“I think it’s a misunderstanding.”
So answered San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick when asked what he thought about being booed for refusing to stand during the national anthem at last week’s preseason game against the San Diego Chargers.
He was right. It was a misunderstanding. And that’s precisely the problem with symbols and symbolic gestures in the realm of political debate — they’re understood by different people in different ways, and not always in ways consistent with original intent. By choosing not to stand (he sat on the bench during the anthem for the Aug. 26 game against Green Bay and knelt during the anthem for the Sept. 1 game in San Diego), Kaepernick wants to say something about racial injustice. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told the NFL Network after the Packers game. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”
Kaepernick evidently has some strong views on this subject, but what are they, exactly? Does he believe, say, that most Americans are racists? That most police officers target African Americans for harassment? That the United States as a whole deliberately and systematically persecutes African Americans? Somehow I doubt he would agree with any of these things without qualification — and yet they are all rational inferences from his refusal to honor the flag of a “country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
When pressed further to explain his views after the Chargers game, he wasn’t helpful. What was he trying to convey? “The message is that we have a lot of issues in this country that we need to deal with. We have a lot of people that are oppressed. We have a lot of people that aren’t treated equally, aren’t given equal opportunities. Police brutality is a huge thing that needs to be addressed. There are a lot of issues that need to be talked about, need to be brought to life, and we need to fix those.” President Obama reinforced that message on Monday. “If nothing else,” the president said, “what he’s done is he’s generated more conversation around some topics that need to be talked about.” Reminding Americans that they need to “talk about” and “deal with” a problem that already consumes them is not, perhaps, the wisest of political exhortations. And in any case, one wonders what nation in the history of the world has not had dire “issues” that needed to be talked about and dealt with. Has there ever been a nation sufficiently issue-free to merit Kaepernick’s reverence?
What was the pop singer Beyoncé, for instance, trying to say in her music video for “Formation”? In the video, we see the singer in one scene sitting atop a New Orleans police vehicle submerged in water, and in another raising a middle finger to the camera; then we see a hooded black youth standing in front of a line of police officers with their hands up, and a wall bearing the graffito “stop shooting us.” In one sense, her meaning seems obvious — she wants police officers to stop shooting black men without cause. But taken together, and without any interpretation to guide us, we might reasonably conclude that Beyoncé is denouncing police officers as a group — or the United States itself — as racist. Hence the pop singer’s remark to Elle magazine: “I’m an artist and I think the most powerful art is usually misunderstood. But anyone who perceives my message as anti-police is completely mistaken.”
Or, going further back, what exactly did Sinead O’Connor mean, in her notorious 1992 stunt on “Saturday Night Live,” by ripping up a picture of Pope John Paul II and proclaiming, “Fight the real enemy”? And what did Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the Olympians who at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City raised fists at their awards ceremony, mean to communicate? There are answers to all these questions — in fact there are scores of answers to them, which is why the instigators of such symbolic stunts usually spend more energy explaining what they didn’t mean than what they did. They have strong views, and their views may deserve consideration, but their gestures do little but generate metaphorical “conversations” consisting chiefly of misunderstanding and acrimony.
None of this is to suggest that symbolic acts are always worthless. The Old Testament prophets made some pretty bizarre symbolic statements about their governments, and they interpreted those statements in sharply controversial ways. When African Americans in Montgomery, Ala., refused to give up their seats on public buses, the aim was clear and their message peremptory: an end to segregation on buses and, by extension, all public places. When a young man stood in front of a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989, he wasn’t simply or literally trying to stop the tanks from moving forward; he was saying that the protesters weren’t afraid of their government and that the desire for political freedom wouldn’t be vanquished by military force.
These latter instances raise an important point about protests against entire societies. Rosa Parks and her allied nonconformists had themselves been treated abominably by their government. The protester at Tiananmen Square had neither notoriety nor influence; indeed his identity is still unknown. What Kaepernick, Beyoncé and the rest haven’t grasped is that the acquisition of fame and extreme wealth increases the need for lucidity in their political pronouncements. The likelihood is high that their complaints, however legitimate in the abstract, will be interpreted by the majority as the whiny ingratitude of rich kids. Even if Kaepernick’s refusal to stand has consequences for his career — even if, as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar pointed out in a Post op-ed defending the quarterback, his actions could “cost him millions in future endorsements and affect his value as a player” — that hardly compares to the risk of imprisonment and death.
Famous athletes and entertainers may have legitimate concerns, and of course they have a right to be heard. But if they don’t take care to communicate with precision, they can’t expect to be interpreted in the way they would prefer.