“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.” – Dalai Lama
A lot has been written about the San Francisco 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick and his decision to kneel during the national anthem before his team plays its games. For those who haven’t heard, in August of this year, Kaepernick opted not to stand during the anthem to protest police violence against minorities in the US. In his words:
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color…To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
The practice has since been taken up by dozens of other players in the league, and spread to the NBA and WNBA, US women’s soccer, high school athletes across the country, a high school football referee, cheerleaders, even a few singers of the anthem itself.
Reactions to the protests have been mixed, with some people supporting Kaepernick’s right to peaceful protest, others being outraged, and still others being sympathetic to his cause but disagreeing with his methods. One mid-September poll found that Kaepernick had become the most disliked player in the NFL, “disliked a lot” by 29% of 1,100 Americans asked. That number was up from 6% in August, before his protestations began. He has received death threats, and a handful of NFL executives from teams around the league have expressed disdain for him, referring to Kaepernick as a “traitor” who “has no respect for our country.”
Outside of the NFL, the Santa Clara Police Officers’ Association threatened to boycott 49ers’ games, although they soon rescinded that threat. There have been other efforts by fans to boycott the NFL altogether, and the level of fan-directed vitriol against Kaepernick has been high. Some have speculated that Kaepernick is personally responsible for a decline in NFL television ratings (though there seem to be several possible factors behind that pattern).
In Alabama, a high school football announcer allegedly said that people who did not stand for the anthem should be shot. To be fair, the man claimed he was misquoted and that he would never advocate violence. At a youth football game in a demographically white suburb in western Pennsylvania, racial slurs were shouted at three black players, aged 12-13, who knelt during the anthem.
A basic question is why these protests strike a nerve and arouse such heated emotions. Obviously, the combination of race, police shootings, and patriotism makes for a potentially volatile mix. The polls cited above found that perceptions of Kaepernick differed markedly along racial lines, with only 2% of African-Americans saying they disliked him a lot, while 37% of white Americans reported feeling that way. Much of this has been building for years, as several prominent cases of African-Americans being shot by police have been captured on video. Beyond those highly visible cases, statistics indicate that there are indeed racial disparities in how police use lethal force.
I think it helps if we take a step back, get some distance, and consider some broader set of principles in play, not just in this scenario, but in a more general sense. Clearly, these are emotional issues. But we aren’t always proficient at articulating why we feel what we do. Psychologist Sarah Rose Cavanagh (2016) who specializes in the science of emotions, discussed the “critical role of values in emotional experience,” adding that:
“We experience something as emotional because something has changed in our internal or external milieu that either promises something of value (praise, social engagement, goal attainment, or good fortune, all leading to varieties of pleasure) or threatens something we value (goal frustration leading to anger, loss leading to grief, physical jeopardy leading to fear)” (p. 16).
Cavanagh points out that our emotions were likely essential in our evolution, helping us to make quick intuitive judgments of a situation, thus bypassing slow, plodding assessments which could prove fatal if we waited too long. Emotions trigger a range of effects in us, including changes to our internal feelings and physiology, as well as outward expressions and behavior. All of these effects may lurk under our conscious radar.
The Clash of Values
A potential source of conflict is that the things we value – the wellsprings of our emotions – may vary from person to person, and situationally. According to social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, people across cultures have five or six “moral foundations” which they value and that must have evolved to help us navigate our interactions with other people. In his words, these foundations are “the equivalent of taste buds that make us notice social patterns that it was adaptive to notice.” The six foundations are: (1) Care/harm, (2) Fairness/cheating, (3) Loyalty/betrayal, (4) Authority/subversion, (5) Sanctity/degradation, (6) Liberty/oppression (this one was added later, and is sometimes not included).
I think there is a lot of value in Haidt’s assessment of where our values originate. (I can get behind this even though he once referred to anthropology and sociology as “the worst” because of an intolerance toward people not interested in social justice. It’s OK, we aren’t perfect; like everyone we have our biases. But anthropologists are also all unique and capable of self-criticism and growth. I ain’t mad).
In the case of Colin Kaepernick, we can see how several of these values are relevant, and how those values might clash. Fatal police shootings have obvious connotations for the Care/Harm foundation (and death is, of course, the ultimate harm). Disproportionate application of force to African-Americans and other non-White ethnic groups relate to issues of Fairness and Cheating, as well as Liberty/Oppression. Kneeling during the national anthem seems to go against Loyalty to the ingroup, and defying Authority and respect. To some people, anthems, flags, crosses, or other symbols are sacred. Among species, the use of symbols is largely unique to humans, and identifying with sacred symbols even more so. This holds true for some people even though objects and symbols are inanimate and therefore not capable of feeling pain themselves.
Perhaps most relevant here is that Haidt, along with his colleagues Jesse Graham and Brian Nosek, found that liberals and conservatives tend to emphasize different moral foundations (Graham et al 2009). People of all ideologies can identify with all of the foundations. However, liberals tended to emphasize Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating well above the other foundations, while conservatives tended to view all foundations more equally.
We don’t have to delve into the political ideologies of individual football players, police officers, or anyone for that matter. The larger point is that not everyone values the same things to the same degree, creating an obvious source of conflict. To Haidt, the issue is that people have to learn to “disagree more constructively.” We might also benefit from some introspection about where our values originate, and which are most important to us, acknowledging that while we may all see the world differently there are still moral foundations common to everyone (albeit not in the same order of importance).
Finally, I think it also helps to remember that conflict among values is an unavoidable fact, which makes compromise an absolute necessity. I’ve cited this before, but I think that Isaiah Berlin’s essay, “A Message to the 21st Century” summarizes so much about the human condition. The key passage is here, where he discussed what we can do to create a balance among our values:
I am afraid I have no dramatic answer to offer: only that if these ultimate human values by which we live are to be pursued, then compromises, trade-offs, arrangements have to be made if the worst is not to happen. So much liberty for so much equality, so much individual self-expression for so much security, so much justice for so much compassion. My point is that some values clash: the ends pursued by human beings are all generated by our common nature, but their pursuit has to be to some degree controlled—liberty and the pursuit of happiness, I repeat, may not be fully compatible with each other, nor are liberty, equality, and fraternity.
So we must weigh and measure, bargain, compromise, and prevent the crushing of one form of life by its rivals. I know only too well that this is not a flag under which idealistic and enthusiastic young men and women may wish to march—it seems too tame, too reasonable, too bourgeois, it does not engage the generous emotions. But you must believe me, one cannot have everything one wants—not only in practice, but even in theory. The denial of this, the search for a single, overarching ideal because it is the one and only true one for humanity, invariably leads to coercion. And then to destruction, blood—eggs are broken, but the omelette is not in sight, there is only an infinite number of eggs, human lives, ready for the breaking. And in the end the passionate idealists forget the omelette, and just go on breaking eggs.”
Cavanagh, SR. 2016. The Spark of Learning: Energizing the Classroom with the Science of Emotion. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press. Link
Graham J, Haidt J, Nosek BA. 2009. Liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations. Journal of personality and social psychology. 96(5):1029. Link
Haidt J. 2013. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Vintage. Link