Identity politics and excessive tribalism suppress the conversation we could be having in the spirit of NFL anthem demonstrations. When Colin Kaepernick began this movement, the popular narrative was that he sought to promote awareness about police brutality, specifically as it occurs in the black community. Implicit here is the suggestion that police would shoot less unarmed black people if celebrities and athletes generated more awareness. This suggestion warrants some scrutiny.

Information is so easily disseminated now that is unlikely that lack of awareness is limiting social progress in the United States. Video footage of these shootings is everywhere and as influential as some celebrities may be, broadcasting what amounts to, in some cases, an execution on one’s cellphone or computer on countless numbers of easily accessible media platforms probably generates sufficient awareness. I do not mean to suggest that Kaepernick was wrong to do what he did or that the players who wish to participle in the anthem demonstrations should not be permitted to freely express themselves. The method, demonstrating during the anthem, might not be effective in advancing the intended message though. There is an overabundance of information and awareness.  Social media platforms and advertisers compete for our attention. Consequently, the things that tend to win over our attention are now devoid of nuance or meaningful details.

The demonstrations might be emotionally satisfying or an act of team solidarity. However, if the demonstrations are effectively reminding us that racism is bad and that unarmed people don’t deserve to be shot by the police, it is unlikely that more awareness will promote the types of policy and training discussions that address the real problems. Demonstrations feel good because they give people a voice and a way to act on the compulsion to “do something.” In the age of social media, all it takes to demonstrate or raise awareness is a hashtag. We have enough hashtags, though.

Lack of information and awareness are lesser problems than the superficiality that pervades most political exchanges. Many of us “like” and recirculate articles we haven’t read because the headline confirms what we are already certain to be true. “#Takeaknee” won’t prevent a poorly trained police officer from shooting an unarmed person. In the short term, hashtag campaigns might elicit platitudes from elected officials and civil service leaders. However, leaders should seek to identify critical problems within their organizations regardless of a hashtag’s virality. While some problems are only obvious in hindsight, proactive leadership remains preferable to reactive leadership.

While most hashtag movements are likely well intentioned, they are also generally rhetorical. It is not uncommon to hear self-identified activists say things like “#resist” and “if you’re not verbally condemning racism then you’re condoning it.” But this is not a contest to see who can be the loudest or most self-loathing, as occurs in people who constantly grieve about their “privilege.” Performance and theater are not to be confused for concrete political action. It is probably safe to assume that virtually every player in the NFL is opposed to unarmed people being fatally shot by law enforcement officers. Kneeling during the national anthem is one way to demonstrate disapproval for something most people find completely deplorable. People who chose not to kneel during the national anthem may be just as passionate about social justice as those who kneel, though.

Kneeling during the national anthem is a strategic decision with potentially profound consequences many of which may have nothing to do with the actual reason for the demonstrations. People who chose not to kneel during the anthem or those who question the strategic wisdom of the gesture are not necessarily apathetic, uncaring, or racist. The suggestion that questioning a movement’s tactics is an indictment of one’s moral legitimacy is an intellectually dishonest practice that suppresses crucial dialogue about race. If I were an NFL player, I personally would not kneel during the anthem as I think it’s a poor strategic decision that inevitably derails actual conversations about important social and political issues. The approach taken by players like Doug Baldwin, Anquan Boldin, Malcolm Jenkins, and Benjamin Watson resonates with me much more. I would fully respect my teammates who did choose to kneel, however, as ultimately most of us desire the same social ends, even if we disagree about the means. Similarly, NFL owners are not necessarily racists because they acknowledge that kneeling during the national anthem might be a poor business decision with no tangible beneficial impact on social justice.

The central point here is that details matter, yet these details are rarely discussed even in the depthless charades that are today’s political debates or social media exchanges. It’s much easier to call an adversary a name than to propose a solution to a problem that by its complexity is intrinsically flawed. Details and intellectual honesty are incriminating when exchanges are about winning and losing and not about advancing ideas. No candidate knows what effect his/her policies will have on something like economic growth, as an example. Perhaps a reality TV host holds the highest political office in the nation because politics is just that.  We crave melodrama and outrage as they’re more comforting than uncertainty about timeless issues.

The original impetus for kneeling during the anthem was unjustified police use of lethal force against innocent people, particularly those from the black community. Implicit here is the notion that racism is a causal factor in these shootings. Some commentators suggest that there is an epidemic of unarmed black people being shot by the police. The data here is highly politicized and unreliable. Without complete transparency from law enforcement and responsible, objective reporting from academics and the media we’ll never know if black people are indeed disproportionally shot by police, all other factors being equal. Cellphone recordings, tweets, and Facebook posts are not the mediums from which we should make generalized conclusions about social phenomena. While there are certainly racist police officers and remnants of racist policies that create friction between police and certain communities, it’s a big leap to effectively characterize all these shootings as hate crimes or as racially motivated.