Patriot with a capital P.

A few weeks ago I was meditating on the word “respect” and what it means, in practical terms.

And then Colin Kaepernick.

That narrative completely overtook both my swirling thoughts and the media message at large. So many opinions, so much vitriol. There are a lot of responses already on record, many of them succinct, adroit, or powerful in ways I could never hope to be. But I did come across a viewpoint that made me pause.

Someone said that a soldier who left part of themselves (literally) behind in service to this country was honestly and intensely hurt that the flag and ceremony that represents so much honor and sacrifice to them could be “disrespected” in that way.

First, I’d like to address the disrespect issue. Not participating is about the most respectful way to publicly protest. It interferes with no one’s observance. As an atheist, I don’t pray but when I find myself in situations where others do, I wait for them to finish. I can be militantly anti-theist in certain situations. I’ve been known to blatantly attack religious beliefs when and where they actively cause harm. But in a peaceful gathering of non-combatants (so to speak), I find that simply refraining from engaging in their ritual is enough to respect my own identity and keep the peace. I’ll be damned (again, so to speak) if I’m going to fake an observance to something that offends my intellect. The point isn’t that the ritual has no meaning, I’m fully aware of the intensity of meaning to the participants. Sitting it out makes a very clear statement about my own feelings on the subject, without inhibiting their ability to engage in their activity. Non-participation is the height of respect to everyone involved.

Let me say again that the point is not that the ritual has no meaning. It absolutely does. When it comes to the national anthem or pledge, I understand that for some, standing for the flag isn’t just rote indoctrination – it’s a symbol of sacrifice to something greater than themselves. I’m not so logical that I don’t recognize the value of symbolism. I get chills when I see missing man formations fly overhead, I get angry when I see a Nazi swastika. So I understand that the flag is a powerful symbol to those who’ve been steeped in the culture of American service.

Let’s go over exactly how “steeped” I am: I was married to and lived the military life with an enlisted career Army man. My brother proudly served in the Army. My father was in Viet Nam. One of my grandfathers was a Korean War veteran. My great-grandfather was a WWI veteran. My point is that when it comes to military service I’m well versed in the responsibilities and rituals that go along with that. Fortunately for me, part of my family culture is about honoring responsibilities, so while there is a healthy dose of American exceptionalism that overlaps military culture, I was also exposed to an equally healthy dose of personal responsibility and honoring one’s oaths. It’s not all guns and glory for me and mine – it never was. I’ve since diverged from my upbringing in precisely what I think my responsibilities as an American are, but that’s a different conversation.

I know good, decent, non-bigoted people who are truly hurt by the idea that someone could sit down in defiance of a ritual that, to them, affirms what is great about our country. I respect their emotions are real. In fact, that’s the point.

The point of choosing this very sensitive, ritualistic ceremony to highlight your dissent is to BE HURTFUL. It is meant to target people at their most vulnerable, their most unquestioning. Because that is how you challenge the status quo. I hate to break it to anyone who still has a romanticized view of the American civil war or civil rights movement in the 1960s, but those changes were not made via comfortable acts of politeness and respect. No oppressor was ever moved to change by the gentle supplications of the oppressed.

Telling Colin Kaepernick, or anyone else, to be respectful with their dissenting opinion is the same as telling me to pray because it makes people uncomfortable when I don’t. It’s the same as a man telling a woman to smile because it makes him feel better. It’s the same as telling people they must accept their lot simply because that’s the way it’s always been. Respect is not some magical, pre-defined set of rules that everyone agrees upon. Respect is defined by those in power. What happens when we don’t do those things? We challenge those in power.  Not standing for a pledge or an anthem challenges the power structure – and yes, that’s supposed to hurt.

Once more for the people in the back: You don’t change things by keeping everyone comfortable.

Comfortable is where complacency lives.

Complacency breeds contempt.

That’s a lot of slogans in a row, but I stand by every one of them. Unless I’m sitting during the anthem.  Rights are also responsibilities, and at the moment, Colin Kaepernick is the most patriotic man in the country.

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