Kaepernick, Protest, and Proverbs

Colin Kaepernick ignited a social firestorm by electing to sit down during the national anthem Sunday. His protest was primarily aimed at police brutality and oppression of blacks and people of color in the United States. In his own words, “There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” As Kaepernick expressed, this was his way of standing up for people who don’t have the platform to do so for themselves.

While Kaepernick is a black man who was adopted and raised by white parents, I don’t want to talk about that. While Kaepernick is a black athlete making millions of dollars playing a professional sport dominated by black athletes, I don’t want to talk about that either. Moreover, while Kaepernick has the right to protest under the First Amendment and is entitled to use his platform to speak on social issues, no one is second guessing either of those premises. My concern is solely to observe how what has transpired illustrates this principle: how you speak matters as much as what you speak.

In the wake of Kaepernick’s actions some have asked an insightful question, “Did the manner of his protest distract from the merits of his protest?” Surely, his manner did not affect the merits of his protest – sitting down during the national anthem didn’t change a thing about the facts concerning police brutality or oppression in the U.S. But did it ‘distract’ from his message? To clarify the point, we might ask a similar question, “Did the manner of his protest affect his hearing?” Not Kaepernick’s own ear function, but his ‘being heard’ – the hearing of his audience.

The answer to both questions is demonstrably, yes. Kaepernick’s decision to remove himself from a socially and nationally sacred ritual by sitting down during the national anthem undeniably affected the conversation concerning and reception of his protest. Is anyone sincerely and seriously discussing the alleged brutality and oppression that Kaepernick was actually protesting? No. But everyone is talking about what he did. 

Some might bemoan this fact. But none of us should be surprised by it. Because the fact is how you speak matters as much as what you speak. Kaepernick may have been protesting a good cause, but his elected form of protest was unwise. Not all forms of protest are created equal. But even more fundamental than that, to imagine only what you say matters, and not also how you say it, is naive. People can choose to stomp their feet and yell and scream, “Just listen to what I’m saying,” or sit idly by while The Star-Spangled Banner resounds through Levi’s Stadium. But they’re kidding themselves, if they think people will be inclined to listen.

What I am raising is a communications question, an apologetics question, a question of rhetoric: does your manner of speech impact the hearing of your audience? Or to put it another way, do ‘what you say’ and ‘how you say’ both matter? For well over two thousand years the answer has been, yes. The Hebrews knew it. The Greeks knew it. Our nation’s founding fathers knew it. As it is written, “The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to his lips” (Prov. 16:23).

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