A Philosopher's Blog

Protests & Patriotism

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on October 7, 2016

Colin Kaepernick stirred up considerable controversy by protesting racial oppression in America during the national anthem. His main concern is with the oppression that he claims occurs in America.  While most of his critics acknowledge that he is within his legal rights, they believe that he should not exercise them in this manner. I will consider some of the objections against Kaepernick and also address some of the broader moral issues raised by this protest.

One tactic used against Kaepernick’s protest is to assert that his protest against oppression is invalidated because, as a rich and privileged NFL player, he is not personally oppressed. This approach is flawed in at least two ways. If the intent is to reject his claim that oppression exists by attacking him, then this is a mere ad hominem fallacy. This is a stock fallacy in which an attack on something about a person is taken as refuting a claim made by the person. This is a fallacy because the truth of a claim is independent of the qualities of a person making it. This is not to say that credibility is irrelevant, just that a person’s qualities do not bear on the actual truth of their claim.

This attack can also be seen as based on the view that only a victim of oppression or harm has the moral right to protest that oppression or harm. While this might have some appeal, it does seem fatally flawed. To illustrate, if this principle were accepted, then it would follow that only those killed by abortions would have the moral right to protest abortion. This would be absurd on the grounds that no protest of abortion would be possible because all those harmed by it would be dead and unable to protest. To add another illustration, only victims of crime could thus speak out against crime, which is also absurd. If the principle were taken somewhat more broadly, it would follow that only victims of cancer could try to raise awareness of cancer. As such, the claim that he is not himself oppressed has no bearing on the truth of his claims or his right to protest.

Another line of attack is to go after his character and allege that he is not sincere: he is protesting only to gain attention and bolster a flagging career. This approach can have merit in regards to the matter of whether or not he is a virtuous person. If he is not sincere and using the protest for personal gain, then he can be justly criticized on moral grounds. However, attacking him in this manner has no logical bearing on the truth of his assertions or the merit of his protest. This is just another ad hominem attack.

To use an analogy, a person who uses an opportunity to focus attention on cancer in order to engage in self-promotion is not a virtuous person, but this is irrelevant to whether or not cancer is a real problem. As such, his motivations are irrelevant to the validity of his protest.

There are those who take the approach that his protest is invalid because there is no oppression of blacks. Those who believe that oppression exists point to objective data regarding income, wealth, educational opportunities, hiring, sentencing, and so on that seem to show that oppression is both real and systematic.

Those who deny it either simply deny the data or explain it away. For example, the disproportionate arrest rates and harsher sentences are explained by alleging that blacks commit more and worse crimes than whites. Since this is an ideological issue tied to the social identity of many, the lines are rather solidly drawn: those who strongly deny the existence of oppression will generally never be convinced by data. Since they do not experience systematic oppression based on race, they also tend to claim that it does not exist because they have not experienced it—although some will claim that they have been mistreated for being white.

I do find the evidence for oppression convincing, but I am certain that those who disagree with me will not be convinced by any evidence or argument I can offer. Instead, they will attribute my belief to a distorted ideology. That said, perhaps an appeal can be made to the white people who believe that they are oppressed in various ways—they might be willing to admit that blacks are not excluded from this oppression. For example, Trump supporters often speak of how the system is rigged by the elites—they should be able to accept that there are many blacks who are also victims of these elites.  This might allow for some common ground in regards to accepting the existence of oppression in the United States. I now turn to the broader issue of whether or not it is morally acceptable to protest during the national anthem.

Critics of Kaepernick contend that protesting during the national anthem is disrespectful and most assert that this action is especially insulting to the troops. When considering the matter, it is well worth noting that the national anthem was first played at games as a means of attracting more paying customers. Given its use in this manner, it would seem somewhat problematic to attack Kaepernick for using it as an opportunity to protest. After all, he is using the opportunity to bring attention to injustice in America while its original use was simply to make more money. In this regard, he seems to have the moral high ground.

It could be replied that although it began as a marketing tool, it evolved into a sacred ritual that is being besmirched by protest. One line of criticism is that to protest during the national anthem is to disrespect the troops who died for the freedom of expression. This requires assuming that the purpose of playing the anthem at games is to honor the troops—which might be the case. However, if the troops did die for, among other rights, the freedom of expression then the exercise of that right would seem to be a legitimate means of honoring these troops. Endeavoring to silence people would seem to be an insult to those who are said to have died for the right of free expression. That said, there is certainly a reasonable moral concern in regards to decorum during the national anthem, just as there are also such concerns regarding behavior at any time. Kaepernick’s protest seems to be a very polite and respectful protest and thus does not seem problematic in this regard. Others, of course disagree.

Some of the critics merely want him to stop protesting in this manner. Others such as Trump, go beyond this and engage in a classic reply to those who criticize America: if you do not like how things are, then leave the country.

