Gwen Berry’s Protest: Symbolism of Olympic Proportion

When Gwen Berry received her bronze medal in hammer throwing at the Olympic Trials on Saturday, the national anthem began playing over the stadium speakers. Berry turned away from the flag during the anthem, and held up a t-shirt that read “Activist Athlete.” After the event, Berry stated, “The anthem doesn’t speak for me. It never has.” 

Emotions have run high on both the right and the left in response to Berry’s actions.

To the right, Gwen Berry’s actions are a disgrace. If Berry doesn’t love and respect the US, she shouldn’t represent us on the world stage. Political stunts like this amount to pointless virtue signaling and clearly show the left doesn’t respect American values. While there is always room for improvement, we should feel proud to be citizens of the best country in the world!

To the left, Gwen Berry is bravely representing those America has forgotten. It’s outrageous and hypocritical that the right is calling this peaceful demonstration unpatriotic when it was their peers who participated in an insurrection against our country six months ago. 

To some, Berry’s protest is a slap in the face of rights activists who came before her. To others, her protest is a recognition of all the work yet to be done.

Our anthem and flag as symbols

The dispute around Gwen Berry’s action is a symbolic conflict. 

When we encounter a symbol, we are perceiving meaning embodied and elaborated in a material object. Although it feels as though that meaning exists within the object, it’s actually an interpretation within our own mind (and shared amongst our group). And because such interpretation is subjective, any given object can have many different meanings depending on the observer. 

To some, the flag and anthem embody the hope and realization of the American Dream. The flag is freedom manifest. To others, the flag and anthem embody the inequalities people of color face in the US. The flag is oppression manifest.

In turn, our response to someone protesting the flag or anthem is entirely dependent on how we perceive those symbols. 

If, to you, the flag symbolizes the American values of freedom and equality, saluting it means you respect those values (and failing to do so means you don’t). 

But if you see the flag as a false promise of liberty, not saluting it means bravely refusing to participate in a charade (and saluting it means you consent to oppression).

If we apply our own meaning of the flag to someone else’s action (or reaction), we’re going to severely misunderstand them.

Why should we care about symbols?

We often conflate our interpretation of a symbol and the object itself. The meaning we perceive feels obvious to us and those who share our worldview, but that meaning is not inherent to the object. People with a different worldview will look at the same object and see a completely different meaning. Acknowledging the multiple meanings an object can have is essential if we’re trying to better understand people with whom we disagree. 

Symbolic perception and interpretation is embedded in our broader worldview. Disagreements over symbols are not semantics, but elaborations of much broader cultural divides. These divides may not be easily crossed, but a first step in bridging them is recognizing this difference. 

Such recognitions can allow us to realize our contra-partisan’s intentions are probably not evil, and might even be as reasonable as our own. 

The Narratives Project examines the diverging political narratives that surround divisive news events. We aim to promote political mindfulness and peace by helping our readers better understand each side of polarizing stories emerging around them.

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Some additional context

The national anthem usually plays at 5:20 each day of the Olympic Trials, but on Saturday it played five minutes later, when Berry and her fellow future Olympic athletes were on the stand. There is some controversy around whether this was a set-up for Berry, a known activist, but that controversy was not at the center of the dispute around her actions.

The conversation around protesting athletes is not new, and some notable examples are the 1968 Olympics Black Power salute and NFL Quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling throughout the national anthem during the 2016 NFL season.

Further reading

U.S. Olympic Trials: Gwen Berry turns away from flag during anthem, The Athletic

Message Sent: Berry turns away from flag during anthem, Eddie Pells for Associated Press

Gwen Berry says national anthem demonstration scrutiny proves two things, Ryan Gaydos for Fox News