What Traffic Cops Can Teach Us About NFL Protests

So yesterday, on the way to church, I received a citation for speeding.

It happened while I was listening to a song from my middle school years, in a blast of nostalgia. The weather was nice, I was grooving along, and before I knew it, red and blues were flashing behind me. 75 in a 55, with my wife and two nephews in the car. My interaction with the officer was civil, if not pleasant. I didn’t take it personally. I didn’t think he pulled me over because I was black and driving a nice car (though the thought did cross my mind). Not my finest hour, but I’ll take the penalties and try to do better.

What’s interesting is that at church, our guest preacher also had a story about being pulled over by police. Except it wasn’t for speeding, but for continually driving in the left lane, a practice that is illegal in the state of Washington, several other states, and in my opinion, should be illegal everywhere.

As I listened to him preach and tell his story, I thought of the irony. This guy was a friend of mine, someone I presume to be both a decent guy and a good driver. And yet, I was also thinking to myself (and I admit, this was a moment of self-serving smugness), well yeah man, serves you right. You shouldn’t be driving in the left lane like that. I didn’t say that to his face, but I said it in my head.

The truth is, I can’t stand it when people drive slow in the left lane. I find it infuriating, mostly because it causes me to pass their vehicle on the right, which is a much more dangerous maneuver. I also can’t stand some of the attitudes I see in people who justify their left lane squatting as some sort of misguided attempt to enforce the speed limit.  (For an example of this, check some of the comments in that Lifehacker article in my last link.) When I see those justifications, I just wanna go, really dude? That’s not your job. Get off your high horse and move over to the right. I’ll take my chances speeding.

Because honestly… that’s the heart of the issue. That is, I understand that there’s a legitimate safety reason why obstructing the left lane with slower, non-passing traffic is a bad idea, but that’s not really why it upsets me so much. The reason why left lane squatters are infuriating to me instead of being a mild annoyance is because I love speeding.

There, I said it. I love speeding.

I enjoy the sensation of making my 3.2 liter engine roar while I zip by some sluggish Prius going below the speed limit. That, combined with the annoyance of someone being in my way when I’m trying to get somewhere quickly, means I have zero patience for people who drive slowly in the left lane. It feels like they’re interrupting my flow with their passive aggression; less like an inconvenience and more of a personal affront, like they’re doing it to me.

But here’s the thing. Even though I may oppose their driving methods, I have to remember that they want the same thing I do: to make it safely to their destination. That’s what all traffic safety laws are designed to do. My driving citation was an important reminder that speeding excessively can also be a threat to the safety of others, which is why I need to not drive quite that fast, that often.

And it’s not like I don’t know that. Of course I know that I shouldn’t speed as much as I do.

But as much as I was hoping to get off with a warning — and man, I was hoping so much to get off with a warning!! — I can now, in the sober light of a Monday morning, admit that paying a $160 fine is definitely going to do a better job of helping me to remember to slow down. Truthfully, I might have already gotten a warning for speeding recently, and just not remembered. This is why citations happen, because they are effective at helping us slow down, which helps us to stay safe.

Therefore, it would be irrational and counterproductive to get mad at the traffic cops for enforcing the laws. I shouldn’t take it personally. I shouldn’t feel personally disrespected if a police officer pulls me over in a calm, professional manner. (If the officer isn’t professional in his or her demeanor, that’s another issue.) And whether or not other people are or were speeding, isn’t the main issue. The issue is, speeding in general is a problem, and my behavior as an individual is part of the problem, even though it’s not the whole problem.

The truth is, both speeders like myself and left lane campers like my pastor friend… we are not enemies. That’s a false dichotomy. Even though we might be irritated by each other’s driving habits (had I been preaching instead of him, he might’ve been silently judging me for speeding), we both want the same thing, to arrive safely. We might be opposed on this particular issue, but in general, we’re on the same side. We both need reminders to keep us safe on the road, and those reminders need to be noticeable enough to be effective.