On the one hand, it could be argued that is a reasonable response. To use an analogy, if a person does not like their marriage or neighborhood, then leaving would be a good idea. Likewise, if a person does not like their country, then they should simply depart in search of one more to their liking. This view seems to fit well with the idea that one should be for their country “wrong or right” and not be critical. True patriotism, one might say, is simply accepting one’s country as it is and not engaging in protest. It is, of course, weirdly ironic that Trump is telling Kaepernick to leave, given that Trump relentlessly spews about how awful things are in America and how it needs to be made great again.

On the other hand, this response can be seen as tactic aimed at silencing criticism without considering whether the criticism has merit. Going back to the analogies to marriage and a neighborhood, a person who believes there are problems with either could be justly criticized for simply abandoning them without making any attempt to address what they dislike. A true patriot, it could be argued, would no more remain silent in the face of problems with their country than a true friend would remain silent when their friend needed an intervention. This view is, of course, not original to me. Henry David Thoreau noted that “A very few—as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men—serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it.” I do not, of course, know Kaepernick’s true motivations. But, his calling attention to the problems of the United States with the expressed desire to improve America can be reasonably regarded as a patriotic act. That is, after all, what a true patriot does: they do not remain silent in the face of evil and defects, they take action to make their country both good and great.


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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on October 7, 2016 at 8:18 am

  2. TJB said, on October 7, 2016 at 9:32 am

    Here’s the problem, Mike.

    Blacks feel oppressed, women feel oppressed, Muslims feel oppressed, Latinos feel oppressed, Asians feel oppressed, and American Indians feel oppressed.

    Supposedly the ones that are doing all the oppressing are white males, which make up about 30% of the population.

    And yet, if you look into the situation, most white males are not doing very well. They are falling behind in school and dropping out of the labor force. They are becoming increasingly irrelevant.

    The “quiet catastrophe” is particularly dismaying because it is so quiet, without social turmoil or even debate. It is this: After 88 consecutive months of the economic expansion that began in June 2009, a smaller percentage of American males in the prime working years (ages 25 to 54) are working than were working near the end of the Great Depression in 1940, when the unemployment rate was above 14 percent. If the labor-force participation rate were as high today as it was as recently as 2000, nearly 10 million more Americans would have jobs.


    So now we are left with the white males who are powerful, say 10% of the population. These are the hated 1%. These are the oppressors. And yet if you look at their politics they are overwhelmingly creatures of the left, vote Democratic, and have all the “correct” opinions.

    So what is there to do? Obviously, the thing to do is to blame uneducated white men, who have no job, no power, and no money. Those are the oppressors.

  3. David Halbstein said, on October 7, 2016 at 1:47 pm

    Colin Kaepernick is being paid large sums of money to play football. For him to exploit this national stage to further his own agenda is a disingenuous act. If I had an employee whom I hired for one purpose, and that employee started to use the stage that I provided for him for his own purpose, I would be within my rights to fire him, whether I agreed with his position or not. Imagine if I had a sales representative for whom I provided a company car and other travel expenses – and this person went to a conference and made a public protest about some issue – it is just not appropriate.

    If Colin Kaepernick wants to use his fame and notoriety to purchase ad space during the games, or to go and climb on a soapbox at the Mall of America, I completely support his right to do that – but he is usurping a stage that others have paid millions of dollars for for an unintended purpose. Everyone on that field has a cause they believe in – from charitable causes to products to family values to abortion to any of a hundred others – but a televised airing of a football game, paid for by advertisers, subscribers, cable TV outlets, season ticket holders and others is the wrong forum to air those opinions. His protest is likely to be a violation of his contract or agreement, and certainly is a a violation of the private property rights of all those investors and viewers. Imagine if the star of a live television show suddenly decided to go off-script and talk about their cause célèbre.

    The first amendment guarantees that a person has the right to redress government and in a broader sense, to speak out against injustice – but it does not guarantee that person a forum for his protests, nor does it say that anyone is required to provide such a forum.

    But, as “freedom of speech” and capitalism would have it, there has been some appropriate blowback to his actions. According to “The Sporting News”, a full 1/3 of NFL TV viewers are boycotting games because of these protests.

    This issue is completely and entirely apart from what I think about the subject matter of his protest. I may agree or disagree with him wholeheartedly, but when I plunk down my money to pay for my cable-tv subscription, I want to watch football. Let him get his attention elsewhere.

    (Disclaimer – I have also exercised my freedom of expression by canceling my subscription to cable TV; I did this years ago and it has nothing to do with Kaepernick – I was just making a point).

    • nailheadtom said, on October 9, 2016 at 10:44 am

      “certainly is a a violation of the private property rights of all those investors and viewers.”

      In what way? The guy is simply assuming a different posture than others at a particular moment. It has nothing to do with the game itself. Furthermore, he’s making no verbal statement of any kind. It’s being interpreted by others, although he has given his own interpretation after the fact.

