OPINION: The patriotic gesture of empathy

The Pittsburgh Steelers side of the field is nearly empty during the playing of the national anthem before an NFL football game between the Steelers and Chicago Bears, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, in Chicago. (Photo by Kiichiro Sato, AP))

I have an aged yellow picture in a plastic frame on my desk at work of my great grandfather when he enlisted in the U.S. Army following the outbreak of the second World War.

He is smiling in the photo, unaware of the atrocities he would witness or the injuries he would sustain in the name of his country. Other than the love and admiration I have for the man in the picture, I keep it as a reminder of the words he once told me when insisting I should never enlist in the military.

"I fought so you would never have to."

As a champion of free speech, it is also important to me to have his photo nearby to look at when I get angry at the opinions of others. I tend to be opinionated myself and sometimes need to be brought down to earth when I think I have everything figured out.

With that in mind, I feel it is important to remind myself and others the First Amendment - and the blood shed to preserve it - gives all Americans the right to a political opinion and the right to express those beliefs in a non-violent way.

I'm not voicing support for the violent actions of white supremacists on the far right or Antifa protestors on the far left. Rather, I support the rights of those with an opinion to both have their beliefs and be protected when voicing them.

The controversy generated via social media over this past weekend concerning the protests of professional athletes during the national anthem is no exception. What those stars, stripes and the corresponding anthem symbolize is a celebration of freedom - not a set of political and moral guidelines by which one ideology is protected and another left out in the cold.

The only lines drawn regulating political self-expression focus on violence and malice. Neither of these constructs are breached by someone taking a knee or raising a fist in protest during the national anthem.

Many use the national anthem controversy to hammer home more hard-line beliefs on socioeconomic issues, race and the disconnect between the government and its people. At the root of the debate, though, the focus has shifted to pure political expression. This has evolved, of course, from the intended actions of one San Francisco 49er who used his knees to protest the marginalization of African-Americans. But in its wake, what we are seeing is a tug of war for the very right to political self-expression.

For many - on both sides - you have the right to express your beliefs so long as it jives with the beliefs of the right or left. To behave in this narrow-minded fashion spits in the face of people like my paw paw, who shed blood to protect those rights.

As an American, you have the right to be as wrong as you want to be and criticize others you perceive as being wrong, but when you say someone should be jailed, barred from employment or kicked out of the country for not holding the same beliefs, then you are simply being un-American. Luckily, you are protected by your right to say those things, but in the end, you simply become a walking contradiction.

If you want to kneel when the national anthem is playing, you have the right to do so. If you want to call someone unpatriotic for kneeling, you also have the right to do so. That's what a democracy is. Scores of our courageous countrymen gave their lives to preserve that notion - not to let one ideology dictate how we practice our certain unalienable rights.

We as Americans are at a crossroads in our nation's history and need to find a way to coexist or risk splitting apart at the seams. We should honor our military servicemen, police and elected officials for the sacrifices they make, but in turn, they should honor the guaranteed rights of the citizenry of which it serves.

To say you disagree with the actions of the government at any level should not make you an enemy of military servicemen or law enforcement, nor should serving in your country's military or law enforcement force you to view those at home with different beliefs as the enemy.

A little bit of respect goes a long way in today's society and empathy is a resource we seem much too short of. If you see someone kneeling during the national anthem, or have a problem with someone who does stand with their hat removed when the song plays, put yourself in their position.

Maybe they had a relative die for the stars and stripes in a foreign war, or maybe they were the victim of some institutional injustice. All I'm asking for is empathy.

We live in polarizing times, but unity is not impossible if we put aside our preconceived notions and try our best to recognize and respect beliefs other than our own.

Ryan Phillips is the editor of the Starkville Daily News. The views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect the beliefs and opinions of the Starkville Daily News staff.