Thanks to Haddam, CT, Selectman Melissa J. Schlag, we’re having a conversation about protests again. By taking the knee during the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of a meeting on July 16th, she has gained fans and critics. She’s also caused a resurgence in people engaging in a particular bad faith argument: criticizing the form of protest rather than the substance of it.
“Show some respect!” “What about the veterans!”
This is often the first and only critique made by opponents of this kind of protest. I kind of understand having an emotional reaction, our culture of worshiping the flag and the troops make such protests really stick out. I don’t begrudge anyone having an emotional reaction when they first hear or read about these kinds of things. However, I would ask that people develop a better understanding of the situation so that they can have a better informed opinion.
When I first heard about Colin Kaepernick sitting during the anthem, my reaction went something like this: standing for the anthem is something we ought to do because we’re not respecting any existing government structure or figure; rather, we’re paying homage to the idea of America, the unreachable ideal represented in our founding documents. I felt that people should stand, but that we shouldn’t force anyone to do so, because if you’re being forced or even coerced or socially pressured into doing patriotism, can you really call it patriotism?
Is That It?
That was my first reaction, my hot take after hearing about it and thinking about it a little bit. I didn’t know what motivated it or what information influenced Kaep. I didn’t exactly go seek out this information; I had kind of already decided that he could do it, but that it was rather unpleasant. Eventually I found out quite a bit about Kaep’s cause. I learned more about Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, and much more about systemic racism from a film called 13th, lectures on YouTube, and many more sources. Every so often I’d encounter one or another of the things I’ve just linked here and it added up over time. I didn’t marathon a bunch of this content and have like a Road to Damascus moment. It was very gradual. Now I understand where Kaep and everyone is coming from and I think they’re doing a good thing to shed light on some very real injustices, of which most people are unaware.
Failure to Engage
Many of the responses to Kaep’s protest are examples of people failing to engage with the substance of a protest. Here are a few, along with responses.
- “Stop whining! You’re rich, what do you have to protest about!” I guess compassion for those who don’t have what you have isn’t a thing. This is honestly the stupidest complaint I’ve seen. Anyone making this argument is not operating in good faith and it’s probably on purpose.
- “It’s disrespectful to the flag/veterans/troops!” Kneeling was actually a compromise. Remember, the protest started off with just sitting. According to the story, Kaep got the idea of kneeling from talking to an Army veteran. He’s made it very clear in public statements that his protest was not against the military, active or otherwise.
- “Well, I think it’s disrespectful and I have a right to that reaction!” This is another attempt to avoid talking about the substance of the protest, and kind of a childish one at that. You’re basically saying that Kaep or Schlag’s stated purpose do not matter. It also smacks of the “just your opinion v. my opinion” non-starter that Creationists/Intelligent Design and other dishonest interlocutors trot out. Like, yes, you poor thing, you’re entitled to your opinion, but what’s your basis for it?
I told the story of my evolving position to show the way opinions can change with information. Look again at my initial reaction. I was not engaging with the substance of the protest. My take had everything to do with the form of the protest. Most others have stayed right there. They stayed there all through the rest of Kaep’s NFL career and they’re staying there now with regard to Melissa Schlag.
Everyone’s got an opinion, and they’re entitled to them. Pointing this out is boring and obvious. Instead let’s look at how they differ in terms of the information that you’re basing your opinion on. About any given topic, there’s a variety of information out there with varying degrees of relevance. The greater the quantity, quality, and relevance of the information you have, the more likely you’ll have a well informed opinion. It gets a little tricky when you realize that things like relevance are subjective and therefore can be thought of as opinions themselves. You very quickly get into an infinite regress of opinions about aspects of opinions. When you consider that people can differ widely in something like opinions on relevant facts, it’s expected that people get so frustrated when encountering those different worldviews.
If you are continuously talking about the act of kneeling or otherwise not participating in the patriotic display rather than looking into the reasons why, you’re not engaging. Your opinion, while valid, is failing to take relevant information on board and is thus less informed than it could be. Your opinion is based on emotion rather than an attempt to understand the other position.
In the case of Melissa Schlag, she posted an open letter to Facebook explaining her reasoning. She was reacting most strongly to the recent meeting between Presidents Trump and Putin. Her letter also mentions the Zero Tolerance immigration policy which has led to the separation of so many children from their families, and the general behavior of the president.
There are probably honest criticisms of her position. For example, even though Putin is a murderous dictator with a tendency to kill journalists and a government that would like to exterminate all LGBT people, there are reasons to pursue diplomatic relations with him. As a general rule, I’m in favor of diplomacy rather than not-diplomacy.
However, this Trump/Putin meeting has a lot of other shades to it that make her criticism understandable. First, the press conference where Trump basically took Putin’s side over his own intelligence community. This looks really bad, but it kind of fits the overly-accommodating stance Trump has taken with Kim. He’s really trying to charm when he does this. There’s probably some behind-the-scenes stuff where Trump is like, “hey, remember I had your back in front of the cameras, your people see how well I respected you, now you should help me out, right?” or something like that.
The whole 2016 election hacking thing is another complicated story. On one hand, DNC emails revealed how they had their thumb on the scale for Hillary. To me, I don’t care where these came from, if it’s true, then we should know about it. On the other hand, the perhaps more worrying part of 2016 was the bot farms spamming the shit out of social media with memes and posts promoting Trump. When one side can just inundate people with arguments, it doesn’t matter if they lie or make bad faith arguments. The scary thing about it is that not only is it difficult to fight, it’s something that I could be an unwitting victim of and not even know it.
Melissa Schlag is doing an extraordinarily brave thing. She doesn’t have millions of fans or dollars and will likely pay the political iron price for her protest. By taking a stand, she’s showing cojones that I don’t think we’ve seen in an American politician, maybe ever. Her disgust at the Trump administration is well founded, particularly when you consider Zero Tolerance, a policy that may have officially ended, but continues to affect thousands of families.