We are a society in which people hear a message and are more inclined to form an opinion based on preconceived biases about it than carefully evaluate the message to understand what is actually being said. We are a society that wants to be right rather than take the time to carefully define our terms and accurately formulate our thoughts so we can get it right. We want the equivalent of “one-minute-ramen-answers” to incredibly complex questions, and would much rather share a meme or a catchy headline from the news source which feeds our preconceived notions the most rather than challenge ourselves to better understand other perspectives. We have forgotten how to be rigorous communicators and thinkers, and the current controversy in the NFL is just a symptom of that.
The protesters in the NFL, whether right or wrong about systemic problems in our nation, chose to communicate their concern about the country in a way that doesn’t actually tell anybody what they are concerned about. They chose conspicuous silence rather than proactive communication about the problems that are occurring and how they can be addressed. While it is true that it is sometimes better to say nothing than something, if you are trying to communicate something then saying nothing won’t really do the trick. There at least has to be an accompanying clear statement on why the NFL protesters are protesting, and one could argue that it took a while to really get a clear statement of this sort.
But the fault is hardly just with the protesters in the NFL who refused to sing or stand for the national anthem. The fault is also with the NFL for not communicating what exactly they intended to do by playing the national anthem. If the NFL had said that this is an act purely designed to honor our troops and signify adherence to a certain set of ideals which form the essence of our national identity (no matter how perfectly or imperfectly those ideals are carried out), then we would have a better idea of what exactly it is that the NFL players are protesting. But instead, the playing of the national anthem is just a vaguely patriotic ritual which displays a kind of affinity for the nation and perhaps an appreciation for the servicemen who defend it. These things are good, but they are not clearly stated, and it is causing problems.
So on the one hand you have the protesters refraining from the national anthem in an attempt to symbolize their indignance at the current state of the country (which has nothing to do with their general patriotic appreciation of American ideals or their appreciation of servicemen and women), and on the other hand you have Americans ranging from patriotic to nationalistic claiming that refraining from the national anthem is a statement fundamentally against America and against our troops. The protesters think they are protesting the current state of the nation while making no statement about their support for the troops or American ideals, the outraged segments of the country think that the protesters are trying to do exactly the opposite, and the NFL has not done much to clear things up with a careful statement on what exactly they are trying to communicate by playing the national anthem before every game.
The NFL and the protesters may be guilty of communicating poorly, but patriotic and nationalistic America is guilty of refusing to make a reasonable attempt to understand what exactly the protests mean from the perspective of the protesters. Outraged Americans insist that refraining from the national anthem disrespects our troops and communicates an Anti-American sentiment, but who ever said that has to be the case?
The NFL does not announce before every playing of the national anthem that it is in honor of the troops or American ideals. Many Americans just kind of assumed that is the case. It is not an unreasonable assumption or an inherently bad one. But the meaning of the playing of the national anthem has been left open for some interpretation. The protesters have taken it to be a sign of affinity for the country as it is, and they, to their credit, have at least tried to communicate that they still respect our troops and American ideals as a whole. But America seems so determined to find fault in the protesters that they refuse to understand the protests, and instead insist they mean something which they do not.
If everybody would just take a step back and try to think clearly about what the other side is saying in an earnest attempt to understand them, then this situation might just get fixed. So far, the protesters in the NFL have seemed more attuned to what America thinks they are communicating through their protests than the country has seemed attuned to what the protesters are trying to say. But even so, both sides have a long way to go. Regardless of who is right or wrong, everybody needs to learn how to actually think and communicate rigorously.
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