‘Taking a knee’ essentially referred to someone going down on one knee as protest when the national anthem is being played. Colin Kaepernick for example took a knee to protest the unfair treatment of Black Americans.
The phrase has acquired new meaning in the ongoing wave of protests in the USA, which by the way have been responded to with absolute brutality by police officers all over that country. People are going on their knee to allude to the murder of George Floyd. Even lawmakers are ‘taking a knee’ to express solidarity with the protestors and object to racism and police brutality. Even some police officers have taken a knee and that gesture, in addition to objection and solidarity, is also an expression of remorse.
In ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,’ one of the clues to avoiding deathtraps on the pathway to the Holy Grail is the word ‘penitence.’ Indy takes a knee and thus a sharp edged disc passes over him instead of beheading him. Indy wasn’t being remorseful. He embraced the symbol of remorse, kneeling. It got him to the destination. He was clever. Not a bad destination, but let’s not forget it’s a movie and a script we are talking about. Real life is different.
In real life there are no saints. No arahats. Penitence or taking a knee on account of remorse is something that is necessary but certainly not sufficient to heal the world. Nations, communities, multilateral organizations, soldiers, rebels, officials, corporates and citizens — none are blameless. Taking a knee symbolically is something anyone can do. Taking a knee metaphorically is what is really required. It’s substance and not frill that will change things.
It’s easy to say ‘hello’ and hard to say ‘sorry.’ However it is easy to say ‘sorry’ and so much harder to adjust lives, lifestyles and engagement with people and the earth so that we don’t have to take a knee. When those in power take a knee that goes beyond the symbolic, a lot can change. Such transformations are rare. The Emperor Ashoka was an exception. Remorse cannot be demanded. Remorse on demand is also a kneeing in a sense. It can’t be legislated. There has to be conviction and that conviction must be tested in action.
This knee-taking business took me back several years to a moment that arrived long before ‘taking a knee’ captured the attention of the world. A moment when a friend took a knee.
This friend, who has passed on, used to have a radio show. He suffered from bipolar disorder but had one of the clearest minds that I have encountered. He didn’t harm anyone. His actions were about self-exploration and constant examination of complicity.
The radio show was all in his mind. Here’s the English translation of how he described it in Sinhala.
‘I have this radio show. I don’t greet the listeners saying “Good morning Sri Lanka.” Why should I address only Sri Lankans, I thought. I decided that I wouldn’t restrict, so I say “Hello, Earth.” A few days ago, thinking about all the violence that human being have unleashed on the earth, I realized that there was something terribly wrong with my greeting. “Sorry, Earth.” That’s what I say now.’
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