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Ask an Ethicist: To stand or to sit for the national anthem

Expressions of patriotism can be important to the health of the nation and can serve as a rallying point for a diverse and multicultural nation. Equally important is the right to peaceful protest including the right to express opinions that some people might find antithetical to the nation. Recently this tension has come to the fore as athletes and other prominent public figures have begun silently protesting police abuses during the singing of the national anthem. This week’s column tackles this important issue.

Josh Inwood headshotIn partnership with the Rock Ethics Institute, Penn State Today’s feature column, "Ask an Ethicist," aims to shed light on ethical questions from our readers. Each article in this column will feature a different ethical question answered by a Penn State ethicist. We invite you to ask a question by filling out and submitting this form. An archive of the columns can be found on the Rock Ethics Institute website.

Question:   Across the United States athletes and spectators are choosing to engage in forms of silent protest to draw attention to the killing of black men and women by police agencies and departments during the playing of the national anthem before games.  These protests are controversial and some athletes have received negative publicity and even death threats for their actions.   So, should I stand for the National Anthem and show respect for the nation, or should I take a seat and support protesting athletes?

An ethicist responds: Expressions of patriotism can be important to the health of the nation and can serve as a rallying point for a diverse and multicultural nation.  After all, perhaps the most well-known expression of national unity is the sight of thousands of people from different backgrounds and class positions collectively standing, eyes on the US flag, singing the national anthem.  For many people, and especially those that served in the armed services, the flag is also a sacred symbol and stands for friends and loved ones lost in service to the nation. In a nation that historically has separated church/state activities, the symbols of the nation—like our flag—can be thought of as civic/religious symbols deserving of veneration and respect. Perhaps most importantly, our participation in these secular rituals can signal a collective sense of purpose and is a sign of both reverence and pride.  For many people, someone’s failure to treat the flag with respect and dignity signifies a moral failing. 

Yet a foundation of any democratic society is the right to peaceful protest including the right to express opinions that some people might find antithetical to the nation.  Indeed, in writing the first amendment to the US Constitution, James Madison codified the right of free assembly and free speech -- two essential elements that protestors and others petitioning the government for redress have used to make their voices heard.  Throughout the history of the United States groups and individuals have used First Amendment rights to advocate a variety of political projects. This introduces into US democracy a set of ethical tensions and responsibilities which are sometimes difficult to tease apart and work through. 

More centrally the rights outlined by Madison reflect a recognition that a healthy democracy needs a plurality of voices and perspectives to work effectively.  Equally true is that for many people in the nation dissent is the highest form of patriotism as it signals a willingness to work towards a larger and more inclusive nation.  Some famous examples include Henry David Thoreau’s On Civil Disobedience, the Suffragette Movement and more contemporarily efforts to legalize Gay marriage rights.  Relevant to our discussion of protests around the national anthem are the views of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his efforts to catalyze the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s into a broader, non-violent social movement for change and ideas about direct action protests.  In 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference led a campaign to end segregation in Birmingham, Alabama’s downtown business district, integrate public parks and to institute fair hiring practices in the city.  That campaign provides an important model of the power of direct action and what King called “constructive nonviolent tension” to shock the nation into consciousness about racism.  America's television screens were filled with images of non-violent and mostly young protestors beaten by police and fire hoses being turned on activists seeking to end the divisions that had characterized American society for so long. According to civil rights protestors, the images and the protests presented every American, rich and poor, black and white, straight or gay with a choice: were they on the side of segregationists or were they on the side of protestors who were advocating for justice, equality, and shared national sacrifice to honor rather than break the promise of true democracy? 

Those who are protesting during the anthem argue that we are now facing a similar choice when it comes to the killings of black men and women at the hands of state and local police forces. We are facing a national crisis when it comes to policing and the taking of black lives by those police forces.  Just this week our television and Twitter feeds were filled with images of police killing black men in Charlotte, North Carolina and in San Diego, California.  As of the writing of this blog, The Guardian newspaper has documented at least 801 persons who have lost their lives at the hands of police forces in the United States and at least 197 have been African Americans.  Many of these deaths are shrouded in controversy and social justice activists, most famously the #BlackLivesMatter movement, contend that these deaths have occurred under questionable circumstances. They argue that the failure to hold police officers accountable means law enforcement agencies are able to kill black men and women with impunity.  More recently, justice activists have pushed for legislation, now in Congress, that would create national standards for the use of force, requiring police academies across the United States teach de-escalation techniques to deal with volatile and potentially dangerous situations.

Importantly, a healthy and vibrant democracy requires our involvement in important citizenship practices and there is no truer form of patriotism than taking citizenship seriously. Put simply: democracy requires the work of citizens to function and operate properly. Often this involves taking unpopular and even controversial positions and working to draw attention to injustice and inequality even in the face of widespread condemnation.  It is also important to note that there exist myriad ways to get involved—from public protest to more private acts like writing letters to the editors of newspapers or expressing your views to Congress and other elected officials.   All these acts are not only important to drawing attention to inequality, but are important to free expression and the working of democracy. How you participate in democracy—whether in public displays or in more private ways—is up to you. But do know that the most important thing is your participation!

Joshua Inwood is an associate professor of Geography and has a joint appointment with the Rock Ethics Institute.  His research understands the material conditions of peace and justice and he engages with these concerns through a variety of research and teaching projects. At its heart his research seeks to understand the social, political and economic structures that make human lives vulnerable to all manner of exploitations, as well as how oppressed populations use social justice movements to change their material conditions.

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Note: The "Ask an Ethicist" column is a forum to promote ethical awareness and inquiry across the Penn State community. These articles represent the interests and judgments of each author as an individual scholar and are neither official positions of the Rock Ethics Institute nor Penn State University. They are designed to offer a possible approach to a subject and are not intended as definitive statements on what is or is not ethical in any given situation. Read the full disclaimer.