***It’s not my intent to make this blog into a ‘current events’ commentary. This is mainly because there’s so much weirdness happening right now that I’d burst a vein in my head trying to keep up, but also because, while I may have a layman’s grasp on a pretty wide variety of issues, I’m only really an expert in a few areas. The last thing I want to do is write a poignant, heartfelt and convincing article, only to have some commenter who actually knows what they’re talking about coming along and blowing a hole straight through my argument.
That having been said, I do want to throw in my own two cents about the recent news about the NFL in American banning the practice of players taking a knee (warning, autoplay video at link) during the National Anthem as a protest against Police brutality and the killing of unarmed Black people. I have some complex feelings about this (as well as similar controversies here in Canada) and I’m hoping that by sharing them I can move this conversation in a productive direction.***

But first, a personal story:

So a while ago I was involved in a Remembrance Day ceremony that saw us driving in trucks past the War Memorial and the assembled dignitaries there in what is known as a ‘roll-past.’ As I was sitting in the front passenger seat of my truck, it was my responsibility to salute the dais as we drove past. Following that were the assembled veterans and various members of the Legion, followed by other veterans groups and prominent individuals and organizations. At a certain point I was allowed to drop my salute and sit, head and eyes to the front as we passed by the rest of the crowd.

The saluting part is a bit awkward, but overall it’s a pretty straightforward process. So we rolled past the dignitaries, then the crowds, then on to Rideau street (we had to make a detour for construction). As we got to where the crowd petered out I started to relax, and my gaze was drawn to one young man standing on the sidewalk. I got no idea who he was, but this guy was standing there watching us roll by, and he was giving us the finger…with both hands.

I don’t know who the guy was. Never found out either. Nobody who saw him recognized him so there wasn’t any real chance that this was personal.[1] The dude saw the army passing on a road…in a Remembrance Day parade…and decided to flip us off.

Anyway there wasn’t a whole lot we could do about it at the time. When we reached our destination and dismounted, we all agreed the guy was an asshole. Where we disagreed was whether he should be allowed to be so insulting.

The one side of the argument went like this: It was Remembrance Day. A day meant to honour fallen Canadian soldiers. This guy had no business flipping us off on a day like today. Sure he had freedom of speech, but some things were beyond the pale. On another day it might have been acceptable, but not today.

The side I took was that freedom of speech is meaningless unless it protects everyone. As insulting as finger-man’s behaviour had been (and it was), he had a right to do it and if our sacrifices were to actually have meaning, then we had to accept that those rights had to apply to assholes as well as everyone else.

Don’t get me wrong. I was furious at this guy’s behaviour and a part of me wanted to order my driver to stop so I could dismount and go kick the guy in the balls. Thing is – and I’m not Godwin-ing the post by saying so – that’s exactly the kind of thing the Nazis would have done.

And the Communists. And the Fascists. And centuries worth of tyrants both great and small from around the world.

Living in a free country is something that takes effort and discipline. The fact that one asshole decides to act immaturely does not give us the licence to sink to his level.  Not if we actually care about rights in the first place.

So now you’re probably thinking: Is this guy comparing Colin Kapernick to some random asshole giving a Remembrance Day parade the finger?

HELL NO.

While players taking a knee is a protest directly aimed at a national symbol (in this case the anthem played before a sporting event) that’s where the similarity to asshole comes to an end.  Not only is kneeling a significantly more respectful gesture (Kapernick started off just staying seated, but switched to taking a knee on the advice of a friend who is a veteran) but the reasons for his protest was clearly presented. People can disagree with what he’s saying, but nobody can pretend that they don’t know what the issue is in the first place.  Meanwhile, who knows what asshole was thinking when he flipped us off? He could have had a good reason? Maybe he was a dick?

So there is conclusively a huge difference between kneeling during an anthem and the asshole flipping off a parade.  Problem is, a bunch of people are acting like there isn’t.

