Back in 1970, political economist Albert O. Hirschman published a widely influential treatise, “Exit, Voice and Loyalty.” He introduced this conceptual triad to analyze the three options available to those who are dissatisfied with a particular organization, institution or situation.
Under the “exit” option, one simply leaves or “takes their business elsewhere.” This is regarded as the market-based solution. Alternatively, one can exercise “voice” individually or through the organization of like-minded others, and demand change, so that the unsatisfactory situation can be acknowledged and addressed. Hirschman considered “voice” most consistent with the principles of democratic citizenship. Finally, there is the default option of “loyalty,” where one faithfully or silently supports the existing state of affairs.
How does the exit-voice-loyalty scheme apply to the current debate over professional athletes kneeling during the national anthem?
Despite the effort by detractors to interpret these protests as unpatriotic or disrespectful of the military, the original act by Colin Kaepernick was explicitly designed to protest the widely reported police violence against black American citizens. The national anthem served as an occasion to express dissent and expose the hypocrisy of espoused American values alongside the brutal reality of racial injustice. As Kaepernick stated: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
Thus, Kaepernick and others were responding to what they considered to be an unsatisfactory state of affairs and chose, among the exit-voice-loyalty options, the constitutionally protected and nonviolent act of voice, with the hope of raising awareness and improving conditions.
Those opposed to these actions often demand, instead, unconditional loyalty to the nation and its symbols, despite the well-documented record of disproportionate police violence against unarmed black men. In this context, loyalty means blind conformity and ritualized obedience.
It is interesting that the very conservatives who endlessly trumpet and celebrate the American virtues of individual freedom and liberty are the first to demand that those citizens who dare exercise these freedoms be sanctioned, disciplined and fired. Freedom in theory; authoritarianism in practice.
And if the disaffected are unwilling to exhibit loyalty, the only other option is “exit.” Those who protested the Vietnam War will be familiar with the phrase “America: love it or leave it.” Such invective is now directed at those who take a knee during the national anthem. If you have a problem with the way law enforcement operates, move to another country.
In short, the opponents of dissent want to eliminate the option of “voice”; the one course of action Hirschman associated with democratic expression. There are now only two options: loyalty or exit. Take your pick.
Such a sentiment is a dangerous threat to democratic vitality. As the former five-star general and Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned: “May we never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion.”
Ironically, sports fans are now faced with a similar array of choices. Dissatisfied with the way athletes are expressing their dissent, fans are weighing their options—“exit” through boycott, remain loyal to their team, or actively voice their disagreement with the protest tactics.
I would suggest that sports fans and others keep in mind the original source of the athletes’ actions, and support the athletes in raising awareness and ultimately addressing the well-documented failings of the law enforcement and criminal justice systems. Rather than attacking the messenger, it is time to heed the message.
Jaffee is a University of North Florida professor of sociology.