By Darcy Munce
As racial tensions in the United States amplify Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers Quarterback, has ignited a national conversation by refusing to stand and honour the flag during the national anthem prior to kick-off. Many pieces have since been written both in support and in outrage against his statement that he cannot show respect to a flag that represents a nation plagued with police shootings and systematic discrimination of black and coloured people. For the most part, much of the rhetoric against Kaepernick’s protest has been along simple lines of patriotism with each piece differing very little. Articles which offer sentiment in support of Kaepernick propose different and interesting representations of athletes in the media, their social responsibilities as well as the racial undertones at the heart of the issue. Two pieces which offer different views on the issue despite acknowledging the merit of the protest have been produced by Ijeoma Oluo for the Guardian and Sam Clench for News.com. Although both express views in favour of Kaepernick’s reasoning they come to opposing conclusions about its effectiveness in creating a dialogue about race in America.
The key similarity between these pieces is that they stipulate that as a sports star and a black man Kaepernick has the right to feel the way he does about such social injustices. They each then progress their arguments in different ways based on different outcomes and responses to his protest. Each can be categorised as argumentative rather than purely opinion based as they make reference to counter-arguments and cite facts to empirically back up assertions.
Both Oluo and Clench frame their support of Kaepernick’s intent through a negative representation of some of the more ridiculous and hyperbolically oppositional responses to the protest.
“When parents watching school sport are genuinely excited about the idea of a sideline firing squad, it’s fair to say that your country has gone completely, certifiably insane.”
Clench makes reference to a high school football team telling students they would be shot if they knelt during the national anthem. Not only does he make an assumption of the parental response to this announcement but is a hasty generalisation that this sort of response is nationwide and as such signifies national insanity.
Oluo’s piece is similar in making the informal fallacy of grouping all negative responses to Kaepernick’s protest as based on the same grounds and in particular by using emphatic and binary language to push this generalisation.
“But every argument against Kaepernick’s protest is wrong. Every single one.Furthermore, many of them are racist.”
The emphasis in ‘every single one’ is an overstatement and over-generalisation of opposing arguments despite its correctness for many responses to Kaepernick’s protest. Oluo follows his claim by using evocative language in accusing negative respondents to Kaepernick as being accidental white supremacists. The use of such emotive language categorises those who oppose his perspectives as objectively evil through the historic connotations it draws upon. Regardless of the truth of such a statement regarding certain responses it is an informal fallacy of generalisation to view all negative responses in the same light.
The crucial differences in these articles comes through the primary claims as to the consequences of the protest by way of creating a national dialogue regarding race. Despite this difference they both point to the overtly racist responses to Kaepernick’s protest as justification for the main claim. Oluo uses them as evidence that racism is obvious and existent in America and requires protesting, Clench instead blames Kaepernick for creating a conversation in which racist responses are given a platform and legitimacy.
“Others asked why he hates veterans – still others, why he hates America. Yet more people asked why he can’t just stick to football.”
Through listing each argument against Kaepernick’s protest Oluo establishes the grounds for each of his claims throughout the remainder of the piece. The rest of the article is dedicated to providing reasons each of these arguments is categorically wrong while establishing the national discussion as a positive one with beneficial outcomes. Such a list acts as an appeal to fact as although not directly quoting responses, it draws on a general form of response that would be well known to the audience.
“But even though Kaepernick has done nothing wrong, he has done something stupid. He’s turned too many people against his cause.”
Clench defines the created dialogue as somewhat farcical and blames Kaepernick’s protest for acting as a basis by which respondents can voice their racist or overly patriotic views. He effectively points to the fact that refusing to honour the national anthem and flag has influenced those who may agree with anti-racist sentiment to instead oppose the protest on nationalist grounds. The underlying warrant here is that Kaepernick is responsible for having an awareness of how his protest may be perceived by others, not simply in the message he intended to spread.
In addressing counter arguments, the divide between the objectivity of the two pieces becomes apparent. The entire body of Oluo’s article is aimed at responding to the main criticisms against Kaepernick, however each of the arguments listed is summarised into a single-line overview and the categorically dismissed. Clench instead uses a balance of quotes and images to raise the validity of both perspectives of commentary for or against the protest.
“To those arguing that Kaepernick’s protest insults veterans: soldiers did not fight and die for a song or a flag. They fought for many other reasons – American ideals of liberty and equality, access to education, economic opportunities, the draft.”
Oluo undermines many valid points through creating a strawperson argument, he positions his argument as if towards those who disagree with him but is instead defining their argument in a minimalistic fashion before offering his own counter. Many responses along the lines Oluo is addressing claim a correlation between the national anthem and flag with the freedoms and liberties that American soldiers fight for. The overall argument is then weakened by not offering a counter to these more expanded responses, which could be legitimately argued, and instead creating a similar but altered point of contention. The underlying warrant of Oluo’s claim is that the flag and anthem are separate entities from the values of America. This is not congruent with the warrant expressed by opposing commentary which creates the strawperson argument through which Oluo makes his claims.
Clench instead uses quotes to represent the two opposing sides of the conversation Kaepernick sparked.
“(My son) died protecting the ideals of the flag you (Kaepernick) refuse to respect. He died so that ungrateful, privileged, arrogant men like you can be just that — ungrateful, privileged and arrogant. Men and women willing to die to protect you because they believed in the ideals this country was founded on. Men and women of all races and religions.”
Quoting a heartbroken mother who lost her son in the line of duty is definitively a plea to the emotions of the reader as it is difficult to argue with the first hand grief this woman has encountered. The selection of this quote leaves implications as to the author’s personal view of Kaepernick as the quote creates an evaluative presumption about all of the NFL players who have chosen to protest, that regardless of the validity of their claim they are all ‘ungrateful, privileged and arrogant.’ Despite not saying it directly Clench validates the sentiment of the mother by describing her claims as an “understandable reaction”.
