Wednesday, October 31, 2018

On peaceful protests and respecting veterans

The following is a revision of an essay posted previously on this blog.

Photo by Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP
When I was in high school, I participated in competitive speech. I favored extemporaneous speaking and oratories more than debating. The closest I ever got to debate was student congress where we would write and present bills, debate them and put them to a vote that was binding to no one and meant absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things but at least familiarized us with Robert’s Rules of Order and gave us a vague idea of how the legislative process was supposed to work in this country.

I sat in on a couple of meetings for the Lincoln-Douglas debate competition one year. The topic to be debated was flag burning. I was not aware, prior to the second meeting, that we would be required to come up with arguments for both sides of the matter. Naive patriot and budding narcissist that I was, I could not bring myself to argue for both sides of an issue that I personally felt very strongly about. I decided that the Lincoln-Douglas format wasn’t for me and I would stick to competitive categories that I was more comfortable with.

As I’ve matured, I’ve learned to be more open-minded and listen to the ideas and opinions of others with varied backgrounds and ways of thinking; as a result, my views on numerous topics, including visible forms of protest, have evolved and—I hope—will continue to do so. Of course, growing up in the last quarter of the 20th century, I still had to learn to be patient when it came to expanding my horizons and doing my own research. One couldn’t just go “online” to learn about a topic, one went to a library, to school, to bookstores. Print journalism and the evening news were the standards for learning about current events and social issues and one arranged their schedule around the hours of operation of all those institutions. Whether one is working toward a degree or just trying to be an informed citizen before casting their vote, the way that people are educated and educate themselves has changed dramatically in my lifetime. Becoming easier as far as being able to access information and more difficult because of the increased need to filter misinformation. The challenge to distinguish between “satirical”—i.e. deliberately misleading—content sites selling ad-space with click-bait headlines and actual news sources being constantly accused of “bias” is difficult enough. Add to this problem the significant decline of quality public education and the decreased emphasis on teaching critical-thinking skills and it’s been very difficult for me not to become more cynical.

Through my adult life, I’ve witnessed conversations among friends and co-workers on various subjects migrate from the water cooler or break room the next day to various social media platforms in near real-time. The hashtag (#) helping people to both keep their opinions on-topic and to know what’s “trending.” The speed at which information and opinions can be shared seems to have also created a sense of urgency when it comes to contributing to the discourse, lest we fall behind as a new topic, event or controversy comes to dominate the news-cycle. Unfortunately, that earnestness to chime in with an opinion comes at the expense of doing so in a manner that is informed and helpful.

It appears that acts of peaceful protest—and not so peaceful counter-protests—are on the rise. From the Women’s March to the March for our Lives. The actions of Colin Kaepernick—and many thereafter—protesting the systemic oppression of people of color. Black Lives Matter, The Rise for Climate march, The Years Project and the March for Science advocating for social justice, protection of the environment, addressing climate change and renewing public trust in scientific knowledge. It has been reported that protests in America are at an all-time high influenced in part by the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

As I scroll through news feeds on social media, I’m simultaneously fascinated and discouraged by the various opinions that I read in response to different forms of protest. To use the act of burning the American flag as an example, calls for criminal consequences—up to and including being stripped of U.S. citizenship—for that particular act gets a lot of play among conservatives; free speech and Supreme Court precedent be damned, apparently. The act of kneeling in leu of standing during the U.S. national anthem at professional sporting events has also garnered headlines, though the reasons behind the former act tend to be drowned out by the cries of those who claim to be offended by it, the latter act is somewhat less divisive.

I’m of the opinion that to be offended is a choice rooted in anger—which is a secondary emotion, triggered by other feelings like embarrassment, shame or fear. The chain of emotional events is so rapid that it can be difficult to distinguish, especially for the person experiencing them. One can break it down like this:

Person A makes a statement or commits an action. 
Person B reads/hears the statement or witnesses the action and has an emotional response such as fear. 
People don’t usually like to feel afraid. Feeling afraid makes us think that others are perceiving us as BEING afraid, fearful, cowardly, vulnerable, weak. This thinking can make us feel ashamed or embarrassed and our instinct is to eliminate the perception of weakness by putting on a display of strength, usually in the form of acting angry. Choosing to couch that anger in terms of “being offended,” Person B attempts to shift blame for their own feelings onto Person A. In an effort to make Person A feel more ashamed, to appear weaker and/or feel even more vulnerable, Person B may even make inferences about Person A and the reasoning behind their “offensive” statement or act.

A person may burn a country’s flag to protest any number of perceived injustices ostensibly committed by the government that the flag represents. Said person may very well preface their act with a clear statement articulating precisely what they are protesting. However—regardless of the reason(s), shared or not—their purpose for the protest is almost always overshadowed by the act itself. Once that ensign is set on fire, many people don’t see someone protesting an injustice. They just see someone who “hates” a country and/or its people.

