How Do We Guard Against Raising the Red Flag and White Flag Over National Anthem Protests and Gun Violence?

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What do the debate about bending the knee and protesting during the singing of the national anthem honoring the U.S. flag and the debate over gun control in view of the tragedy in Las Vegas, Nevada have in common? In my estimation, the connection is not simply the fact that Colin Kaepernick went to the University of Nevada.

Am I wrong in assuming that many of those who take offense at NFL players protesting what those athletes perceive as racial inequities by bending the knee rather than standing during the singing of the anthem also take offense at people trying to limit access to firearms? If there is a connection, why is that? Those who take objection to protesting the national anthem and advocating for stricter gun control seem to prize the moral intuitions of purity, loyalty and authority (in this case, to a governmental institution and its sacred symbols as well as the second amendment on the right to bear arms) over the moral intuition of fairness and care for the downtrodden and vulnerable. What happens when moral intuitions conflict? Do we wave the red flag of attack or the white flag of surrender? Start shooting at one another and take no prisoners or stop shooting and capitulate?! (For more on the work of moral intuitions, refer here and here).

Pat Robertson weighed in on a possible connection between the protests involving the flag and mass violence. Which moral intuitions do you think he prizes more? Purity, loyalty and authority or fairness and care? Here’s what Robertson was quoted as saying:

“Violence in the streets, ladies and gentlemen. Why is it happening?” asked Robertson.

“You know what I’d like to give you is the fact that we have disrespect for authority. There is profound disrespect of our president, all across this nation they say terrible things about him. It’s in the news, it’s in other places,” said Robertson.

“There is disrespect now for our national anthem, disrespect for our veterans, disrespect for the institutions of our government, disrespect for the court system. All the way up and down the line, disrespect,” said Robertson.

My point in referencing Robertson is not to suggest that he is the most able spokesperson for a certain set of values, but simply to highlight that he, too, sees possible connections between the national anthem protest at NFL games and the Las Vegas mass shooting, and that he prizes certain moral intuitions (purity, loyalty and authority) and appears to downplay or ignore others (fairness and care). There is no apparent appreciation for Kaepernick’s and others’ concerns over oppression of African Americans by people in authority, such as police officers.

Kaepernick’s decision to protest abuses of power at the expense of minorities by taking the knee during the singing of the national anthem will not often sway people who share Robertson’s mix of moral intuitions. If one has any hope of convincing the “Robertsons” of this world that they need to be more attentive to fairness and care for the downtrodden, one will need to look to figures like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who appealed to a wide range of moral intuitions, including purity, loyalty, and authority as well as fairness and care. King declared in his masterful “I Have a Dream” speech that this nation has not honored (loyalty) its most hallowed (pure) and commanding (authority) writings—the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. As a result, the check the nation issued to long marginalized and oppressed African Americans (fairness and care) was bad and was returned marked “insufficient funds.” Some have argued that elements of the promissory note to African Americans remain in default (Refer here). In their own way, this is ultimately what Kaepernick and those siding with him are claiming.

King appealed to people’s consciences and to the wide range of moral intuitions. No doubt, he understood well the point of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt that morality binds and blinds. Haidt writes:

Morality binds and blinds. It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.

Like Haidt, we need to be aware of this dynamic which binds us to our own moral tribes and blinds us to others’ moral tribes. We need to rehumanize one another rather than demonize one another, appealing to the moral intuitions with which each side(s) of an issue most resonates while making a case to broaden their base of moral intuitions to include what we deem is lacking. We also need to ask what moral intuitions our own moral tribe fails to cherish, and to what degree.

The only way to guard against the red flag of attack and white flag of surrender involving warring factions is by trying to expand the conversation on moral values rather than reduce the issue(s) along moral tribal lines.[1]

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[1]I am grateful to my colleague John W. Morehead for our ongoing dialogue on moral intuitions, and for his helpful insights in my crafting of this post.

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