      If American culture is so flimsy and fragile that the rather mundane behavior of an athlete represents an existential threat, there are bigger problems than Colin Kaepernick .

      • david halbstein said, on October 9, 2016 at 2:20 pm

        Well, I disagree with your characterization of the act – he is a public figure and, verbally or non-verbally, he is making a public protest in a forum where he is afforded national attention. He is not “simply assuming a different posture than others at a particular moment” nor is it “rather mundane behavior” and you know it. I think that Kaepernick himself would probably take issue with that characterization. This act was important and meaningful to him and for you to downplay it like that strips it of its importance and dilutes the message he is trying to convey.

        I don’t begrudge him the right to take advantage of his notoriety to bring attention to a cause he believes in – in fact, I support that right wholeheartedly. And I am not even close to suggesting that his behavior (which I would NOT characterize as “mundane”) represents an existential threat to anything.

        My point is simply that he is exploiting a forum that is not his to exploit. He is taking something that belongs to someone else and using it for his own purposes without their consent.

        The bottom line, though, is that he has committed no crime. He has stirred up controversy, which is what he intended to do. You and I are both expressing our views, which is our fundamental right as Americans – and no one is shutting us up. If they were, THAT would be an existential threat. However, you and I are writing on a blog space that is intended for that purpose. We could also go into a public square and make speeches, or we could hire a hall and hold a rally. We can NOT hold this rally or express our views in our workplace, if that workplace has been provided by someone else and in which we have no ownership stake – unless we had the permission of the owner. If we did, we would risk being dismissed or censured – not for what we say, but for using someone else’s property as a forum for our protest without their consent.

        I think I said in my initial post that it’s not a matter of whether or not I agree with his protest or his right to voice his opinion – it’s merely a workplace issue. If his team, if the NFL, if the broadcasters and cable companies are OK with it, then so am I; in return, if I disagree with him, I have the right to turn off the game.

        • nailheadtom said, on October 9, 2016 at 10:44 pm

          You’ve made good points. “if I disagree with him, I have the right to turn off the game.” But, why would you? If you’re interested in the game itself, why would his behavior, sedate as it is, inspiring disagreement on your part, make you want to turn it off? Or, are you interested primarily in the pre-game ceremonials and the flag/anthem thing? That may indeed be the main attraction for some viewers.

          Aside from that, what’s with the culturally required national anthem before a sporting event anyway? Why isn’t a recording of it played before we plunge into our labors at the salt mine every morning? It was once played when television stations signed off the air but apparently they’re a 24 hr. thing now so some of us that aren’t into sports are forgetting the words. And if it’s so important, why isn’t it played after every touchdown and hockey goal? Slightly inebriated fans probably forget that they’re in the land of the free and the home of the brave. By the way: http://nailheadtom.blogspot.com/2016/09/kids-appreciation-day.html

          • Anonymous said, on October 10, 2016 at 11:48 am

            ” But, why would you?” The answer to that is simple – it’s my voice,it’s my opinion. Some call it “Voting with my feet” or “Voting with my wallet”.

            In this case, a lot of people felt this way – as I mentioned in my initial blog something like 1/3 of 49er’s fans did exactly that – turned off the game – causing enough of a drop in revenue to raise some eyebrows at the top. After all, football is not a fundamental right of all Americans, it’s an entertainment program.

            If people are not entertained for whatever reason, they will stop watching, and if they stop watching, the program will change. That’s the way capitalism or the free market works.

            And I don’t think I need to go into much detail about what I find entertaining – maybe I like dirty jokes; maybe I hate it when movies have foul language in their dialogue. Maybe I don’t watch the Academy Awards because too many actors use the podium to spout their political opinions that I don’t care about. It’s just my choice.

            As for the national anthem, there are plenty of articles around the web explaining that phenomenon. I bet if enough people stopped watching because of it, they’d pull it from the ceremony. As long as it makes money, they’ll keep doing it.

            • nailheadtom said, on October 10, 2016 at 1:36 pm

              ” something like 1/3 of 49er’s fans did exactly that – turned off the game – causing enough of a drop in revenue to raise some eyebrows at the top.”

              You, or some bogus reference, are simply making that up. Nobody knows how many viewers, if any, pulled the plug on the giant flat screen over the player’s behavior. If this was so outrageous as to offend legions of television addicts, why would the show’s director even allow the scene to be broadcast? Certainly the technicians at the game are capable of showing some other player gazing lovingly at the flag with hand over number on heart. Remember streakers? They were never shown on broadcasts in an effort to discourage the practice, a policy that continues to this day with other non-players invading the arena. Janet Jackson’s escaped mammary at a Super Bowl half-time entertainment in 2009 provided a huge boost to her moribund musical career. Bad pub is better than no pub. If there’s one thing that the entertainment industry, which includes the NFL, can’t stand it’s being ignored. They’re loving this free publicity that they couldn’t buy.

