The Rhetoric of Anthems and the Drama of Kneeling

screen-shot-2016-09-13-at-5-52-49-pmI don’t follow sports, so I don’t feel fully equipped to comment on the issue, but when a friend raised it via an email I thought I’d share my thoughts about the rhetorical and dramatic nature of patriotism and protest.

I have often wished I could attend a concert/literary discussion where singers performed the national anthems of countries from trouble spots around the world, and then people from those countries walked the audience through a translation and a discussion of the meaning of the lyrics, maybe also throwing in a poem or a literary monologue from some culturally significant text. And in the lobby there would be food from these various countries. But for me the highlight would be analyzing what we can learn about a culture from the (translated) lyrics of its national anthem.

Choosing to kneel during the national anthem is undoubtedly protected free speech. When an early class of SHU bloggers got a little too personal back in 2004, one of my students (Neha Bawa) pointed out to the class that just because you have a right (to make negative public comments) does not mean that exercising that right is automatically a good idea. A professional athlete who chooses to exercise his First Amendment right to the freedom of speech can face consequences, such as lost endorsement deals, perceived loss of value to the team, and criticism from those who call such an action trivial and unnecessarily divisive.

Classical rhetoricians and Dale Carnegie in “How to Win Friends and Influence People” agree that when you are trying to change someone’s mind, the best approach is to find middle ground by starting with something that both sides agree on. Carnegie phrases it as something like “get the other guy nodding his head at what you are saying.” Then once you have established a connection, and the person you are talking to thinks of you as a reasonable person, then you introduce the new and challenging idea.

If your world view conceptualizes an issue as a rational debate where evidence will sway people of goodwill, then mediation makes sense. If your world view conceptualizes an issue as corrupt people in power (those in uniforms, those in charge of the news media, those in charge of banks and real estate, celebrities, organized religion, the medical profession, the patriarchy, university professors, owners of pro sports leagues, etc.) against good and sensible people who think the way you do, then oppositional dramatic actions have a certain appeal.

Kneeling rather than standing is an interesting choice. Standing while raising a fist seems seems to me to be a way to call attention to an issue without alienating the greater culture (especially when the kneeler in question is a rich professional athlete).

The shock value of the nudity in Hair or the shock value of those potty-mouthed princesses in that video about gender inequity was carefully contextualized as part of a message that reminds us that if we are more upset by people who are choosing to go naked than we are by people who are being drafted/mutilated/shot against their will, or if we are more upset by potty-mouthed princesses than we are about systemic gender imbalances, then we are being invited to revisit our values.

The Civil Rights movement in America can make a good historical case for seeing any call for mediation as a stalling technique that shores up the status quo. “All Lives Matter” is a textbook example.) Though Martin Luther King advocated a moderate approach that aimed to appeal to white fellow-travelers, Malcolm X’s call for action and the angry anti-feminist rap culture (which aims to alleviate the pain of black men by unleashing it on black women) resonates more strongly with most young people).

Thoughts? Teachers, students, artists, athletes, parents, mediators, activists, humans… What does kneeling during the National Anthem mean to you?