Zach Cioffi is a bartender who witnesses a lot of sound-bite politics in action. Here’s an exchange he had with a patron regarding the Colin Kaepernick protest of the national anthem.
Thanks to the 24-hour news cycle, political narratives drop into our daily conversations with no assembly required. Each issue is already neatly packaged within two sets of contraposed arguments and all we have to do is remember the sound bites. As a bartender, almost daily I get to witness the back-and-forth of what sounds like two tipsy bumper stickers with legs. The quasi-plagiarism of it all is a pisser for another day. But what’s even more disturbing about these situations is that nobody ever questions the framing of the argument they’re so rabidly prolonging. It’s as if, through some sort of collective unconscious magic, in every pub from Boston to Los Angeles, everyone sees the same issue from exactly the same angles.
The other day, a regular (we’ll call her Amy) broached the Colin Kaepernick debate. She began to complain about school-age athletes and band players kneeling during the national anthem to mirror Kaepernick’s protest of the various forms of racial injustice in America. Her belief, like so many others, is that refusing to stand during “The Star-Spangled Banner” is disrespectful to our military. If I’d wanted to stay inside that prefabricated context, the typical response would’ve been to ask: “Well, isn’t Kaepernick’s freedom to protest exactly what our military defends everyday?” But, rather than meet her where she was at, I questioned how she had arrived at her belief in the first place.
Me: “Why does the military have a monopoly on the national anthem? Do we only play it to honor them and no one else?”
Amy: “A lot of them have put their life on the line to defend our freedom. And, for any veteran alive or dead, not standing during the national anthem is like spitting in their faces.”
Me: “So, are you saying that, any time the national anthem plays, the only reason that it’s being played is to honor the military?”
Amy: “Well, that’s not the only reason, but it’s a big reason.”
Me: “What does the national anthem mean to you?”
Amy: “It’s celebrating the freedoms we enjoy every day, and those are the same freedoms that people have died to protect.”
Me: [pointing to a group of patrons eating at a booth] “Do you think the anthem means the same thing to them?” [pointing to another group of patrons] “How about them?”
Amy: “Generally, yes.”
Me: “What about a 70-year-old guy versus a 20-year-old guy? Do you think they view the meaning of the anthem differently?”
Amy: “Probably, I guess.”
Me: “What about a black person? A Latino? A Native American?”
Amy: “Listen, my point is that, if kids are going to a high school or a college, and they’re in sports or play in band, then they shouldn’t be kneeling during the anthem. There’s a time and a place for protest, and that’s not the place.”
Me: “When is the best time and place for protest?”
Amy: “If a guy’s making millions of dollars playing a stupid game, he should be thankful for it, especially when people have died to preserve the country where he plays that stupid game.”
Me: “Have you ever asked a veteran about any of the reasons he decided to serve his country?”
Amy: “Well, I assume they love this country and they want to protect it.”
Me: “But have you actually asked a veteran what caused him or her to join the military?”
Me: “Have you asked a veteran how well he or she was taken care of by our government after returning from duty?”
What happened to Amy is what happens when you unconsciously accept the framing of a secondhand argument. I know because I’m guilty of it tenfold. There have been many times when, in the middle of a political debate, I’ve spouted off a few statistics that I’ve never actually verified myself through research. And I’ve been called on my bullshit, not necessarily because the statistics weren’t true, but because I can’t expound upon the studies from which they’re cited.
So often the suggested remedy for sound-bite politics is to seek out alternative forms of media. While news that’s less influenced by ad money and Beltway figureheads can certainly be helpful, the problem itself is allowing any form of media—print sources, television, internet, music, etc.—to do all of the thinking for you. Of course, the more diverse your information sources, the better you’ll become at filtering biases and agendas. But nothing beats sitting in a room, inside your own head, and reverse engineering any belief or idea you take for granted. Now that’s a freedom worth protecting.