In one of the mildest scandals of recent weeks Dominic Raab was criticised for misunderstanding the origin of taking a knee in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. His counterparts in Labour have been photographed genuflecting, in a trend pioneered by the ever-keen Lib Dems.
The foreign secretary said the gesture “seems to be taken” from Game of Thrones, a fantasy series with grizzly deaths and lots of shagging. Given the series ended last May, this is a remarkably current reference for a sitting cabinet minister, but credit for this has been in short supply.
Sadly Black Lives Matter’s adoption of the half-kneel has less to do with dragons and more to do with the American football player Colin Kaepernick. Alongside teammates with the San Francisco 49ers, Kaepernick started taking the knee during the national anthem before games to protest racism and police brutality.
The source of the half-kneel seems to be Nate Boyer, a former Seattle Seahawks football player and soldier. As he explained to the radio station NPR, “Soldiers often take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave to pay respects. So I thought, if anything, besides standing, that was the most respectful [to the national anthem].”
This view was echoed by Eric Reid, one of Kaepernick’s teammates, in a New York Times piece. “We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”
I’m sure I wasn’t the only Englishman baffled by why this was seen as controversial among Yanks. Kneeling – one-legged or otherwise – is usually a sign of deference, and from an outsider it’s not obvious that it would be a protest. Apparently Americans take their standing for the anthem seriously.
Such reverence towards national symbols is not shared by the British, where God Save the Queen is almost solely sung by tuneless half-cut gammons at football matches. No-one can recall the second verse, if indeed it exists. Cultural confusion was natural.
Symbols, words and gestures that people use to communicate should be interpreted generously, but re-purposed ones cannot shed their old connotations. It’s respectful intent aside, now taking a knee has extended outside of football games it looks increasingly like coerced deference – as suggested by the experience of conservative journalist Peter Hitchens being heckled at protests in Oxford.
Raab’s remark that he would only kneel before the Queen or his wife while proposing is thus entirely defensible. When people are pressured to take a knee it is never a gesture of respect.