The NFL season is upon us this weekend and that means only one thing. It’s time once again to debate flags and anthems and our proper response to them. It’s a fresh new season of talk-radio harangues and Thanksgiving dinner eruptions by our hammered Uncle Arnie. Here’s a different angle to take:
It’s widely accepted by neuroscientists and moral / social psychologists that humans rely more on belief than reason in forming opinions and making choices. In short, we humans don’t measure the pros and cons of available evidence before taking sides or making choices. Rather, we arrive on the scene with an intuition or belief on a particular subject already established in our subjective consciousness and then, only afterwards, do we come up with strategic reasoning that will justify that belief. It appears to us as if we have used reason to arrive at an opinion, but we actually haven’t. Our beliefs come first and rationalizations follow. How the belief got there in the first place is debatable. It may be in our DNA, but most experts think beliefs are formed by a variety of subjective, personal, psychological experiences we gain through our families, our social environment or culture.
What does this have to do with the NFL and the national anthem controversy?
This. The American flag has no meaning in and of itself. It is assigned a meaning by the individual viewing it. That’s how the mind works. Humans arrive at meaning by traveling personal roads of experience that belong to them and them alone. Similar interpretations of the flag may be shared by others, but that’s merely coincidental. There is no truth in this game. That a majority of people might interpret the flag as a symbol of just wars won by brave, unselfish soldiers does not constitute a truth. It’s merely a belief held by a lot of people. Is it a justified belief? I can justify it. Maybe you can too. It can be justified by anyone who holds that belief. But we can’t prove that it’s true.
Other individuals see the flag through a prism of their values and personal experiences. I may be the only guy on Cape Cod who rises at the sight of the flag because I make it be the spirit of Thomas Jefferson and the most profound sentence ever written “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” (I didn’t need to type that all out for you, but I did because when I hear it in my mind, the hair on the back of my neck stands up. I like that.)
If I were told the flag is unmistakably a symbol of American governments and corporations who claim a state of continuous war is moral and in our national interest, I would sit down. It’s my right to stand, kneel, or sit as my belief dictates.
On the question of how you should respond to the NFL stand / kneel issue this Sunday, my advice is this: let it go. It really doesn’t matter. (I’m still trying to figure out why we even use athletic competitions as giant flag-displaying, anthem-singing events in the first place. Why don’t we rise and sing the anthem before movies at the multiplex or before we have sex?) You’re not about to convince the person standing (or kneeling) next to you in the stadium that the belief floating around in your mind is a better belief than hers. It would be as futile as trying to convince her that your mother is a better mother than hers.
Perhaps on the question of beliefs, we should listen to the wisdom of another great American thinker: “I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours”.