What is going on here?
This past summer, on a beach in France, a Muslim woman was confronted by police and required to remove part of her burkini in accordance with a prohibition on such religious swimwear. Meanwhile, on the west coast of the United States, a professional football player remained seated for the playing of the national anthem before a pre-season game. He was quickly vilified in the media.
What do these apparently disconnected events have to do with each other?
They represent different forms of systemic discrimination: racism, sexism, and religious prejudice.
Some have argued that the reason for the burkini ban is actually to legally reject the religiously-based objectification of women. If true, this may have some merit but the problem here is the government’s stance of “it’s for your own good that we enforce your compliance”. In other words: We have to strip you of your freedom in order to protect your freedom. This is also problematic in that it does not take into account that at least some women may want to wear the burkini of their own free will.
There is also reason to suspect general anti-Muslim sentiments within the population. France has experienced a number of terrorist attacks in recent years that have been associated with Islam. It is understandable that some people could come to fear and suspect a Muslim person of being a potential terrorist in light of this recent history.
There is also something rather sexist about the burkini ban: It aims to specifically regulate women and how they may present themselves in public. There does not seem to be a corresponding regulation concerning how a Muslim man may or may not be attired at the beach. Consider for a moment how you would feel if the Muslim woman on the beach happened to be your sister or your mother or your wife or your daughter being forced by male police officers to remove any article of her clothing.
Halfway around the world we have a well-known professional football player who decided that he will not stand up for the national anthem of the United States of America. This has shifted from sitting to a more symbolically powerful kneeling posture. He has stated that this is in protest of the racial injustices in the United States. His actual statement is as follows:
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
He expresses recognition that there may be painful consequences that he will have to face as a result:
“I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people who are oppressed….If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.”
Refusing to stand for the national anthem is not the first time someone in America has taken a stand by sitting down. The individual’s body language quite clearly expresses: “I won’t stand for the status quo of injustice and oppression.” It was true when Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat on the bus decades ago and it is true now.
While some have expressed support for this protest, the backlash has been considerable. Many have referred to this person as a “traitor” and expressed outrage that this professional athlete would show such disrespect to the men and women of the armed forces and domestic law enforcement. He has also reportedly received death threats for his actions.
Some expressions of public outrage are variations of the following:
“How dare he refuse to stand for the national anthem!”
“The real heroes of this country sacrifice their lives so this guy can make millions playing a game once a week.”
There is, of course, this inevitable expression of indignant anger:
“If he doesn’t like it here he should go live somewhere else!”
We want our celebrities, our star athletes, our popular entertainers to know their place! We get angry when they cross the line and go beyond their assigned roles in our society. We don’t want anyone who might be a role-model to rock the boat and make existing social power structures unstable (and the people who maintain them and benefit from them uncomfortable). We want Muhammed Ali to shut up and box. We want Marlon Brando to accept his Oscar and thank everyone instead of refusing it in protest. We want the Dixie Chicks to shut up and play their music. We don’t want well-known, well-liked public figures to challenge The System. It makes us uncomfortable to consider that, in our apathy, we may be complicit with some injustice. We want our discomfort to go away and so we want the reminders to go away.
The clear implication here is that a wealthy celebrity is ineligible to express thoughtful dissent by virtue of the fact that he or she is rich and famous. The logical extension of this formula is that only people who are relatively poor and unknown have the right to voice their opposition to any social injustice. Of course, relatively poor and unknown people are much easier to ignore and control. The paparazzi do not hound them for pictures, videos or sound bites so they are not much of a threat.
When the status quo of society-as-a-whole is threatened by accusations of unethical behavior it has become almost obligatory for representatives of the social order move into “damage control” mode. One way that this is done is by conceding that there is some validity to the accusations but that this is because of a “few bad apples.” This means that the problem only exists on an individual level. The “game” itself, it’s rules and goals are maintained as right and worthy of continuation. The point of this kind of diversion is to sacrifice a few pawns to save the King and the Queen and the “monarchy” as a whole. The System, the Established Order, is to be preserved at any cost. If this means throwing a few individuals under the bus, so be it.
When injustice is institutionalized it becomes part of The System. It becomes the social norm. When systemic injustice is operational (e.g. apartheid, the Abu Ghraib prison) it automatically emboldens individuals who represent The System to go beyond the limits of decency when it comes to their interaction with any minority group. A minority group is viewed as the fictional “them” contrasted to the “us” of the majority faction. “They” are categorized as the source of the Problem so the Solution is to control “them” or maybe even get rid of “them”. Unfortunately, history provides us with many examples of this kind of “Problem Solving.”
Why do we prefer to blame a few individuals (e.g. criminals) and remain functionally blind to the structural flaws (e.g. consumerism, militarism, racism, poverty, etc.) in our social system?
Maybe it’s just easier to blame individuals and make them the villains as opposed to solving social problems on a systemic level. That way “they” have to be responsible for the problems and “we” are off the hook. Owning personal responsibility takes much more work than blaming someone else. In addition, we may have a strong reluctance to accepting that, as individuals, we are significantly influenced by group dynamics (pressure to conform to social norms). We want to believe that we make up our own minds and choose our own actions in life. This, however, is only part of the truth. The other part of the truth is that, as human beings, we are social animals and we are greatly influenced by our environment and the social dynamics within it.
Not only is it easier to address the symptoms of a problem rather than to deal with its root causes but it also allows those who benefit the most from the inequities of the existing social structure to keep enjoying those benefits. The King and Queen know full well how important it is for them to keep the game going. That’s how they maintain their “royal” status.
If the structural inequities of society are addressed on a systemic level it would lead to a significant shift in how economic and political power are actually distributed. That is the crux of the problem. The individuals and groups who currently hold and wield such power are very reluctant to voluntarily relinquish their power for the common good. The truth is that the existing social, economic, and political power structures cannot hold if the level of noncooperation starts approaching 10% of the general population. That’s the tenuousness of the established social structure.
When The System gets greedy and goes too far and pushes people too much, it inspires resistance and rebellion. People become aware that they have little left to lose and potentially a lot to gain. Refusing to cooperate, refusing to keep playing the game becomes the most reasonable course of action. Noncooperation becomes a direct assault on the legitimacy of the Established Order. I suspect that’s why dictators cannot tolerate being ridiculed. The message within the ridicule says:
“The game you’re running is a joke. I won’t take it seriously anymore. I won’t play your game anymore. I won’t take you seriously as long as you try to keep the game going.”
The ego of the authoritarian is so inflated that it becomes quite fragile and vulnerable to humiliation. They find being laughed at more threatening than any Weapon of Mass Destruction.
So, what is going on here?
People are getting very tired of being pushed around and mistreated. While the “game” can be seen as a joke, the suffering of those caught up in the game is no joke at all. They are looking for, and finding, different ways to respond to injustice and oppression. They know that they cannot match the materialistic power of the King and Queen. They cannot fight fire with fire and hope to actually change anything. The fires of injustice and oppression need to be put out with water of a very different caliber. This is the water that heals rather than hurts the perpetrator, that reconciles us with each other instead of dividing us against each other. It is the water of sacrificial love and genuine compassion directed relentlessly at the arsonists. The purpose is not to drown the oppressors but rather to wake them up from the old fairy tales of “survival of the fittest” and “us vs. them”. This is the water that wakes the dreamer from the obsolete nightmare.