Colin Kaepernick, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, first “took a knee” during the national anthem in 2016 to denounce the frequent mistreatment of African Americans by police. Some people believed this act was a symbol of solidarity- standing up to a misuse of power. Others believed taking a knee was a clear sign of disrespect – of the Flag, our military, our country. How can you tell what it means? One way is to decide what it is: Is “taking a knee” a sign or symbol? Is there even a difference between signs and symbols? Yes – and telling one from the other can help understand why a small gesture created a big controversy.
A sign’s meaning is self-evident – it is to be taken at face value: A “Stop” sign means, well, “stop!”. If we have seen the sign before, its meaning. is clear to everyone.
Symbols, in contrast, can be vague, emotional, even mysterious. Symbols have power and are often the best way to convey things or ideas that cannot be concretely represented. Their meaning is more often felt than known.
Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist and contemporary of Freud, conducted a lifelong study of symbols that informs much of our current understanding. Jung noted that symbols can evoke complex, intense, and even contradictory feelings. A peace symbol, for example, may evoke hope, anger, nostalgia, or sadness – and possibly, all in the same person. On the other hand, the maxim “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” reminds us that while there are occasions to look deeply into things for symbolic meaning, there are also times to take things at face value.
Whether something serves as a sign or a symbol depends on who is viewing it. To a devout Christian, The Cross is a symbol of the unfathomable mystery that is God. To an agnostic, a cross is likely to be a sign, signifying “this building is a church (or a hospital)”. To others, the cross might be a symbol of oppression, an archaic delusion, or irrationality.
Some images, words and things can serve as both signs and symbols, complicating this distinction even further. “America”, when referring to the United States, is a sign (signifying the 50 states, territories and government). To many, it is also a symbol (of liberty, of refuge for “huddled masses yearning to be free”). It may even evoke a utopia- the place where the American Dream lives. That Dream usually includes the belief that hard work inevitably leads to success for all. The America portrayed in that symbol, is not the America that exists. It is the America of imagination, of potential.
When we confuse signs and symbols, we are likely to misunderstand each other, and we are then likely to hurt and get hurt, divide and be divided. For example, many seem to believe that “taking a knee” or the National Anthem are signs, with a clear specific meaning.
Critics argue that the protesters are disrespecting America – the flag and anthem are held as hallowed proxies for the nation, never to be tampered with for any reason. To Donald Trump, taking a knee is clearly a sign of disrespect: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. He is fired.’”
Many Americans agree with him. Nearly 32 percent of Americans said they are less likely to watch an NFL game because of the recent player protests, according to a recent Rasmussen Reports poll. Some describe the players who kneel as “unpatriotic,” “ungrateful,” “disrespectful,” even “degenerate”. I had a different experience.
At first, I regarded taking a knee as a sign in this way: Kaepernick did not turn his back, flip the bird, or even just remain seated. “Taking a knee” as a protest is a deliberate alternative to standing. A bent leg stance, or kneeling is about the most benign posture I can think of, as a Catholic and a high school football player. “Taking a knee”, and its cousin, kneeling, make one lower and smaller. During the Mass, it is done in solidarity, in submission to something larger. In football, a coach saying “take a knee” is similar to the military order “Stand Down”- “cease all actions immediately and await further orders!” Cops often order a criminal suspect to kneel. Kneeling makes us smaller, even feel vulnerable. Many mammals act to reduce their height to show deference and submissiveness. I thought I knew what this meant.
Source: about catholics organization
However, I learned that taking a knee is indeed a symbol – something less specific than a sign, with multiple connotations, emotions and significance. I came to understand that the act is at once defiant and deferential, angry and anguished, bold and composed, a damnation and a plea. The symbolic loading is further intensified when it crosses paths with other symbols, such as the National Anthem.
When the NFL players were asked why they participated, many said they believed supporting the right to protest was important and wanted to use their position to empower others, in this case a sizable number of Americans that are oppressed. Standing up for the rights of others, particularly the oppressed, is as American as, say, apple pie. (Here “apple pie” is a symbol, perhaps conveying the presumably shared core values of the United States.) The participating players apparently believed that they had the right to protest, to express their disdain in the most public platform available to them, the ritual pre-game anthem.
African Americans who were surveyed were three times more likely than whites to watch NFL games this season in support of the protests. Having their own outrage, explicitly watching games is an expression of solidarity against continuing injustice. They challenged some white Americans’ belief in the American Myth – the belief that America is and always was a land of justice and equal opportunity for everyone. While the Myth may be a source of pride for many, it has never been true. Intensely angry feelings are the response a number of whites had to the outing of an ideal America that never really existed, except in imagination and some campaign speeches.
