Dissent vs. Unity: On Unity as an American Value

Recent protests of the national anthem have shaken the world of sports. Colin Kaepernick started the movement last year when he controversially kneeled as the anthem played before a National Football League game, in an attempt to draw attention to police brutality in the United States.  This season, many others have caught on, drawing both passionate criticism and support of the protests. The phenomenon has accentuated the clear divide that exists in our country’s dialogue. Today, two distinct perspectives dominate the national conversation.  On one end, the protests are considered a rightful, free speech-endorsed response to injustices in America.  On the other, they are criticized as an act of abhorrent disrespect to the country and the military.  Two students examine the balance of these two general positions in relation to dissent and unity in our nation’s identity.  

Caitlin Dressel

When faced with the threat of the British during the American Revolution, the individual colonies banded together for support and strength.  In reference to the need for unity during this time, Benjamin Franklin stated, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately” (Franklin). Almost 250 years later, our country must remember the power of unity and its role in allowing us to triumph. In order to maintain harmony among Americans, it is essential to preserve unity.  However, dissent against policies that do not uphold the values of our country is also critical.  And while dissent enables the country opportunities to facilitate change, it is unity that establishes an atmosphere of shared ideals and common goals under one American identity.

As told by civil rights leader Martin Luther King in his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, dissent can promote change from the cooperation of one united people. Spoken more than fifty years ago, King’s words reflect on the treatment of African Americans historically and throughout the civil rights movement. He stated that the opportunities of African Americans in the ‘land of the free’ are inferior and inadequate. Thus, it should be understood that in order to improve current conditions, unity must first be upheld for the people to move forward as one, solid body. King established this need for togetherness in a time of adversity when he claimed, “Now is the time to lift our country from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood”.  The union of “brothers’’will establish loyalty among Americans that can lead the country in whichever direction is needed, and under these conditions dissent can be successful. King supported this when he declared, “The Whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges”. Balanced together, unity establishes a foundation for dissent to make progress.

Unification and dissent can both be necessary and can coexist simultaneously, as called for by former vice president Joe Biden in “We Are Living Through a Battle For The Soul of this Nation.”  He expresses his concern about the divisiveness and hate that have emerged since the presidential election.  Divided, our nation today lacks the trust and support to defend and uphold our common values. Biden addresses President Trump’s passivity by appealing to common citizens, declaring, “You, me, and the citizens of this country carry a special burden in 2017. We have to do what our president has not. We have to uphold America’s values. We have to do what he will not. We have to defend our Constitution.” In this challenge, dissent from the status quo is critical in order to preserve the identity we have fought so hard to achieve.  It is the responsibility and duty of the citizens of this nation to speak out when something is not right. It is equally important, however, to find the appropriate forum in which to do it.

In “America’s New Lesson on Tolerance,” law professor Garrett Epps defended NFL player, Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the singing of the national anthem.  The article defended his position by using court cases and laws that confirm that he is exercising his legal rights under the constitution.  But in refusing to stand for the national anthem, Kaepernick is rejecting the norm, from the expectations of the NFL, his fans, and the American public in general. Epps establishes that “Flags and anthems and patriotic display can inspire love and heroism but they can also bring out the worst in people.” Football is an American pastime that unifies people of different backgrounds who share a common interest and come together to enjoy it with one another. Indeed, Kaepernick’s actions pleased many Americans, but outraged the other half simultaneously. The dissenter’s decision to kneel protested racial inequality, and while he has succeeded in bringing attention to this issue, it has unfortunately caused further racial divide. His unwillingness to participate in the singing of the national anthem, a traditional introduction to American sporting events, can be perceived as an attack on American values.  While Kaepernick, along with any other American, has the right to protest the policies or practices that take place in this country, using this particular forum to do so is wrong. Occasions like marches, rallies, and press conferences, even published editorials, offer a better opportunity for public discourse.  Dissent can and has been a productive means for protest, but it is inappropriate to dissent during an event which unifies people for the greater good.

American values and traditions have been shared through the unity that ties the nation together.  Throughout our history, dissent has been crucial in order to protect threatened Americans from unjust practices and policies. It is dissent that can be credited for the movements that are responsible for women’s suffrage, the civil rights acts, and even the breakage from English Parliament. Yet, unity has bonded this nation together since it was founded. Shared ideals and common goals are the foundation of our relationships. Under one democracy, we achieve peace with one another if we listen instead of ignore, and form a union instead of divide. By upholding the traditional values this country was founded on, it is certain we will continue to prosper longer than we have already.