Military service is a potentially rewarding career. However, not every strategic objective involves defending the nation from enemies that pose an existential threat to our “freedom.” Foreign policy is complex and messy. If, in the absence of unintended consequences, the U.S. military always promoted global human rights while safeguarding American democracy, there would be little reason to have any oversight or discussion about how the military should be employed. With oceans protecting it, the civilian population does not bear the burden of war in the United States. This detachment from armed conflict is generally a positive thing.  Yet, the minimal impact of armed conflict on the civilian population creates confusion about what the military does. Equating the utilization of the military with the defense of freedom suppresses the type of dialogue and transparency that is crucial to sustaining a healthy democracy. The necessity of the military need not perpetuate its mysticism.

There are many ways to serve the nation without carrying a gun in a foreign land. Equating the flag with military service by default is something one might expect in a military state, not in a “free” country. This spurious equivalency effectively renders an arm of the government the arbiter of freedom. The meaning of the flag is contextual and fluid. It doesn’t have to represent the same thing all the time. No symbol should be so sacred that its meaning can’t be challenged. There are instances in which challenging what the flag symbolizes is completely tasteless and disdainful. Kneeling during the national anthem at a football game is not morally and symbolically equivalent to, for example, protesting at a military funeral like one particular religious group frequently does. The latter are deplorable people who harass American families at their most vulnerable moments to highlight their warped agenda.

What Kaepernick did is different from what military funeral crashers do, and we need to be able to differentiate between these types of situations. During a military funeral or while transporting a casket from Afghanistan to Arlington National Cemetery, the flag is more synonymous with military service. It’s crucial that we not treat every situation involving the flag as identical. Otherwise, context ceases to matter. NFL players who kneel during the national anthem have no intention of disrespecting the military. Instead, they see a discrepancy between what the flag alleges to represent and what certain people are experiencing. One can debate the nature of this disconnect, but the notion that NFL players who take a knee are somehow hostile to the military is extremely dubious. Additionally, the suggestion that sports should be devoid of politics is problematic considering that playing the national anthem at a sporting event is itself a political statement. Commissioners and owners exploit political opportunities for financial gain, so nobody’s really “sticking to sports.”

Identity politics is often associated with historically marginalized social and cultural groups.  In this instance, however, the military is the vehicle for virtue signalling. In identity politics, victimhood is embraced as a weapon to morally and intellectually delegitimize dissenting opinions. When military members are victimized by anthem demonstrations at a football game, there is little impetus for additional dialogue because it’s repugnant to engage in conversation with people who disrespect a group we associate with sacrifice and selflessness. The ideological Right misuses the military to stifle discussion about anthem demonstrations when it neglects to contextualize the flag. Similarly, the ideological Left achieves its moral and intellectual certainty when it anoints itself the only faction capable of determining what constitutes systematic disempowerment and prejudicial behavior.

Holding greater claim to the victim renders dissenting opinions less worthy of acknowledgement. The current Nike campaign equates Kaepernick with sacrifice. That Kaepernick didn’t lose life or limb like Pat Tillman, for whom a competing meme is now circulating, doesn’t mean that he didn’t sacrifice something significant even if he didn’t foresee effectively being barred from the NFL. It’s presumptuous of the people circulating these memes to assume that Tillman would want to be characterized as the anti-Kaepernick. Dying in battle, the “ultimate sacrifice,” is not the only form of sacrifice. The victimhood Olympics is unwinnable, and politics continues to suffer for it. The ideological Right and the ideological Left refuse to regard people as individuals and to analyze the specific details of particular scenarios. One can always find someone or something that has been more victimized. This practice, however, is generally incompatible with open-mindedness. Additionally, it is clear that Nike’s choice of Kaepernick as the new brand face was financially motivated. Plenty of people are also making quite a bit of money branding themselves as patriots at NFL players’ expense.

It doesn’t follow that somebody who participates in a benign gesture during the national anthem of a sporting event wishes to spit on the grave of a fallen soldier. Again, specious victim advocacy makes it permissible to evade the intellectual duty to listen before formulating a conclusion. Ideas are too important to rank voices in victimhood order. One need not have directly experienced the trauma of war to contribute to a discussion about foreign policy or national security. One need not have experienced racism directly to opine on social justice and human rights. These issues are too important to let just the victims, or supposed victim advocates, monopolize the conversation.

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In the identity politics game, feelings, not ideas, are the means of persuasion. Disagreeing with one’s politics is an affront to their humanity. Those made to feel uncomfortable by the anthem demonstrations need not engage in conversation with the demonstrators by their emotional distress. The point of the anthem demonstrations is to make people uncomfortable and draw attention to a cause. Whether or not kneeling during the anthem is an effective means of generating productive dialogue is another matter altogether.

How much different are people that are offended by anthem demonstrations than people who claim to be triggered by microaggressions or college students who demand “safe spaces” to protect them from difficult conversations? In the current political climate, the point at which a microaggression becomes a macroaggression or legitimate physical hostility is determined by feelings, not any objective standard. Kneeling during the anthem doesn’t constitute physical harm. That some people find these demonstrations offensive is not sufficient reason to discredit the movement. Focusing on feelings and group identity eliminates the need to collectively determine what boundaries are more objectively reasonable.

Resolving complex social issues is extraordinarily difficult. Incredibly bright, well-intentioned people fail to agree on timeless dilemmas like the degree to which free will exists (which is central to the current race discussion) and the balance between civil liberties and security. These are necessarily contentious conversations with no clear solutions. Now more than ever, we seek to portray those with whom we disagree as extremists when in reality, most people want the same thing. The far Right and the far Left are only as influential as more moderate people allow them to be.  Ideological leanings aside, virtually nobody wants to see unarmed people of any ethnic background being shot by police, the supposed impetus for kneeling during the anthem.

Most people just disagree about the means, not the ends. Blaming somebody else for everything that’s wrong with the world is much easier than refining the details about the means. Mark Lilla and Sam Harris recently summarized the perils of identity politics with the statements “politics require persuasion, not self-expression” and “to the extent that we’re rational we share the same identity.” Identity-based movements and elements of identity politics are necessary to draw attention to legitimate instances of political oppression and social injustice. The tipping point, however, is when identity politics hijacks individuals of their ability to step outside their ideological box and prevents the continual refinement of philosophical and empirical details that should dictate policy.

About the author —

A former U.S. Air Force Pararescueman, Doug Kechijian has deployed throughout the world to help provide technical rescue capability and emergency medical care to U.S and allied forces. He is a nationally certified paramedic with advanced training in emergency, trauma, and wilderness medicine. Doug currently co-manages a private sports medicine practice and human performance consulting company in New York City. Doug received his AB in Biology from Brown University and MA in Exercise Physiology/Doctor of Physical Therapy from Columbia University.