An act of disrespect or freedom? It depends on who’s looking. Sign or symbol? Evoking all the feelings and intensity from these combined actions indicates we are in the realm of symbols that we have mistaken as signs.
It takes time and curiosity to understand another’s symbols. It requires tolerating uncertainty and cultivating curiosity. Understanding signs is easier because it begins with the assumption – “I know what this means”. I initially responded to the act as a sign (as in “I know what this means”). I was wrong.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sent a memo to all 32 teams stating: “We want to honor the flag and our country, and our fans expect that of us.” Thus, Goodell assumes (“knows”) kneeling during the anthem is a sign: It’s meant to convey disrespect.
Source: Smithsonian Institute
However, a statement by the Seattle Seahawks declared: “Out of love for our country and in honor of the sacrifices made on our behalf, we unite to oppose those that would deny our most basic freedoms.” The statement attempts to clarify what taking a knee means: “When we kneel it is sign of unity, honor and a stand against oppression”. That may be the intent of some, but it fails to recognize what happens when the action collides with someone else’s symbols.
Symbols can also play a part in deplorable events that turn violent and out of control, as evidenced by the eruption of violent rage during the Charlottesville white nationalist rally this past summer. The rally was spurred by the planned removal of a statue honoring Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Many symbols were visibly central to the event, including US and Confederate flags, swastikas and the extensive use of “Tiki” (hand) torches – a deliberate touch distinctly reminiscent of the Nazi Nuremberg rallies. Flags, images, even patio torches can evoke strong feelings for many, intentionally or not.
The official removal of the statue of General Lee and other Confederate leaders around the South spurred intense emotions in some. If the ousted monuments were only signs, such as a marker indicating where a battle was fought, it is likely that there would be little outcry opposing their removal. The expanding purge tapped into some symbolic significance for a number of white Americans.
Many find it easy to label anyone who opposes removal of Confederate symbols as a “racist”, and there are no doubt instances when that would be accurate. But, as usual with anything regarding human beings, the whole truth is more complicated.
Musician Tom Petty often displayed the Confederate flag at his concerts back in the Eighties. Reflecting on this in 2015, Petty said: “The Confederate flag was the wallpaper of the South when I was a kid…When they wave that flag, they aren’t stopping to think how it looks to a black person. I blame myself for not doing that. I should have gone around the fence and taken a good look at it.” Petty’s description of the Stars and Bars as “wallpaper” suggests for him it served as a sign of Southern origin. He needed to take “a good look at it” to grasp that it was a symbol of tolerated bigotry and racism to many African-Americans.
The intense emotions symbols evoke may also serve as a precursor to change, even transformation. Jung observed: “There can be no transforming of darkness into light and of apathy into movement without emotion.” The emotional power of certain symbols can illuminate our path to greater depth in our lives. Experiences imbued with symbols may elevate us to meet the angels of our better nature, or, as in the Nazi’s Nuremberg Rallies, abet a descent into barbarism. People are prone to identify with specific symbols – sometimes defending them even more fiercely than the ideal they stand for. Virtually anything, even tiki torches, can be a symbol if we understand it as signifying something more than itself with the power to provoke complex emotions.
If we understand symbols, we can more clearly grasp what is most important to our “opponent”- what the other is really talking about, why certain feelings are so strong. Certainly, there are situations with little or no common ground to cultivate. However, I think we will have fewer irreconcilable differences when we understand why certain symbols, even archaic ones, are so meaningful to so many. Blind adherence to the American Myth imprisons many in a dark nostalgia of grief for things we never had. That loss is like the ending of a world for some – evoking fear, frustration and powerlessness. But leaving behind that distorted version of America the imagined is necessary for us to move forward, perhaps gain wisdom.
Listening with curiosity and patience helps us develop an essential component of wisdom – the ability to grasp contradictions. These contradictions are in ourselves, others, and in complex and painful situations. To gain wisdom, we need to cultivate a generous spirit to understand just why we disagree. Wisdom requires patience and, the ability to tolerate uncertainty.
Political leaders may harness symbols to unite, inspire and propel people forward. Leaders can also exploit symbols to divide, constrain and compel us to retreat. The stakes are too high to leave that in the hands of politicians. As individuals, we can make daily choices that can either connect or divide us. We would be wise, when wandering in the realm of another’s symbols, to tread lightly, and with as much curiosity as we can muster.