First let’s get past the Colin Kaepernick-Megan Rapinoe national anthem fuss. It’s more about control than patriotism, forcing him and her and the others to do what traditionalists consider proper. For some African Americans, that elicits echoes of slavery.
Look at history: When Rosa Parks sat down, the world stood up. Parks triggered a knee-jerk “sign reaction” among some bigots, demonstrating one way people can control the behavior of others. What if no one had cared?
Scholars point to the difference between sign reactions (static, no evaluation) and symbol reactions (dynamic, requiring evaluation). Tensions rise when one person’s sign response – standing for the national anthem, for example – is treated as arbitrary by others, who remain seated or take a knee.
We are a symbolic species. Long before Kaepernick and Rapinoe were born, the late semanticist and U.S. senator, S.I. Hayakawa, pointed out that in all civilized societies “symbols of piety, civic virtue, or patriotism are often prized above actual piety, civic virtue, or patriotism.”
Another scholar, Dean Barnland, warned against accepting valuative statements – ostensibly about one thing but actually about another. An example would be saying: “President Obama conspires with Muslim radicals,” when you actually mean “I don’t like President Obama.”
Of course, some behavior is essentially presymbolic, such as cheering at a football game or shouting hallelujah at a revival. Standing, saluting, bowing and kneeling can be symbols or signs or merely phatic expressions, meant to elicit feelings, not to share information.
Such behavior usually begins as an arbitrary reaction, often shaped by tradition or context, which in turn can be manipulated. If by “cat” you mean your pet, the word becomes a sign and no evaluation is needed. But someone hearing that might respond symbolically by thinking of catlike behavior or of feline appearance or of catting around.
In a dynamic society, everything will ultimately change. Writer David Brooks suggests we may be experiencing the emergence of a “multiculturalist” mindset valuing racial, gender and ethnic identities, and devaluing national identities as reactionary and exclusive. As a result, patriotic expressions should be expected to change, and change isn’t necessarily easy.
Still, it would be wise for any undercover enemy to stand for the national anthem, to salute the flag and to wear Old Glory lapel pens and avoid conspicuously exercising constitutional rights by refusing to do such things. Of course, in a media-dominant age, some may stand, sit or take a knee simply for attention.
Gerald Haslam is a California author whose 2006 novel, “Grace Period,” won this year’s Legacy Fiction Eric Hoffer Award, firstname.lastname@example.org.