, which is always a problem in a liberal democracy. In a totalitarian state, the people are told to shut up, but in a liberal democacy they are told to talk all they want because whatever they have to say is of no consequence.

And there is even more to it than that. In his invaluable essay, "On Bullshit," Harry Frankfurt argues: "Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person's obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant. Closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country's affairs. The lack of any significant connection between a person's opinions and his apprehension of reality will be even more severe, needless to say, for someone who believes it his responsibility, as a conscientious moral agent, to evaluate events and conditions in all parts of the world."

Unlike men and women in the military who are obliged to stand at attention and salute the flag, for civilians it is a matter of personal delicacy what they do during the national anthem. They aren't obliged to stand. They can remain seated (which is what Kaepernick did at first, before deciding to take a knee), and endure the disfavor of everyone around them. I am amused when I see some of the fans clumsily saluting the flag, which is a duty reserved for people serving in the military.

When I was in the Navy and the Army (in that order, believe it or not) if I was on a military outpost in uniform and a flag was being raised in the morning, I would hear a warning over a loudspeaker called a "tattoo." It is a signal to anyone standing outdoors to either face the direction of the flagpole, come to attention when "reveille" was played and salute the flag, or else I would use the tattoo as an excuse to duck indoors to spare myself the bother.

Honoring the flag is an obligation for people in uniform. Kaepernick isn't dishonoring it, as his vocal critics believe; he is simply declining to honor it. He is entitled to his beliefs. After everything we've gone through as a nation in the past few years, he probably feels the same thing when the announcer says, "Ladies and gentlemen, please stand for our national anthem," that I feel when a speaker announces, "Let us pray." Since I'm not a believer, what the hell am I supposed to do? I definitely can't take a knee.

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