My stance on the NFL players who choose to take a knee during the National Anthem is the same as it was on Colin Kaepernick’s decision in fall of 2016. I was not offended by this activism, nor have I been offended by any burning or spray painting of the flag. I firmly believe that the American flag, National Anthem, and all the symbology they contain belongs to the American people, not the military or veterans.
My reasons for believing this are tired rhetoric. Activists have a right to express their political views, even in potentially offensive ways, and those that disagree have a right to voice their criticisms. This applies to a player taking a knee, an activist flying the Confederate flag, a professor who pursues the purpose of their profession by offering alternative, even controversial, viewpoints.
If you believe the above paragraphs are cop-outs, they are. This is because the issue is not about free speech concerns between an individual and the government. No one, at least no rational person, is calling for NFL players to be arrested and thrown in jail for kneeling. Instead, the complexity of the free speech debate is between the individual and society.
This debate elicits a variety of related hypotheticals: Does a store have a right to discriminate against gay couples based on religious principles? Can Google fire an employee who shares an opinion? Can a private college sanction a professor who retweets a controversial article? Can Wesleyan forcefully order or shame this author to shut up?
There appears to be a significant number of activist leaders and media analysts who change their opinion on the above questions depending on the details of the situation, not on any principle. Free speech advocates that shamed Wesleyan are suspiciously silent when a professor at Trinity is threatened with sanctions. Activist leaders and media pundits who dismissed the rights of Confederate flag wavers are apoplectic about the violation of the NFL players’ freedom of speech.
Why is it that when a member of the left shoots at Republican representatives, the rush from the left is to call for unity, while the right demands their pound of flesh; but when a member of the right drives a car into a crowd, the right calls for unity and the left demands their pound of flesh? If “silence is violence,” a frequent rhetorical device I heard after Charlottesville, what does it mean that the left was largely silent after a shooter targeted a GOP baseball practice? Why did President Michael Roth feel the need to spill ink after one incident, but not the other? This is not an attempt at false equivalency. It is a search for legitimacy.
The inconsistencies raised with these questions exposes the first principle these activist leaders adhere to—they want to win, at any cost. It is extremely disconcerting to see genuinely virtuous activists being led by those who are willing to throw away their principles when the alternative means admitting that the “other” side is correct.
It is leading to increased conflict in America, where after each such incident there is a struggle to exact a scalp for the indiscretion. Sometimes the person is fired or sanctioned, sometimes the defense of the offensive act prevails. But there is no legitimacy to any of the rhetoric: both sides are pointing at each other and crying, “bigots!”
Is society allowed to punish those who say things that they disagree with? This is the core of the conflict, the issue that was raised by President Donald J. Trump, who called for the players that kneeled to be fired or sanctioned. Everything else, to me, is a distraction.
If we want to legitimately say, “yes, society can punish people in the private sector,” we must apply this across the board. This means that Google can fire an employee who has a viewpoint that offends others, it means the NFL can fire players who offend their customers and damage their brand name, and it means that private colleges can fire professors or kick students off campus for their speech.
Don’t individuals have a right to express their beliefs? A frequent answer I hear is “freedom of speech is not freedom from the consequences of that speech.” I believe this is patently false and chills free speech. If you disagree, where do you stand on Trump’s call for players to face consequences? If the Constitution is our model, then the government is not allowed to enact even the slightest punishment or consequence upon individuals who legally express their freedom of speech. People have a right to voice their criticisms, but to demand that the individual be fired, sanctioned, forced to leave campus, or shunned from society in any way is unjust according to our values.
If we say, “no, society is not allowed to punish people in the private sector,” then that too must be applied in all cases. This means that employees cannot be fired for statements they make on social media, private colleges cannot sanction professors or students for their speech, and the NFL cannot fire players who kneel during the National Anthem. It would mean incorporating the First Amendment into private society, or at least into business.
This also leads to uncomfortable hypothetical situations: what if an employee could come into work dressed in a Confederate flag, put down their swastika-decorated coffee mug, shoot out a salute to a picture of Richard Spencer, and proceed to rant about minorities ruining the country all without having to fear for their job? Other employees would be allowed to voice their disagreement, but unless the white supremacist was bad at their job, the company would have no grounds to fire him or her. Understandably, and rightfully, offended employees would quit because they deserve to work and live in places which they can feel comfortable and achieve their full potential. It is the ‘tolerance of intolerance’ problem which confounds liberal democracy.
I do not know which answer is better in the absolute, but my inclination is that society should be extremely hesitant to enact consequences on those who express controversial opinions. In the cases of extreme and overt hate, such as the hypothetical white supremacist example above, the benefits of pushing them to the edge of society outweigh the tyranny of doing so; I think both sides can agree on this in principle. Even in this extreme case, we must be watchful for disingenuous activists who attempt to paint those who disagree with their views as a racist or hatemonger or anti-American to ward off non-hateful criticisms.
Finding the middle between these two answers requires citizens to act in good faith, and to assume good intent from opposing sides. It also means admitting that our ideologies are not perfect and acknowledging that we are wrong when the other side has a stronger argument. Finally, it means having a virtue or set of values as our first principle.
President Roth addresses the issue of freedom of speech between the individual and society in a recent blog post. I believe it contains many valid points.
Stascavage is a member of the class of 2018 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.