This is not a post about football players kneeling. This is not about the politics of athletes, or the President, or whether people should or should not watch football. This post is about the frustration of censorship and the way that we always tend to elevate our own personal feelings above others. I am a 44 year-old Generation X-er and I am also a fierce advocate for free speech and expression. I have always felt like even when the message is crude, misguided, or disagreeable to me that is when I need to be even more outspoken for their protection from censorship.
Which is why seeing the backlash last week and over the past year over NFL players kneeling for the anthem is so sadly disturbing. Once again we overlook the message and instead attack the messenger or the message delivery method. We try to separate the thing that challenges our feelings and beliefs and make it about something else. That is because most people just reject the notion that they should ever be made to feel uncomfortable. Their entertainment should be light, without being challenged in any way. And this is not the first time I have seen this in my lifetime. Old Wine, New Bottles.
As a teenager I was witness to the constant push to censor music artists for what adults felt was music that was offensive and suggestive to my fellow teenagers. The early roots of this was by the Tipper Gore led Parent’s Music Resource Center in the mid 80s. Her teams push to censor lyrics led to albums being stickered with warning labels and many retailers like Wal-Mart pulling records off shelves. Mostly the complaints were about lyrics by heavy metal artists like Motley Crue and Metallica but then it expanded.
In 1990 I was living in South Florida when Luther Campbell of our favorite booty bass rappers 2 Live Crew was arrested for performing a show deemed obscene in Broward County. This fight made national news but really nothing changed. The only real outcome was an awesome song by 2 Live Crew called Banned In The USA. In 1991 there was equal issue taken with the band Jane’s Addiction and the album art of their record Ritual De Lo Habitual. The cover (shown below) featured a work of art showing three women who were nude. Nothing about it screamed offensive but just about every major retailer would not carry the album and Jane’s had to change the cover art, which they did.
The cover was retooled to also include the First Amendment. Which brings me to my point. Censorship and shaming those who have a point of view is nothing new. And I need to say that if you don’t like players kneeling or the vision of three nude women on the cover of an album that’s fine. Boo at the players, don’t look at the album cover. But what we want to do now, and then, was to ban things. We want to fire players, take records off the shelf, or tell people that their opinions just don’t matter and that is so disturbing.
Because how hard is it to just be nice about these things? What would it have cost any of us to engage players who are taking an knee and asking them, what is it that you wish to talk about? Why are you protesting? The reason is (at least in the beginning) that these players were protesting how people of color were being treated by the police. That they believe they needed to use their voice to highlight the rash of incidents of police brutality against their communities. We had such an amazing opportunity to engage in a national conversation and have all of us feel more inclusive and find solutions to a very real problem. But once again we engaged in a battle of who is right and wrong and to shout the protestors down. We could not be mature enough as a society to see past the act to what the core request was. We were too obsessed with the style and not the substance. I for one am ashamed for all of us, including myself, for not being that outstretched hand. Because at its core this was never about the flag, or the military, or kneeling, or freedom of speech, or firing anyone, or SOBs, or Alabama rallies, or anything else than a group of young black men led by Colin Kaepernick asking us to, for once, listen to them. To address their concerns and fears, to acknowledge that they matter to all of us. I am just so devastated right now, not by the circus of noise around this issue but by our lack of compassion and care for people who are marginalized and hurt. We just don’t collectively have the common decency to treat others as we wish to be treated. We once again, failed to live up to the Golden Rule and instead defaulted to our core anger and selfishness.
And then we just want to show that our outrage is more important than your outrage and thus the cycle continues. Freedom of speech is not easy because we all see and interact with messages that we don’t like but that is the point. If free speech only works when we are comfortable then it’s not worth having. Freedom of speech is great because we choose to take the hard path, because as American’s we know it is important.