A furore has recently exploded over players in the National Football League (NFL) kneeling during the pre-game performance of the American national anthem. Some fans booed at this perceived disrespect. Even President Trump weighed in with disparaging comments about the practice. On social media, reactions were polarised. “We stand for the flag, we kneel for the fallen” declared a patriotically-illustrated Facebook meme. A Twitter user countered that, “Patriotism isn’t about making people stand for the flag. Patriotism is about having a country where people want to stand for the flag.”

Weak at the knees

I’d like to propose another perspective: that all actions are neutral. It doesn’t matter whether people stand or kneel during the rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner. What matters is their intent—what’s in their hearts. Who truly knows what the players meant by this action? Perhaps they were protesting against Trump but not against the flag. Perhaps they were so overwhelmed with patriotism they went weak at the knees.

The axiom ‘all actions are neutral’ invites us to look beyond the superficial action and glimpse the heartfelt intent behind it

The axiom ‘all actions are neutral’ invites us to look beyond the superficial action and glimpse the heartfelt intent behind it. Would you prefer to see a genuine show of respect for the national anthem given an individual twist, or a fake show or respect given in the traditionally approved manner? Personally, I’d go for genuineness every time, no matter whether it accords with my own views or not.

I’d further like to propose that ‘all actions are neutral’ applies to all actions, all of the time. Eh? What? How about, say, a case of someone killing someone else. Surely that is always a negative action? Nope.

D-Day inferno

I remember reading long ago about about the reminiscences of a U.S. Navy veteran of the 1944 D-Day landings. His ship was badly hit and he went below decks to see if he could save any of his comrades. He opened a hatch and discovered a horrific scenario. The compartment was a fiercely-blazing furnace full of wounded and dead sailors. The man acted immediately. He closed the hatch and sealed it, condemning some of his comrades to death. But by sealing the hatch he also denied oxygen to the fire, meaning the crippled men died from asphyxiation, a much less painful end than being burned to death. When one person kills another, the intent is usually based on hatred. In this case, the sailor acted from pure love. His action may seem questionable but his intent was sublime. The action itself was neutral.

We’re all familiar with the phrase, “actions speak louder than words”. Could it be that intent speaks louder than actions? If it is, only those NFL players who kneel for the national anthem can truly answer whether or not they are being disrespectful.

Image: Oakland Raiders National Anthem Kneeling by Keith Allison on Flickr. Cropped to 16:9 and matte applied.