Imagine a bird perched inside a cage. The door is wide open, but the bird sits and waits for the day she really needs to leave.

Perhaps there will be a predator or natural disaster. She feels content knowing she can escape when necessary, so why do it now? It’s nice and safe. One day, the bird wakes up to the smell of smoke. Her house is on fire, and it’s really time to leave. She gathers her strength and flies toward the open door but hits the seemingly empty space with a jolt. There is a string attached to her leg.

Colin Kaepernick, an NFL football player for the 49ers, remained seated during the national anthem before a preseason game. Standing for the anthem is generally considered basic etiquette and is enforceable by law in some countries, such as India, Japan and Russia. The United States’ closest equivalent is the Flag Code. It is a recommendation of prescribed behavior instead of a law; there can be no legal penalties for non-adherence. It includes 36 U.S. Code § 301, which declares when the anthem is played, “all present except those in uniform should stand at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart.”

It is interesting to note that the next page states that the flag should not be used for clothing or personal decoration, but this is neglected frequently during what is supposedly the most patriotic day of the year, July 4th. It would seem that some actions regarding the flag and symbols of America are more acceptable than others, regardless of the Flag Code’s declarations of what constitutes proper social behaviour.

Therefore, while the actual Flag Code is rarely understood or followed, there has been a large public outcry against Kaepernick’s decision to sit rather than stand during the anthem, going as far as some angry fans burning merchandise emblazoned with his number and the Santa Clara Police Union threatening to boycott working as security at 49ers football games. Kaepernick’s actions have been labeled un-American and disrespectful.

Like the open cage door mentioned previously, American citizens expect to have certain kinds of freedom. We point to the First Amendment and claim we have freedom of speech, but if we don’t make controversial statements when we disagree with the norm, how do we know that kind of speech is truly within our power? The fact that Kaepernick’s refusal to stand is legally allowed is proof of the freedoms American citizens enjoy. He didn’t wait until it was his cage burning to speak but tested his ability to use his freedom before it became personally unbearable. So we can rest assured that Kaepernick does not have a string on his throwing arm attached to the law, but it appears other citizens are attempting to tie the knot that restricts his access to freedom. Trying to limit his exercise of American rights is the only un-American act.

However, though he probably anticipated there would be backlash, Kaepernick refused to stand because he knew it would be a simple act of protest. Sitting during the anthem gave him an opportunity to address issues that affect American citizens, especially police brutality. In an NFL interview after the game, he explained, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color…When there’s significant change and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, this country is representing people the way that it’s supposed to, I’ll stand.”

Using his rights to violate the social norm (standing) and exchange it for another external symbolic act (sitting) led to receiving a platform to speak out against the inequality he sees in the United States. Kaepernick cares deeply for the people in this country and will stand during the anthem when the country’s reality adheres to the abstract concepts it claims to represent and loves its people equally. He commented after the preseason finale, “I love America. I love people. That’s why I’m doing this. I want to help make America better.”

The backlash he received means it is more important to the public to maintain social etiquette than to truly believe in the possibility of change and the ability to form a greater country. But if we all observe the rituals of the American brand of patriotism, does this show we love the United States? Or does this prove we can memorize social rituals and practice conformity under the guise of being a good citizen? Good citizens want to better their country by doing what they believe is right because they know it is possible to have a bright future if we change what’s wrong in the present.

Patriotism isn’t a flag hanging from your front porch, a bumper sticker on your truck, pledging allegiance in your elementary school or standing up and putting your hand over your heart during the National Anthem at a football game. These are outward symbols, external representations attempting to encapsulate American values: unity, bravery, empathy, equality, etc. True patriotism is living these values and expecting the leaders of the country and fellow countrymen to do the same, keeping them accountable. It’s acknowledging that a great country is a work in progress; we can’t be great “again” because we no longer live in the same country or even world. We must strive toward a greater future instead, wanting what we have not yet seen.

When the reality of America doesn’t match up to what the symbols and rituals represent, why partake in the dissonance? Why not sit instead of stand, using your freedom of expression to create meaningful change?

If love is forced, it isn’t love. If freedom to disagree isn’t free, it isn’t freedom.

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