Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Semiotics of Kneeling

The NFL has announced a new rule banning players from kneeling during the National Anthem. If they don't wish to stand, they can wait in the locker room.

I'm not the first to observe that maybe all those who've spent the past few years fretting about snowflake college students who furiously demand protection from offensive speech might maybe asked to spare a note of protest here.

But now is as good a time as any to remind people that when Colin Kaepernick elected to kneel during the National Anthem, it was explicitly not intended as a signal of disrespect to the country or to the flag. Indeed, he adopted that particular mode of protest precisely because it communicated his message in a respectful manner.

The act of kneeling was suggested to Kaepernick by military veteran and fellow NFLer Nate Boyer, as an alternative to sitting during the anthem. Unlike staying seating, kneeling is almost always associated with a form of respect -- even deference. Prior to Kaepernick, the most likely reason you'd see someone kneeling on a sporting field is if there is an injury (I distinctively remember doing it during youth soccer). Obviously, nobody thinks that kneeling there is meant as a form of taunting or abuse. Rather, it's designed to signal "somebody is hurt, and we are acknowledging their hurt -- we're not going to simply carry on as if this isn't happening."

This semiotic meaning of kneeling was explicitly what Kaepernick was drawing on. Boyer drew the connection to soldiers who knelt before the grave of a fallen comrade -- again, a show of respect. The idea was to communicate that in America right now Black people are hurting, that there is an injury, and we need to respect and acknowledge that. On face, this should have been quite familiar precisely because it drew upon a practice that any sports fan is well-acquainted with and which carries an easy parallel to the point Kaepernick was trying to make. That it is now being presented as something different -- an act of defiance or disrespect -- isn't even a communicative misfire: it is a conscious attempt to replace an otherwise clear and powerful message with a different, more easily dismissed meaning.

Kneeling during the pledge is not a form of flouting or turning one's back on America anymore than kneeling during an injury represents a disavowal of the injured player. And this also explains why staying in the locker room does not suffice as an adequate substitute for kneeling -- it lacks, ironically enough, the posture of respectful public engagement communicated by kneeling.

I've written a whole article about what the Book of Job, and other instances of biblical protest, can tell us about contemporary political disputes. Early in the Book of Job, as Job is forced to endure ever-more terrible torments, his wife urges him to simply turn his back: "Curse God, and die." But Job never does this. Job is a story of a man abused by God who protests this treatment, struggles against it, demands explanation for it -- but who never, ever cuts his relationship with God. To the contrary, he is insistent in demanding that the very real relationship they have be vindicated. "Why do you hide your face from me, and treat me as an enemy?" The power in Job's protest is precisely that it remains "in the fray" of engagement -- it is always presented as and remains as the cry of a man who does value and does care about his relationship with God.

Remaining in the locker room can't replace kneeling because it does not communicate any sort of ongoing, meaningful relationship between the protester and the subject of protest. Ironically, I think it would be far more disrespectful to the flag and the country compared to kneeling -- akin to ostentatiously turning one's back or casually chatting in the background as the anthem plays. The semiotic message of kneeling -- that there is something to grieve, an injury to acknowledge, whose relevance emerges out of a thick social relationship which the kneeler remains committed to -- can't be replicated in a private space.

And so it might be worthwhile to reflect on the very end of the Book of Job. Midway through the story, several of Job's friends begin an argument with Job, urging him to desist from challenging God or presuming to know that he is being treated unjustly. By what right does Job claim the authority to question God in this way?

This argument gets interrupted when God finally emerges, "out of a whirlwind" to confront Job. But in the denouement, God speaks once more -- not to Job, but to his friends. He instructs them to repent, "for you have not spoken of me the thing that is just, as my servant Job has." At the very end, Job is vindicated, and those who told him to stay silent, or passively defer to God, are chastised. "You have not spoken of me the thing that is just, as my servant Job has."

These words, repeated twice, are the last words God ever speaks directly to man in the Hebrew Bible.


Mismos said...


Unknown said...

The way they kneel is the same way you would kneel in front of the Queen. It conveys respect and reverence and strength.
They show more respect to your flag, and what it stands for, than those who trounce on the freedoms it represents.

This is truly a dark time in your history America. Your beacon is flickering, please don't let it go out.