  4. ajmacdonaldjr said, on October 7, 2016 at 6:27 pm

  5. DH said, on October 10, 2016 at 7:10 pm

    @nailheadtom – there was no “Reply” button under your most recent post. I don’t make things up – maybe the Sporting News or Rasmussen does.


    “They’re loving this free publicity that they couldn’t buy.”

    Not if it means decreased ratings and loss of revenue.


    • nailheadtom said, on October 11, 2016 at 9:45 am

      This must mean that you or me will be able to cheaply purchase an existing or new NFL franchise, get local elected officials to build a new stadium and sign a contract for a somewhat lower cost television rights package. Where do we sign up?

  6. DH said, on October 11, 2016 at 6:20 pm

    Your sarcasm is noted. The bottom line is that I am a consumer, and sometimes the only voice I have when faced with a big conglomerate with whom I disagree on any level is to not do business with them; I do this routinely as a matter of choice. You may criticize me for this and ask “What does that have to do with the product you’re getting?” but that’s not really your problem or decision to make. You only have to live with yourself, and take whatever you are willing to take. When I can ask, “How badly do I want this service, and what am I willing to put up with in order to get it?” that choice is empowering to me, if only on a very small level.

    Of course, in this case it’s hypothetical because I don’t watch 49ers football, and I don’t really care about Kaepernick and his protests – but I did stop watching the Jets because I find Michael Vick to be a despicable human being and I was critical of the franchise for setting aside his cruelty to animals in exchange for his star power. Nor do I care if anyone responds to that small voice of mine – it’s one less thing I have to put up with and that gives me a small amount of satisfaction.

    On the other hand, I’m sure that if you ran a business and you found that there was something that was causing you to lose revenue, I’m sure you would do whatever was in your power to stop that loss. In this case, polls show that the protests against Kaepernick are non-trivial. There is a measurable loss as a direct result of his actions. So the owners can censure him, they can tell him to stop, they can bring suit against him, they can negotiate with the broadcasters and refuse to draw any attention to him, they can fire him, or they can do nothing. I don’t really care, other than being interested in how it plays out. In this case, I side with the fans – if enough of them object to Kaepernick’s actions, collectively their voice can have some effect.

    You can be flip about it if you want, but in my mind this kind of act is why I will almost always choose the free market over government. I don’t have to respect or believe in either – I can acknowledge that CEOs are just as despicable and corrupt as politicians – but with business I can opt out. If my voice does not matter, I still don’t have to play. If I don’t like to pay my taxes or if I don’t like what is being done with them, I can certainly voice my opinion and cast my vote – but if I don’t play their game their way, I will go to prison.

  7. nailheadtom said, on October 11, 2016 at 8:32 pm

    I’ve not seen a copy of the contracts between the NFL, the television broadcasters and the advertisers but I’m skeptical that the monetary dimensions of these contracts are determined by the results of a Rasmussen poll after every game. The contract is between the league itself and the television networks, not the individual teams, and extends far into the future. http://www.forbes.com/sites/kurtbadenhausen/2011/12/14/the-nfl-signs-tv-deals-worth-26-billion/#1c44d1202a67 No business has lost dime one because of the Kaepernick felony.

    You have alluded to an important aspect of your own argument. Polls are meaningless in a business sense because votes and opinions aren’t counted, dollars are. The consumer, as you state, votes for or against a business with his money. That’s what counts. In this case, however, neither the NFL or the broadcasters have lost anything. In fact, they already have the money for many games to come.

  8. DH said, on October 12, 2016 at 2:03 pm

    “monetary dimensions of these contracts are determined by the results of a Rasmussen poll after every game” Of course they aren’t, and of course you know that. Mike would call this argument “Reductio Ad Absurdum”

    You missed the most important part of my argument, which is “I don’t care”. What I do care about is that if I don’t like anything about something that is being handed to me by a large (or small) business, I can refuse to buy. Whether this attitude has any bearing on their decisions is purely secondary to me. I like having the choice, whether it guides their actions or not.

    I haven’t seen the contract either, but I wasn’t privy to that of Howard Stern, Don Imus, or Charlie Sheen, either. In those cases, each of those people said or did something that a large number of people found distasteful or offensive, Viewership, or listenership was down, advertisers pulled their ads, revenue for the stations plummeted, their controversial actions were censured, they were let go.

    So you’re correct, polling means nothing, but viewership does. Viewership is what ad buys are based on, which means revenue for whomever is on that side of the contract – the NFL, the TV stations, the teams – whoever. I really don’t want to get into this argument with you – if it’s that important to you I’ll concede and you can win. I will exercise my own freedom of choice and turn off the TV AND this argument. In both cases, they have lost their charm.

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