Arguing the Semantics of Protest

In the midst of an argument, one might exclaim “We’re just arguing semantics.” This allegation expresses that the current disagreement has been reduced to a dispute over what the meanings of words and phrases are, rather than a dispute over concepts and facts. While arguing semantics is at times philosophically important, it is sometimes the case that a dispute over semantics can be easily avoided with a declaration like the following: “Whatever has the content(s) (x, y, z …etc) is what I am referring to.” If an argument is purely semantic, with no other disagreements, this declaration will often solve the dispute at hand (even if it may present a different discussion of what constitutes word W).

But words, phrases, and sentences are not the only meaning-equipped category. Non-linguistic sounds, pictures, movements, and other objects and activities can operate as symbols bearing meaning. If I were to wave my hand, I may be trying to communicate a greeting or farewell. If one saw a garment with a hammer and sickle, they may believe it holds meanings associated with the worker and peasant during the Russian Revolution. Just as semantic disputes can occur with word and sentence meaning, an analogous dispute of meaning can occur given non-linguistic symbols.

On the third of November 2017, CNN reported that Miami University’s assistant professor of art, Billie Grace Lynn, had burned eye-holes in american flag, shaped them into KKK-style hoods, and mounted them on pedestals featuring a Nazi swastika as the base ( This protest piece received national attention including praise, disgust, outrage, and a slew of death threats to the artist. Similarly, members of the National Football League continue to kneel during the national anthem—a form of protest popularized by Colin Kaepernick. Both of these examples, and indeed every form of protest, are actions and objects equipped with meaning. Just as purely semantic disputes can occur in linguistic communication, they can also occur in non-linguistic communication. In the following paragraphs, I will discuss the nature of this dispute and offer my recommendation for solving it.

It is important to note that, in what follows, I will be assessing the morality of the Lynn and Kaepernick situations. If Mr. Golemon would like to comment further on morality and legality, I invite him to. But until meaning is discovered, the physical characteristics of producing art or kneeling have no intrinsic goodness or badness associated with them.

Moving forward with the simplest example, what does Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem mean? Because there are a few different ways to understand the term meaning, there are a few candidates for what the meaning could be. One could suppose that meaning is:

  1. what the transmitter intended to communicate,
  2. what the collector understood, or
  3. what society mandates regarding the event.

Which of these shall we choose? Given that option a and b are extremely subjective, the most attractive option is c. Afterall, a white male could not run around a populated street shouting racially and sexually insensitive remarks and be absolved after claiming he meant that “the grass is green,” nor could a listener claim a person be reprimanded for shouting “the grass is green,” given that the listener understood this phrase as meaning a slew of racial expletives. But what should we think when there are multiple possible ways to understand a situation? What should we think when there is no clear precedent set for the situation?

Kneeling during the national anthem and producing artwork of american flags formed into KKK hoods for display in an art gallery are both decidedly abstract and opaque activities. It will be difficult to argue either of them has a particular meaning dictated by society. That said, both can effectively be argued as having societal connotations. Many of these connotations, however, will be contradicting. Lynn could have made KKK hoods out of american flags to showcase her patriotism and support for ethnic cleansing. Alternatively, she could have made them to condemn those activities. How shall we discern the meaning of these opaque situations? Notice also that each of these situations are symbols comprised of symbols. The symbols used have many distinct meanings. From American flag, the KKK hood, the national anthem, the swastika, the kneeling gesture, …etc, there are many different ambiguous relationships to consider.

After one has eliminated the usefulness of societal mandating, it seems we are left with two options: what the transmitter intended to communicate and what the collector understood. One might believe the meaning of kneeling during the national anthem is to protest the lack treatment guaranteed to African Americans by the United States’ bill of rights. One might believe that kneeling during the national anthem is to disrespect troops by failing to respect the flag. At this point, it is clear that our dispute is purely semantic. We disagree purely about the meaning of the situation.

