When I was a senior in college, I went to a reading held by writer Neil Gaiman and writer/artist Dave Sim. Twenty-two and a half years later, I don’t recall too many details of the event, other than meeting two men I admire was a thrill, but something each said stuck with me.

Gaiman is British, and Sim is Canadian. In the course of the evening both urged the audience — comprised primarily of young Americans — to cherish the First Amendment. Neither of their home countries, as free as they may be, has a First Amendment. Don’t take the First Amendment for granted, they implored. Embrace it.

I’ve thought about what Gaiman and Sim said quite a bit lately, as I’ve watched the controversy explode over NFL players kneeling during the playing of the national anthem prior to games.

Here’s the wonderful thing about the First Amendment. It protects all the speech you find deplorable. All of it. Nobody gets to decide your opinion is criminal. As much as some in the government would yearn for that power, they don’t have it.

In this case, it doesn’t matter if you’re offended by football players taking a knee during the national anthem. You can respectfully disagree with them, which is fine, and you can voice your displeasure in a number of ways. A counter-protest, for example, or simply refusing to watch or attend NFL games. Hitting anything in the wallet is usually an attention-grabber.

What you, or I, or most importantly, the government, cannot do is stop them. Hand-wringing over kneeling, standing — or in the case of Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy, stretching — during the national anthem takes attention away from the fact that our country has a lot of real problems that deserve discussion. By grandstanding on the issue, President Donald Trump pulled a bait-and-switch on us, turning our attention away from real issues. He got us to squabble over the minutia while the underlying issues metastasize.

But somewhere along the way, we lost the ability to politely discuss anything. Take a minute and scroll through the social media platform of your choice. I’m willing to bet most of the posts about this topic involve intolerance of one viewpoint or another, finger-pointing, and a lot of name-calling. When it comes to talking about anything important, our society is an abject failure.

I stand for the national anthem, and will continue to do so. If somebody with different life experiences feels the need to kneel, or sit, or read a comic book, that’s fine, too. Whether or not kneeling during the national anthem is disrespectful is a matter of opinion. Even if you feel kneeling during the anthem is disrespectful, nowhere in the First Amendment will you find “respectful” as a qualifier to free speech. You will find “the right of the people to peaceably assemble,” which is exactly what players who take a knee are doing.

We should be able to talk about the issue like adults. We should be able to bring differing viewpoints to the discussion, but it’s obvious we can’t. Somewhere along the line we lost the ability to tolerate opposing viewpoints and we lost the ability to respect them. For example, the same fans who claim to hold the national anthem sacred booed and jeered kneeling New England Patriot players throughout the anthem’s playing prior to Sunday’s game against the Houston Texans. You could hear it on the television broadcast. How does booing somebody with whom you disagree treat the anthem with respect? It’s your right, of course, but if you’re trying to advance the idea that the playing of the anthem is a solemn occasion, booing is an ineffective way to show it.

It’s more disrespectful to boo somebody engaged in a peaceful protest during the anthem than it is to kneel. It’s more disrespectful to riot rather than let a view that differs from your own be heard, as we’ve seen on college campuses across the nation.

We need to celebrate the First Amendment, not fight over it. That’s one of the wonderful things about this country, nobody is standing over us and forcing us to agree — or pretend to agree — with each other. The miserable flip side of this is we’ve lost the ability to respectfully disagree. If we talked about the underlying problems that led to kneeling for the national anthem in the first place, we’d be moving in the direction of becoming a stronger country. Maybe we’d stop being such a fragmented one.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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