Because if I’d gotten into an auto accident that killed my wife and nephews, do you think I’d pay $160 to go back in time and remind myself to slow down? Hell yes I would. I would pay tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for that. Millions, if I had it. So in that light, $160 is actually a pretty small amount of money to remind myself to be more careful with the lives I could impact with my driving. It’s not an absolute deterrent, but it will make a difference, and potentially save someone’s life.

What does this have to do with the NFL protests from many fans and players around the nation?

 

 

 

I have a few Facebook friends — admittedly, these are all people I’m not particularly close to — who are aghast at these protests, and they are taking it so personally. It’s been my experience that people who oppose these kinds of protests (see my last piece on Colin Kaepernick for more on this) often try to frame the issue as being disrespectful to those who have served in the armed forces, despite the repeated statements to the contrary made by so many current and former players, including Kaepernick himself.

But just like my whole left-lane-campers-jeopardize-safety argument, I have a feeling that deep down, this argument is not the real issue. That is to say, they have a point — the national anthem does, in part, represent the armed forces — but I think this is not the reason why they’re so infuriated by it.

I think, on a visceral, emotional level, people resent their treasured activity — NFL football — being intruded on by our current political realities. They love football, and they wish that people could just leave their sport alone so they can watch it in peace, just like I wish I could have my passing lane and not be obstructed by slow drivers. Not only that, but the fallback argument — why does it have to be so blatant and disrespectful? — also misses the nature of protest. Just like the citation works because money is what gets our attention, protests during the national anthem work because they get our attention! There is no awareness to be generated by protesting in a way that no one would notice.

But even so, there’s an even more important truth afoot. Both the football players protesting the national anthem and the people who serve in the armed forces ALL WANT THE SAME THING — a prosperous and just America.

They are not enemies.

I repeat… WE ARE NOT ENEMIES.

We may disagree on the best way to go about achieving or securing the American ideals that our flag and anthem are supposed to represent, but that does not make us enemies. Even our political opponents, those who we tend to oppose and resist most vociferously (often for very good reasons) are still people that deserve a baseline level of respect and human decency. When those of us fighting for what we think is right use dehumanizing language (by calling them “animals” or “sons of bitches” like our current President did recently) we erode the very thing we’re trying to protect.

So if we want to solve some of the problems threatening our nation — racism, income inequality, broken families, homelessness and illiteracy, just to name a few — we must steadfastly practice the empathy that we’ll need in order to foster the environment of cooperative innovation that solutions depend on. We can’t let this stuff divide us, or we’ll become trapped in our ideological bunkers, ensconced in a cold war of perpetual outrage, choking on the bile we’re storing up for our adversaries.

This is true for people in general.

But it’s especially true if you’re a Christian. This kind of culture warring is not what Jesus meant when He promised “life to the full.” This is more like a life sentence.

The apostle Paul concluded his letter to the church in Ephesus with an admonition to do everything they can to stand against the evil they would encounter. He uses the concept of armor as an analogy, and instructs them to use godly attributes and principles (truth, peace, righteousness, faith, etc.) to counteract the attacks of the evil one.

But in the beginning of this passage, he makes an important observation that I think is especially relevant to our time right now:

“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Eph 6:12, NIV)

Did you see that first part? Flesh and blood people are not the real enemies.

This is not to say that we are not supposed to stand up for justice. Sometimes flesh and blood people are those who are complicit or culpable in the carrying out of injustice, and there is plenty of Biblical precedent for standing up to people acting unjustly (Acts 10 is one example).

But it is to say that in this moment in history, our society is in desperate need of critical context. The issues that divide us politically should not be ones that obscure our shared humanity. On some level, we are all exhausted souls trying to get from one place to the next as safely and justly as possible. And just like those dutiful state troopers do, we all need reminders sometimes to slow down and promote safety in our thoughts and behaviors.

So while I’m slowing down, just do me a favor … stay out of the left lane, will ya?

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