Now one of the reasons for my starting this deconstruction has been the rise in Canada (and the US for that matter) of a kind of ‘toxic patriotism.’ Although this might rankle some progressive (civilian?) readers, I don’t think that patriotism is necessarily a dirty word. I do think it’s healthy to love your country and want what’s best for it.  I would cautiously content that even the more aggressively anti-establishment types are, in their own way, patriots. After all, one of the greatest acts of love is to tell those you care about when they’ve gone wrong.

However, any human impulse carries a dark side with it, and over the last several years I’ve been seeing more toxic manifestations of patriotism. The novel Uprising is one of them and this blog is meant to be my response to it in particular, but it’s been showing up more and more in all parts of society.[2]

So, getting back to where I started, right now in the US, the NFL seems to have brought their anthem controversy to a head by officially banning players from taking a knee. They are allowing players to stay in their locker rooms during the anthem, but for the players to do so would have the effect of agreeing with the owners’ opinion that their protest is inappropriate. At the time of this writing it remains to be seen how the protesting players will respond, but it’s a depressing turn of events.

Now, my opinion on this is a bit complex. First off, taking a knee during the anthem is a legitimate form of protest. That having been said, it is upsetting for a lot of people and as such it is a disruptive activity to engage in during something which is supposed to be politically neutral, like a sporting event. That, however, is the whole purpose behind protest. A protest that is convenient and easily ignored is a protest that will ultimately be ineffective.  By definition an effective protest is going to be disruptive and upsetting.

Taking a knee during a national anthem, burning a flag, giving the finger to the troops.  These are all forms of free speech.  They are not permitted, but in fact are are protected by our respective constitutions in Canada and the US.

This is the main reason I absolutely hate the pseudo-argument that goes: “You only have those rights because people like me defend them!  Show some respect!”  No.  Bullshit.  If rights can be taken away for capricious reasons, if they can be withheld on some random whim then they are not rights at all.  They are privileges.  I don’t serve to protect people’s privileges, and I sure as hell don’t serve so I can be the bully in the playground; going around evaluating whether other citizens are being respectful enough to my uniform.  A gesture of respect is meaningless unless it is given willingly.  A gesture of dissent must be protected whether it is given respectfully (in kneeling) or disrespectfully (like the asshole).

But for myself personally, I’m seriously uncomfortable with protests that involve perceived disrespect to national symbols. I don’t like it at all.  Something like an anthem or a flag can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people and the message of a protest is not always going to come through as clearly as it does with the kneeling players. You have a right to take a knee (or burn a flag or flip me off for that matter) but I’m personally reluctant to do this because it can easily come across as deeply disrespectful and you can’t always be sure your message will get through.[4]

So for me, when I see someone aiming a protest at a commonly held national symbol it’s a really uncomfortable moment. I see somebody doing something like this, my first thought is: ‘Gah! Nobody’s going to get what you’re talking about! You’re just picking a fight you don’t need!’  I flinch on a personal and visceral level.  Even when it’s done well and righteously, I don’t like it.

So for the record, if I’m in civvies[3] and the anthem is playing, I’m standing for it. But if someone like Colin Kapernick was beside me taking a knee? Well, I’d still stand, but I’d have a hand on his shoulder in support.

 
[1] There’s guys I know who would totally flip me off just for shits and giggles.  There’s guys I know that I would totally flip off, for the exact same reason.  A lot of these guys are good friends of mine.  I got some weird friends.

[2]As far as anthem-themed outrages are concerned, in Canada recently we had a ‘controversy’ over a proposal to change the lyrics to our national anthem O Canada from ‘In all our sons command’ to the more gender neutral ‘In all of us command.’ It never quite hit the toxic level that that kneeling during an anthem has in the United States, but I suspect that’s only because nobody ever forced the issue properly. On Facebook at least I got to see comments and memes circulated by friends I would have otherwise thought to be level headed, to the point where I’ve gone and blocked people during the last couple of elections.

[3] If I’m in uniform, it’s a different story. When you’re on duty you stand and salute for O Canada, and stand at attention for the anthem of friendly nations. Period.

[4] So that there’s no confusion, at the time that I wrote this sentence, I had already re-written this post three times and it was still only in draft form.  Being clear about my message is something that’s very important to me.

One thought on “Some Thoughts on Protests…

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