Integral in real life: The Kaepernick issue


Colin Kaepernick is back in the news.

Apparently, he has agreed to a sponsorship relationship with Nike, for the "Just Do It" campaign.

This whole issue makes me sad, because Integral Theory explains why Kaepernick is getting nowhere with his activism, even though it's a worthy cause, and I'm going to lay it all out here.

First of all, Integral Theory says the "culture wars" began becoming a huge problem in the late 20th century as red (nationalistic, power driven, deep south conservatives), blue (hierarchical, tradition, order, traditional conservatives), orange (natural rights, free thinking, free-market moderates), and green (social justice, progressives),  fought for control of the body politic.  (Note, this is not the red/blue designations used for Republicans and Democrats).  Integral says that the culture wars will not be much improved until orange/green wins over red/blue.

I won't go into detail here about the stages, but I recommend the series covering the stages at

Briefly, here is what each stage thinks about racial politics:

  • Red - Racial politics is just a struggle for power.  Generally race-blind in a bad way, in that red doesn't acknowledge any need to talk about race at all.  Life is just a power struggle, and one struggles for himself and/or his group (which may have racial components).  My group is ethical; your group is unethical.
  • Blue - Racial politics is irrelevant as long as we all work within the same system of laws and rules.  Also generally doesn't acknowledge a need to discuss race.  Any historical or institutional oppression is unfortunate but is better than tossing the system out.
  • Orange - Everyone should be given equality of opportunity, and after that has been accomplished, there is no need to talk about race any further. Acknowledges the need to fix systemic problems created by blue, but only through a race-blind process.  Orange is pretty indifferent to the Kaepernick issue, having no particular allegiance to nationalism or group or to correcting historical injustice.
  • Green - Recognizes systemic oppression that blue doesn't; also recognizes historical oppression that orange doesn't. Generally believes society should take affirmative measures to remedy historical injustices and oppression.  Colin Kaepernick is responding to or expressing green values when he takes a knee to protest racial injustice.

The problem with the Kaepernick approach is the problem with most culture war arguments:  Red, blue, orange, and green are not conscious or aware of each other. Thus, when we have difficult topics like this one, the stages tend to talk past one another or attempt to "defeat" the others.

Defeat often takes the form of denigrating the values of the other stages, resulting in the creation of anger and resentment instead of progress.

In this case, Kaepernick's cause is just.  There is and has been systemic and historical oppression, and we do need to remedy this problem.  However, the tactics here are clumsy and counterproductive.

Red and blue each have their own flavor of nationalism, believing that their team is right and just and the other teams are not.  Choosing to protest during the national anthem appears to red as choosing to be on the other team and to blue as denigrating the honor and sacrifice inherent in the national anthem.

These are fundamental values for red and blue, and if integral theory teaches anything it's that we don't get anywhere by poking people in the eye.  Precisely zero people in the red/blue stage are going to be persuaded by an attack on their worldview.  Orange remains indifferent. Green will cheer.

In short, Kaepernick is in every way, "preaching to the choir".

Besides being ineffective, his tactics are ignorant and fail to be empathetic about the worldview of others.  This is the classic culture wars mistake of thinking that promoting awareness is the same as fixing problems. It's not.  The only awareness that has been promoted here is an awareness to red that Kaepernick is on the other team and to blue that he disrespects institutions and tradition.

There are a thousand ways for him to protest his injustices.  Unfortunately, he seems to have picked the one which guarantees that he gets nowhere with the people who need to be brought on board for this issue to move forward.

A protest during any other part of the game would've been several orders of magnitude less offensive.

Even better if he had taken the opportunity to encourage and accentuate unity while also getting his point across.  For example, he could express patriotism and unity while at the same time suggesting that correcting historical oppression and injustice is actually being true to the traditions and values of the founding of the country.

Before the haters drop in, I'm going to emphasize a few points:

  • Kaepernick's cause is just.
  • Having a just cause does not justify any tactic.
  • People have a right to their worldview, and I am not arguing that the red/blue worldview is virtuous or desirable, simply that it just is.
  • I am making a practical argument that his tactics are counterproductive.
  • I believe in freedom of speech, and he has every right to protest in any way that he wants to, including by being offensive.
  • I am not attempting to silence him.
  • I take no position about whether he should be fired or punished by the team/league.

About the author

Jeremy Tunnell
By Jeremy Tunnell