“If you’re proclaiming to be a true American, freedom runs in our bloodlines, right? It’s supposed to. If somebody is telling you they don’t feel like they’re free, why wouldn’t you listen to them?”
In providing a quote from another high profile NFL star, Arian Foster, Clench momentarily adds a level of objectivity to his article. This is immediately lost as a stipulative definition is placed on the legitimacy of Foster’s claim. Clench defines Foster’s words as correct only in a ‘perfect world’ and then progresses to point out that due to the varied inflammatory responses the protest should have been more carefully considered. Again Clench falls back on the warrant that Kaepernick and subsequent protesters should be held responsible for the reactions to their protest and as such are accountable for creating a dialogue that is so divisive. This is factually incorrect as Kaepernick cannot be at fault for the inferred meaning behind his protest, only what is directly evident or implied.
Statistics and figures are used to justify many of the claims throughout each article although Oluo and Clench use different statistics to prove different points, they use them in a similar justificatory fashion.
“Black men in America are 3.5 times more likely than white men to be killed by police, the average white household has 15 times the average net worth of the average black household, one in three black men can expect to see prison in their lifetimes, and the infant mortality rate for black babies is up to three times higher than that of white babies.”
This appeal to facts effectively makes the claim that because these are true then Kapernick’s intentions are justified. The warrant of this appeal is that if the basis for the protest is valid, then the protest itself is similarly valid. For the most part this claim and warrant are not contentious and true however it creates an either-or argument in one’s position with or against Kaepernick. These claims create an environment for dialogue in which if you disagree with the protest you therefore believe these facts are acceptable in a modern society. Either you are with Kaepernick or against him and believe racial discrimination is fine.
“According to polling from YouGov, 57 per cent of Americans disapprove of Kaepernick’s actions. Among white people, who presumably need to hear his message the most, the split is 23 approve, 69 disapprove.”
Comparitively Clench’s use of statistics holds the exact opposite problem to Oluo, it fails to distinguish the difference between the protest itself and the way in which it has been responded to. This poll is used as justification for the claim that people have responded negatively to the protest due to the manner in which it was conducted. The warrant is expressly stated later in that Kaepernick “could call a press conference at a moment’s notice, or set up a TV interview”. The use of statistics is a post hoc, ergo propter hoc argument as the poll itself does not stipulate anything to do with the fashion in which the protest was enacted, it was simply an agree or disagree, yes or no question. The use of these poll results then does not in any way prove that the manner in which Kaepernick conducted the protest has had any influence over the responses it has received.
Aside from the obvious issue of race, the role of Kaepernick as a sports star is represented similarly between the two pieces. Oluo explicitly states that it is brave of Kaepernick to risk his fame for this social issue. Clench expresses similar admiration for Kaepernick’s boldness despite believing he could have used his social platform in a more effective manner. A point of similarity between the two pieces is that they both define Kapernick as a black sportsman, not just a sportsman, therefore tying his race to whatever social responsibility he may have on the field.
“What Kaepernick has done with his simple protest is brave. He has risked his privilege, his fame and his very career to stand with his fellow black and brown people against the systemic oppression that is literally killing us.”
In using collective language Oluo makes his closing statement an appeal to his own authority as someone who has experienced the racism being protested by Kaepernick. The warrant of calling Kaepernick brave for speaking out is twofold – sports stars have no social expectation placed on them to risk their fame by speaking out, and that being in such a public position as a black man opens Kaepernick up to receiving more racially hateful commentary.
“Kaepernick was willing to risk his reputation to defend his beliefs, and that is admirable. He certainly achieved one of his goals, because America is now having a conversation about race — albeit one that probably hasn’t lived up to his hopes.”
Clench makes a similar claim, that Kaepernick was brave in his protest, holding similar justification and warrants. Clench goes as far as embedding a video of a San Francisco 49ers fan burning a Kaepernick jersey to act as evidence for the kind of response a sportsman can receive for speaking out turn with what is socially expected of them.
The closing statement from each article reveals the explicitness with which they wish to express their opinion on the matter having previously justified their stance.
“This is what team spirit looks like when you look beyond jerseys. This is what American values look like when you stand for all Americans.”
In a final appeal to emotions Oluo finalises the basis of his argument throughout the piece, that the right to protest is fundamentally American and therefore no one can hate Kaepernick for utilising this right.
“He’s genuinely trying to improve the situation for African-Americans. Unfortunately, in the process, he’s only making it worse.”
Clench similarly uses explicit terms to emphasise his main claim that Kaepernick’s good intentions have not necessarily yielded positive outcome for his cause. The explicitness of both of their closing statements also reveals the political minefield that is the discussion of race in America and the authors’ desperation not to be associated with the racist responses they have made reference to throughout their articles.
Oluo and Clench are not intrinsically opposing each other as their underlying worldview is one of support and respect for both Kaepernick and his cause. The crucial difference between the two pieces is their fundamental disagreement on whether an action can be separated from the responses it receives and whether an individual has any control over the inferred messages of their statements. While both make attempts to be somewhat objective throughout their argument it is evident that they both remain somewhat bias towards their own conclusions through language choice and quote selection.
Despite the form of dialogue not being what was intended by Kaepernick when he made his protest it is undeniable that he has created one. These argumentative pieces answer many questions, Kaepernick’s protest is valid in the social context of recent police shootings and Kaepernick is brave to have spoken on a national stage which is historically quiet. The only question that remains to be answered is whether all social discussions are good discussions even if they inflame racial tensions.
Link to articles: