Symbolism always has a purpose, which is sensitization of a group of people to the fact that a person is aware of and cares about matters of importance with which the group in question has to grapple.

Colin Kaepernick and other football players in the United States practiced good symbolism last football season by kneeling down while the U.S. National Anthem was being played. In the decision to practice this symbolism they demonstrated that though relatively rich and more insulated to racial profiling than less well off blacks or other minorities, they cared about deterioration in treatment of blacks by police officers. The symbolism was a good decision because it was visible to millions of football spectators all over the United States and had potential to sensitize people who otherwise may not have taken time to think over the situation to engage positively with deterioration in black-white relations.

But then it got bad. Kaepernick and others with him did not understand the difference between symbolism and substantive, meaningful activism. They did not understand the golden rule of symbolism, which is:

Symbolism is utilized for creating awareness and never is the means for actualizing change.

Kaepernick knelt down for the entire season. How many more people could he have reached after kneeling for five games? Perhaps zero. Perhaps a hundred thousand. Well, if the gesture no longer has power for significantly raising awareness after five games, why kneel for the entire season?

Kneeling down while the U.S. National Anthem is being played cannot by itself change nature of interactions between whites and blacks in America. It only serves to sensitize. Continuation of sensitization ad infinitum induces, however, a counterfactual outcome, which is, continued highlighting of a problem without accompaniment of a solution process. Protracted symbolism always is counter productive. Symbolism then always must be confined to some specific time frame if it is not to subvert its own ends and objectives.

Consider Labor Unions. When labor unions go on strike, they simultaneously engage in labor talks with employers or governments. The strike is the symbolism. The talks are the solution process. Given symbolism and solution process go hand-in-hand, labor strikes persist as long as necessary for labor to win or until the other party wins. Winning or losing is primarily determined within context of the labor talks, however, never by the strike itself. This is the reason labor unions sometimes lose within context of labor talks in the sense that the other party demonstrates unreasonableness of demands of labor conditional on realities of business conditions.

Consider, however, demonstrations. Demonstrations are symbolism. They never ever also are means for solving problems highlighted by such demonstrations. Whenever governments have been toppled by demonstrations, it is because the military sides with the people or the ruler acquiesces to the will of the people, not because people demonstrated. This is why demonstrations sometimes are successful at peacefully toppling governments (e.g. Egypt, Tunisia) or turn into mass oppression of the people (e.g. Tienanmen Square in China, protests by students in Hong Kong etc.). When the Muslim Brotherhood put Mubarak in jail after he acquiesced to demands of his people to step down, I knew and wrote they lacked understanding of proper governance because a ruler who peacefully acquiesces to demands of his people to leave office never should end up in jail. But I digress.

Demonstrations in the state of Virginia, USA last month simultaneously highlight importance of symbolism of demonstrations and incapacity of symbolism at solving highlighted problems. Thank God for well meaning people who were willing to demonstrate that Whiteness was more aligned with equity than with bigotry. The symbolism was nascent and powerful. One can only hope symbolism of White people standing up for equity in society results in meaningful, constructive activism that changes black-white relations in the United States for the better. Note, however, that if Whites who stood up against bigotry were to continue to hold demonstrations every week ad infinitum, the power of the symbolism will be lost and symbolism will be looked upon as a nuisance. This was the mistake made by Kaepernick and others like him within the NFL.

It is important we understand that

symbolism always is for a specific time and serves as springboard for activism that addresses a challenge or problem.

No good parent sends their child to their room for bad behavior ad infinitum. There always is a limit to time spent in the room, then comes discussion of behavior and resolutions for the future. No good company suspends an employee forever with or without pay. Either the employee is recalled or the employee is fired. Either way, symbolism of suspension results in some work out process, equivalently, activism.

At worst, Kaepernick and others like him were surrounded or advised by dubious intellectualism that does not understand the difference between symbolism and activism (if a childhood friend or relative does not have a PhD in Sociology, Business Psychology, Business, or Management, reliance on a childhood friend for advice on symbolism pursued within context of a business is reliance on dubious intellectualism). If Kaepernick had knelt for five games then founded an organization that focuses on constructive engagement of young blacks and whites in sporting activities, he would have utilized his symbolism powerfully for arrival at constructive activism. This is no different from an actor behaving badly or extremely well just about the time they are to have a new movie released. Utilized well, symbolism is good leverage for meaningful, substantive activism.

If Kaepernick has been willing to give up kneeling while the U.S. National Anthem is being played, he should have a job, unless there is some sort of belief he has washed out. The evidence suggests, however, that he is not washed up because a player’s ability in sports cannot be assessed independent of the performance of an entire team. Two seasons ago, James Vardy of Leicester City, a club that plays in the English Premier League was an unstoppable striker. Last season, within context of an overall mediocre performance by his team, he was a less than mediocre striker. But that was partly because other teams figured Leicester out and it took a new coach to shake things up enough for the team to be successful. Many years ago, Jerry Lewis and Rod Woodson carried a mediocre Oakland Raiders team and an averagely talented Quarterback all the way to Super Bowl XXXVII. Jerry ensured they could go deep. Rod made it difficult for other teams to go deep. If all you can do is dink and dunk for four quarters, and the other team has a quality receiver for going deep, the other team has a better than fifty percent chance of winning the game. Two quality players helped a mediocre team all the way to a Super Bowl. If two quality guys on a football team can help an averagely talented Quarterback be successful, it is objectively true that Kaepernick perhaps is being judged rather unfairly or harshly.

If you are reading this and you have Kaepernick’s ear, please get him to read this so he can acknowledge he made a mistake in continuing to kneel last year, as opposed to promising not to kneel this year. There is a subtle difference. If employers think he may again “kneel in the future”, with kneeling a metaphor for any symbolism that could be adopted in future, they may shy away from giving him a job. If he can explain to employers why he was right to employ symbolism, but mistaken in his decision to turn symbolism into activism, that displayed wisdom just might save his career.

Good symbolism always transitions from symbolism to activism, but with the realization that symbolism never is a good vehicle for meaningful, substantive, change inducing activism.


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Educator and Researcher, Believer in Spirituality, Life is serious business, but we all are pilgrims so I write about important stuff with empathy and ethos

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