Taking a stand on language

Weighing in on the controversy du jour, this post isn’t about racism or patriotism, about athletes or presidents, or even about Francis Scott Key’s song.  In all the hullabaloo about the Star-Spangled Banner, there seems to be a more basic disconnect — over the language we use.

President Trump has thrown down another proverbial gauntlet with his comments about professional athletes and their posture (or posturing) during the playing of the national anthem.  In his view, they show a “total disrespect of our heritage … of everything that we stand for.”  He called, with unnecessary profanity, for them to lose their jobs.

The resulting furor among athletes and others has risen to a fever pitch and runs the gamut of online shaming.  The NBA’s Stephen Curry defiantly claimed that “we all have to kind of stand as one the best we can,” while Lebron James’s called the president a “bum” who has dishonored the White House.  The NFL’s Desean Jackson proudly tweeted that he “definitely will be making a statement no disrespect to our military of service,” and added, “But we have to stick together as people!! Unity.”  Then there’s former judge Jeanine Pirro calling out the NFL commissioner for “mouthing off” about professional football being “a force for good.”

The cyber-mania will no doubt continue after last weekend’s pre-game ceremonies, where attention to the anthem (or lack thereof) was met with protests and salutes and conspicuous absence.  But what matters first, if not most, are the words being used.  Perhaps we should clarify the meaning of three that are foundational to the social fray and then add one that seems in short supply.

UNITY is about singularity, a sense of “one” (uni-) that brings many together.  Notwithstanding the odd physiology of Curry’s claim (“kind of”?), the metaphorical standing as one that he and Jackson exhort gives the image of many doing one thing.  That’s exactly what people used to do, when athletes (and fans) all stood together for the anthem.  It’s rather difficult to be united when individuals on a team or in a crowd are all doing their own thing by standing, kneeling, sitting, or hiding.

RESPECT begins as an attitude before it comes to outward expression. It’s a disposition directed toward an other, a recognition of something of worth beyond me.  It’s often expressed non-verbally, as in the postures we take. (See a father’s first rule for his son on this popular online list.)  It’s needed most, and expressed best, when people disagree.  Disrespect hurts.  But who and what is being (dis)respected in this controversy seems unclear, as both sides try to take the moral high ground.  The question remains open:  does the shared singing of that song focus on our flag, our country, our history, our leaders, our military, our veterans, our sports, our teams, our fans?  Until that question is answered, the unity of “our” will be difficult to achieve.

OPINION is a viewpoint anyone can have and no one can disprove.  Politicians have them, and so do athletes.  Everybody else does, too, often vociferously.  Opinions may be supported (by facts, data, evidence), but they remain always debatable.  Invited or not, opinions may be freely expressed, even hyperbolically (as our current president is wont to do, to the consternation of a nation).  Opinions may be just as easily ignored.  Controversy follows when we mistake opinion for truth.  When disagreement over opinions comes from or leads to the disparagement of people because of their opinion, we leave the realm of thought (where disputes can take place with respect) and enter the divisive zone of power (where differences are not usually resolved peacefully).  Once there, it will be difficult to come or be together.

PRUDENCE is a virtue.  It’s a reasoned approach that enables people to act in a way that best suits a given situation when there are multiple options from which to choose.  It judges when a particular course of action would be, in the long run, beneficial or harmful. It guides our decision to speak up or shut up.  In this case, it puts “freedom of expression” into its rightful context, as the value of giving voice to something that furthers a good, and not simply the unencumbered right to say whatever I want whenever I want.

Words do matter — no matter the medium, no matter who uses them.  If we can’t keep straight the first three, or practice the fourth, the word “society” may lose its meaning, too.

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