Over the last few weeks there has been overwhelming response to NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s choice to sit during the National Anthem. Many have expressed disgust, anger, and even vitriol toward him; others have joined in his protest. Whatever you think of what he’s doing, there’s no denying that Kaepernick has America talking. The question is, though, what is America talking about?
As I thought about Colin’s motives and actions, and the public response, I started thinking about the nature of communication. I recalled an old adage my parents taught me: it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan argued that the medium is the message. While he was referring specifically to television and radio (and today he would include social media), his theory was that how we communicate dictates what we communicate. Furthermore, how we communicate is what we communicate. These lessons become quite pronounced when I think about Colin Kaepernick: his message has become obscured by his method of communicating that message. Or as McLuhan would say: his medium has become his message.
Kaepernick’s Intended Message: “We Must Discuss Racial Problems”
On August 28, 2016, the now infamous football star explained the reason behind his protest:
I’m going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed. To me, this is something that has to change. When there’s significant change and I feel that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, and this country is representing people the way that it’s supposed to, I’ll stand.
This stand wasn’t for me. This is because I’m seeing things happen to people that don’t have a voice, people that don’t have a platform to talk and have their voices heard, and effect change. So I’m in the position where I can do that and I’m going to do that for people that can’t.
It’s something that can unify this team. It’s something that can unify this country. If we have these real conversations that are uncomfortable for a lot of people. If we have these conversations, there’s a better understanding of where both sides are coming from.
I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country. I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country. And they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone. That’s not happening. People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody. That’s something that’s not happening. I’ve seen videos, I’ve seen circumstances where men and women that have been in the military have come back and been treated unjustly by the country they fought have for, and have been murdered by the country they fought for, on our land. That’s not right.
If you look past the highly controversial method of protesting and listen to what he is saying, you’ll see that he’s wanting to address oppression (perceived or real), justice, and racial equality. All of these are issues worth discussing, and issues about which this nation must have a conversation. However, this worthwhile message has become almost completely lost amidst Kaepernick’s method of protesting. As a a result, his medium (sitting or kneeling during the national anthem) has become his message.
Kaepernick’s Conveyed Message: “I’m a Spoiled Brat and I Hate America”
When I was a teenager, an older, wiser man told me that you can delight a woman by saying “Your beauty makes time stand still,” or you can insult her by saying, “You have a face that would stop a clock.” Both statements deal with appearance and time, but each conveys a completely different message. This, basically, is the situation with Kaepernick.
By sitting or kneeling during the National Anthem, onlookers don’t see a someone who wants to discuss race relations. Rather, they see a super-rich athlete direspecting the nation and dishonoring those who serve in the military. Instead of seeing a man wanting to start a national conversation about equal rights and civil liberties, they see a person drawing attention to himself. To put it simply: by kneeling or sitting, Kaepernick’s message is one of selfishness and hate.
As a result of his actions, Colin Kaepernick has allowed his medium–his means of communicating–become his message. He has allowed his method of protesting overshadow the cause for which he protests. Herein is a true case of “I believe he protesteth too much.” As such, Kaepernick has failed.
What We Can Learn from Kaepernick’s Failure
When it comes to Kaepernick’s protest, Boss Godfrey said it best in Cool Hand Luke:
While Kaepernick succeeded in getting Americans talking, he failed to get them talking about the purpose of his protest. Instead, Americans are talking about Kaepernick and the protest itself, not the issue of race. The good news is that we can learn some important lessons from Kaepernick’s failure.
- Clarity is king in communication. Whether you are writing a menu, preaching a sermon, or holding a casual conversation, you must be clear in what you are saying. Say what you mean. If the listener doesn’t understand your message, you are not being clear.
- How you communicate matters as much as what you communicate, if not more. Don’t let the way you communicate overshadow what you wish to say. Rather, let your intended message stand out loud and clear (see above). This means finding the most effective way to say what you want to say.
- You will be misunderstood at some point. However clear you try to be, and no matter how effective you think your method may be, there will be times when you will be misunderstood. Rather than dismiss it, though, we should learn from these moments and improve our communication skills.
- Never stop learning how to communicate effectively. The most skilled (and the most honest) communicators admit that they are always learning to improve their craft. We should be lifelong students, always growing and improving.
All that said, now it’s your turn. Share this on social media and join the conversation about conversation!