Photo by by Jennifer Lee Chan
Prior to a preseason game in 2016, as his teammates stood for the duration of the U.S. National Anthem, Colin Kaepernick remained seated in silent protest against the continued oppression of people of color and the disproportionate amount of police brutality inflicted on African-Americans and the response to his protest was also silence. He sat for the anthem during a second preseason game and still no one said anything. The third time he sat out the anthem, someone finally noticed and a lot of people had something to say about it. The decision to kneel—conceived as a gesture that was both respectful and powerful—was made on the advice of Nate Boyer, a retired Army Green Beret and former NFL player.

The choice of professional athletes to follow Kaepernick’s lead and to kneel during the national anthem in solidarity with him and to “…use [their] platform, provided to [them] by being professional athletes in the N.F.L., to speak for those who are voiceless…” has resulted in backlash similar to that resulting from burning the American flag including self-righteous—and often self-serving—claims of offense and the inference of disrespect to members of the military. None of these displays was more over-the-top—and unnecessarily costly to the public—than Vice President Mike Pence’s supposedly impromptu early exit from an NFL game. His stated reason, “…I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem.” I can only wonder if anyone bothered to inform the VP of the actual reason the players were kneeling.

I find it interesting to note that the histrionic outrage has not risen to the point where those who have chosen to take offense have completely drowned out the problem that motivated the original protest. Instead, the protests and the professional ramifications—conspicuously focussed on Kaepernick—have actually helped to start a much needed dialogue on the subject of police violence toward people of color. It’s probably because kneeling during the national anthem isn’t nearly as offensive as burning an American flag on the fifty-yard line.

Flag burning is a feckless way to bring attention to any cause. Nobody cares about what one might be protesting—even if it’s a completely legitimate complaint that effects everyone equally—if one chooses to focus their act of protest on a revered symbol. The “desecration” of the emblem will be the headline, not the injustice that inspired it.

Where burning the American flag is concerned, those who set flame to fabric may find themselves labeled with political pejoratives and/or are accused of symbolically spitting on “our heroes.” i.e. military veterans.

I recall a comment that really stood out to me which read, “Burning the American Flag is a hate crime against veterans.”

As a veteran myself—as well as a member of an ethnic minority—I found this statement to be somewhat hyperbolic. When I think of a “hate crime,” my thoughts turn to acts of violence committed directly against members of marginalized groups motivated solely by the fact that the victims are members of those groups.

I don’t know if flag burning can be considered an act of violence toward any person or group. An act of protest? Obviously. An act of defiance? Sure. An act specifically intended to offend others? Maybe, but protesting, being defiant or even offensive aren’t hate crimes in and of themselves. Regardless of the motivation behind it, flag burning is not a criminal act. Laws have been passed to criminalize flag-burning and those same laws have been struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional as per The First Amendment—thus invalid and unenforceable. As of this post, the NFL is still discussing whether or not to implement a formal policy regarding players’ actions during the performance of the National Anthem.

As for my own feelings regarding peaceful protests—regardless of what form they may take—I have to consider my own principles and loyalties. When I served in the United States Navy, I took an oath to protect and defend the U.S. Constitution which means that my job was to protect the constitutional rights of my fellow citizens including their right to express themselves however they want to.

Regardless of how a U.S. citizen chooses to protest an injustice or celebrate something they feel passionate about, they are exercising a right that I helped to protect. I may or may not agree with their sentiments, politics or even their preferred form of expression, but I also can’t square taking offense for something I swore to defend, to say nothing of trying to take away someone’s constitutional rights through criminalization of a symbolic act of self-expression.

Frankly, if there’s anything that I find offensive as a veteran, it’s the apathy of people who refuse to exercise their rights at all. To speak, to vote, to participate in social discourse.

It seems to me that since 9/11, it’s become in vogue—upon learning of someone’s status as a veteran—to say, “Thank you for your service.” I personally don’t care to be verbally thanked for my service. I volunteered and did my job but I don’t put on any airs about my time in the military. I wasn’t very good at keeping up with all the required decorum and was a “model” sailor only in the sense that a model is a cheap imitation of an original. When the opportunity to reenlist presented itself, I thought it best not to.

Photo credit: TheodoreWLee
via / CC BY-NC-ND
If Americans want to genuinely thank veterans for their service, they shouldn’t just say it. They should show it. They should do something, like exercising the rights all veterans served to protect, and not try to take those same rights away from others over a difference of opinion. If Americans want to sincerely honor veterans, they should support legislation that actively helps veterans in need of housing, healthcare and employment. Among the adult homeless population, 11% are veterans. Americans who want to truly thank their veterans should vote into office public servants that understand that when active military service ends, veterans still need and deserve the support of their country and its citizens.

Vocally thanking a veteran for their service means nothing if all one does afterward is take offense at flag-burning or kneeling during the national anthem and then vote into office politicians who are just as vocal in their outrage over symbolic acts as they are their moral support of veterans while surreptitiously backing legislation to dismantle programs that exist specifically to help those same veterans.