Why is it that drivers stop every time they reach a stop sign, even if there isn’t another car in sight? Regardless of language barriers, why does a smile universally signify a warm and welcoming feeling? The answer to both these questions and many more like it come from a sociological theory known as semiotics. Throughout our lives, we are conditioned to ascribe certain meanings to various symbols and gestures. Some are taught to us, some are ingrained in us and others we understand through social conditioning.
So, what does any of this have to do with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick? On August 26th, Kaepernick didn’t stand for the national anthem during a preseason game against the Green Bay Packers. Immediately upon the game’s conclusion, he clarified what his protest meant. He wasn’t protesting against the military or American patriotism. Instead, he was making a stand against social injustice and police brutality against minorities.
The decision by Kaep garnered almost immediate reaction, with people on both sides of the issue chiming in. Supporters of Kaep’s protest called him courageous and bold. Detractors of his protest called him spoiled, ungrateful and disrespectful.
Unlike a stop sign, the meaning of the American flag isn’t objective or concrete. There is no correct way or incorrect way to interpret the feelings one has when they see the flag waving and they hear the national anthem playing. It’s safe to assume an American Indian, an American Muslim and an American Christian will view the American flag and each feel something different as they look at each stripe and each star. All three of their interpretations are completely valid, however. Just because the feeing they’ve attributed to the flag doesn’t match up with yours doesn’t automatically make their feeling wrong.
It’s a widely accepted and a commonly held belief that our flag is a symbol which represents the courageous sacrifices of our military, American patriotism and freedom. While it’s completely fine and understandable to feel this way, it’s important to remember that this interpretation isn’t the only one. The national anthem combined with the waving flag before a sporting event is undeniably an emotional experience. To assume everyone is having the same emotional experience, however, is unfair.
So, when Colin Kaepernick, USWNT member Megan Rapinoe, Arian Foster, Brandon Marshall (not the one on the Jets, Twitter eggs) and countless other athletes decide to kneel when the national anthem is being played, consider viewing this expression through a semiotic lens. Kaepernick has stated and emphasized multiple times this protest isn’t meant to degrade the sacrifice and bravery of American military members. To Kaep and many others, the American flag isn’t a direct representation of their courage, as it is for so many. While I won’t get into the politics of exactly what Kaep has been advocating, it’s important to remember why he’s protesting. When individuals claim he’s bashing America or disrespecting the troops, they are muddying the waters. Again, the flag isn’t a stop sign. If you’re driving with your friend and he rips through a stop sign, that action is objectively wrong. You both know it. There is no room for interpretation. A flag and a stop sign are different types of symbols, however. A stop sign evokes no real emotional response. A flag, however, means something different to everyone. Kaep’s experience as an American citizen and the feelings he has aren’t invalid because you disagree with them or because he’s a spoiled, rich athlete. You have every right to disagree with his protest, mind you. But when you draw attention away from the social injustice he’s protesting and make it about perceived disrespect to America, you’re falling into the trap of assuming everyone interprets a complex symbol the exact same way you do. If semiotics has taught us anything it’s that interpretation is literally up for interpretation.
In conclusion, I’m not telling you agree or disagree with Colin Kaepernack or the other athletes who are currently sparking this controversial debate. You as an individual are shaped by your personal experiences and those experiences will influence the way you perceive divisive events. I will tell you to remember that certain symbols, like a flag, are not objective symbols. While conventional Patriotic wisdom draws a direct correlation to the way one acts when the national anthem is being played, it doesn’t necessarily need to be that way. Besides the fact that expressing oneself freely is as American as a rare hamburger, it’s possible to love your country and still feel it needs improvement. Colin Kaepernick doesn’t hate America. He doesn’t hate the military. If you disagree with the social injustice he’s protesting, so be it. You’re allowed to. Just don’t turn this protest into something it’s not.