I Thought We Were Better Than This

I’m so saddened by what I’ve seen in the news and on social media this week. The rush to judgment, the hard lines drawn, the accusations. I really feel as though we have reached a new low.

The discourse surrounding the now-infamous events in Washington DC between Kentucky’s Covington Catholic High School students and an indigenous activist and Marine veteran Omaha Elder Nathan Phillips have highlighted divisions and biases in America that are deeper and uglier than I ever imagined. In an era where we are exposed to a daily dose of deeply depressing and disturbing events, this is the most deeply depressing and disturbing thing I have seen.

We don’t really know what happened that day.

And we will never know what was in the minds of the key players. No matter what Nick Sandmann says now after the fact, we can never know what he was thinking at that time. Everyone has taken sides. The full force of every flaw that exists in our hyper-polarized, warp-speed, electronic social media age has been brought to bear on this event. I’m not certain that Sandmann will ever know for sure what he was thinking at the time, because he has since had the help of professional PR firm RunSwitch which may or may not have relevant ties to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to help explain his behavior and package his message. Covington parents have or have not released statements and tweets that only serve to confirm what everyone already believes. And the students have (or have not) been invited to the White House presumably to reward them for their devotion to the white-Supremacist, anti-abortion, wall-building, MAGA-supporting cause. Sandmann is now and will forever be a hero of the Right and the enemy of the Left. And these things now taint any statement he will ever make. And everything has gotten so tangled up that it will take a long time to untangle the mess and figure out what is true and what is false. By that time, we will all have turned our attention to a different crisis.

And so we are going to have to leave it at “we just don’t know.” And most responsible commentators have admitted that they may have been too quick to judge, and that their original statements may have been unfair.

But no one seems content to leave it there. Even as new images emerged, people sought to justify their original position. Even if that meant basing it on a personal interpretation of the look on a young man’s face. Every analysis I have read coming from the Left starts out with “I don’t know what really happened.” And then it continues with “BUT…” As in “But I will still tell you.” Because they were wearing MAGA hats. Because I know that smirk. Because of that smug look. Because they were there to protest abortion rights. Because the school is all white. Because of all of those things, I know what he was thinking. And then they proceed to lay all of the ills of our nation’s troubled racial history, as well as the entire history of  western colonialism at the feet of a group of high school teenagers.

And as bad as ALL that is, it’s not what bothers me the most. What really troubles me is that all of the people who purport to know what was in the mind of Sandmann at that pivotal moment pin their understanding of his intentions on four indisputable things:

  1. the fact that he is white;
  2. the fact that he was wearing a red MAGA hat;
  3. the fact that he attends a Catholic school; and
  4. the fact that he is from Kentucky.

In other words, they are judging him not by his actual behavior, but on his race, his dress, his religion, and his place of origin.

Now, I had come to believe that attributing bad intentions to people based on their religion or their dress or their skin color or their place of origin is something that only certain people do. (You know, things like being suspicious of a woman on a bus because she covers her hair, or attributing blame to a man because he is Muslim, gunning down an unarmed kid in the street because he was black, or calling people rapists, drug dealers, or invaders because they come from south of the border.) But I thought the rest of us were better than that. We don’t prejudge people’s behavior based on those things!

I guess I was wrong.

Apparently we do all that. And we do it the exact same same way as the folks on the other side. We back it up with selective recounting of historical events. We point to body language that reveals mindset. We explain what we would have done in that situation. We believe made-up stories and slanted media coverage and fake news. And we share it all with smug certainty. Haven’t we seen all of that behavior somewhere else before?

You know, it is possible for people who might be racist, or who come from racist families in a racist town in a racist state to be in a  racially charged situation and still not to have done anything wrong in that moment. We cannot tar and feather them for what they might have been feeling or what their families believe or what their friends might have done at other times.

The second aspect of this dark episode that deeply disturbs me is our willingness to turn against anyone, even our allies, who defend or at least refrain from pre-judging the boys from Covington. If you did not immediately hop on the Blame-the-Catholic-Boys bandwagon, you are deemed a racist or worse (“What could be worse?” you ask. You might not think there is anything, until it comes hurling straight at you!). Your loyalties are questioned, your entire long history of seeking social justice is deemed suspect or irrelevant. In fact, it turns out you are the problem! This is an entirely black and white issue, and you are either for us or against us!

But where are the calls for a more measured responses? Where the entreaties to waiting until all the facts are in? Where the cooler heads?

Entirely absent.

Yes, we need to have a meaningful conversation about white privilege in this world. But this was not a meaningful conversation. Yes, we have gone backwards in what I had naively believed was meaningful progress towards more equality for everyone in this country and the larger society. Yes this is a really really really big problem.

But it isn’t made better by blaming all the ills of our nation on a group of teens who were exercising their right of free speech.

The barely-contained blaze of racial strife in this country isn’t made better by fanning the flames from the other side. It only feeds the fire.

If the goal of the Russian interference in our elections and our social discourse over the last several years has been to sow the seeds of discord and to create suspicion in each other and our institutions, then congratulations, Russia. Job well done.

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