As discussed earlier, this dispute can be settled by simply clarifying: “When I kneel, I am referring to the content(s) (x, y, z …etc).” Colin Kaepernick has on numerous occasions made this clear. Given that we are trying to discern the morality of an action that is contingent on that action’s opaque and ambiguous meaning, and our conclusion will tell us whether Colin Kaepernick has engaged in an immoral action, I strongly recommend we evaluate Kaepernick’s intended meaning rather than some other outside take on the meaning.

In an essay entitled Art, Intention, and Conversation, American philosopher Noël Carroll wrote the following when considering meaning in art: “A fulfilling conversation requires that we have the conviction of having grasped what our interlocutor meant or intended to say.” If we are caught up with whatever our intuitions are on the ambiguous meaning of an action, we will never be able to properly interpret, let alone evaluate, a situation. And of course, once we notice Kaepernick and Lynn’s goals are at least reasonable and at most noble, we grant the meaning, and thus grant the situation’s permissibility.


Curtis J Howd


Comments by Golemon:

        I think “Arguing the Semantics of Protest” offers us a lucid look at the discussion that happens about this topic. I offer a few comments here, largely ancillary.

First, on the meaning of this particular kind of protest. Importantly, kneeling during the anthem might be viewed as two things: disrespecting the code of the anthem and/or disrespecting the flag. The second was chosen almost exclusively as the locus of the debate, and can be taken in two additional ways: (1) the flag stands for the principles that America was founded on, e.g. equality, opportunity, and so on; (2) the flag stands for those people (e.g. veterans, currently serving military personnel, and so on) who defended the principles that America was founded on.

        It would be very strange if (1) were the reason one took offense at the kneeling; after all, they are protesting because the very principles that it stands for are being compromised. This fits very well with what Kaepernick and others who participate(d) have said. Kaepernick himself has said:

“I’m going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed. To me, this is something that has to change. When there’s significant change and I feel that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, and this country is representing people the way that it’s supposed to, I’ll stand.”

        If Kaepernick had (2) in mind, the meaning of this quotation would be hard to understand. What would change in the military or about the history of those who had died? By contrast, if he meant (2), then the meaning is perfectly clear: we espouse equality, this flag is the exemplar of that, and until our society reflects what this flag stands for, I will not stand for it.

It is much more understandable where the offense comes from if a citizen takes (2) to be the case. Protesting those who fought and died for these principles is a more controversial form of protest than merely protesting an event meant to convey those principles.

I will offer at three reasons to think that the flag stands for America’s principles rather than the people who died for them.

The first: if the flag stood for people, then dying or being harmed for defending the flag wouldn’t be defending anything except ancestry. Dying “for the flag” would be simply dying for those who had died. Again, this seems strange.

Another: if it stood for those who died in combat, then those who avoid combat (pacifists) could not in good conscience stand with or for the flag. We obviously do think that pacifists can be proud of the flag, and thus it can’t be the military nature and personnel that the flag most symbolizes.

Finally, I’ll appeal to the origin of the flag itself. Charles Thompson was the Secretary of the Continental Congress when the flag was approved. It and the seal were carefully designed to represent the Founding Fathers’ ideals for America. Charles, presenting it to congress, stated:

“The colors are those used in the flag of the United States of America. White signifies purity and innocence. Red, hardiness & valour, and Blue… signifies vigilance, perseverance & justice.”

        Protests are by nature disruptive, but it seems to me that this one was overreacted to. If we are to take the flag as representative of our ideals, it shouldn’t be a surprise that if we consistently fail to a massive degree that others will protest our hypocrisy.

A final point. Those protesting do not think this is a minor issue. Few problems will qualify as so atrocious that the flag’s ideals are being compromised to the degree of protesting the flag and the protesters think that this is one of them. If they are right and police action really is much more brutal and lethal toward people of color than white folks (and the data suggests this), then it seems this protest is justified. If they are wrong, we need to show them this. Either way, they need to be taken seriously and their concerns are grave enough to warrant a protest of the flag. Thus, there seems to be little reason to dismiss or denigrate them for their protest.


Luke Golemon

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