Musings

Rounding Out the Story

I don’t think it would be a controversial statement to say that no story has a single truth, that our perceptions about the facts of a story are guided by our prior knowledge and experiences and prejudices. Plato’s Levels of Intelligence paradigm puts Opinion a simple rung above Ignorance, and true Intelligence two whole rungs above Opinion, with Reason in between.

Watch a video of a group of young men chanting and laughing as an old man, a Native American elder, walks into their midst, playing his drum. Observe their red hats, their regalia that marks them supporters of a man who has been divisive in our country, sexist and racist and xenophobic. Watch still images of a smirking boy standing in what appears to be defiance blocking the old man’s path. I formed a pretty strong opinion in response.

Then I watched the events from the angle of a video shot by the four or five members of the Black Hebrew Israelites, who were taunting and mocking the young men before the incident occurred. It was a long and frustrating video, showing the story in a different light. I watched as the BHI men singled out a black student in the Covington group, insulting him personally, calling him names. I watched how his friends gathered around him, shielding him from the vitriol. I heard the things the BHI men were yelling at the boys. I watched the boys begin their school chants to try to drown out the insults. I cringed at the in-your-face nature of sports chants in an already heated situation. I watched a couple other videos of the moments of direct engagement between the boy (Nicholas Sandmann) and the man (Nathan Phillips).

And then I read this two-and-a-half page letter from Mr. Sandmann. His tone is measured and thoughtful, if a little defensive. He states that he does not understand Mr. Phillips’ intentions, and can’t explain what the older man’s intentions were. He is an articulate and careful writer.

Were the boys in the crowd mocking the old man and taunting him? Probably some were. It’s hard not to see that in the videos. Is it possible that some of what appeared at first to be taunting might instead be boys chanting their school chants? Probably. Very likely. Looked at through that lens, the energy of the group shifts a bit, seems less sinister.

Some of my take-aways:
1. MAGA hats are a really unfortunate apparel choice for young white men at a faith-based march. They are saying more than they intend, perhaps, and they set themselves up for the sort of negative snap judgements that the BHI men, and I, and most of America, seem to have been making.
2. I am really judgemental about white men in MAGA gear. Not only do I rush to judgement; in the midst of a larger array of facts, I still struggle to open my mind when there are MAGA hats in the picture.
3. Even video can tell a misconstrued story. As we were discussing it last night, before I saw the second video, I kept saying, “But I saw that video. It’s really clear what was happening. You can’t just throw out video evidence.” Still, it seems that the story told by the first video is different from the one told by the second video. In the long and rambling video of the BHI group, I heard no chants of “Build the wall.” I don’t doubt that some of Mr. Phillips’ group thought they heard that in the school chants, but I don’t think they said it.
4. Looking at the various videos, I think it is highly possible–likely, even–that both Mr. Phillips’ group and the Covington boys had two separate understandings of the event, that both Mr. Phillips’ account and Mr. Sandmann’s account are “true,” because they’re true to their experiences.
5. As harsh and demeaning as much of the BHI group’s taunting was, they had some things to say that I wish these boys could hear and learn from. They are privileged. Their privilege is built on centuries of white exploitation of black people and people of color, from enslavement of blacks and genocide of Native Americans in the beginnings, to the hoarding and consolidation of resources and the means of production, to outright discriminatory laws and systems, to lynchings, to redlining, to police brutality. I am afraid that this experience will wall off the possibility for these boys to do any deep reflecting on this subject.
6. This would be an excellent opportunity for some real, deep education. Instead of expelling the boys, I think the school should bring in outside educators to talk to about stereotypes and stereotyping–both their own stereotypes and the ones they have experienced from others (people like me). I would love to see the diocese invite Mr. Phillips to talk, create a listening session where he can hear the boys and they can hear him. Bring in an outside mediator, someone who can help them talk, help them listen. This is a perfect opportunity to help these young people learn to think critically and compassionately.
7. I find it really problematic that a boys school would bus a group of young men wearing MAGA hats to protest a Women’s March. I realize that they perhaps put it in the context of Marching in a Pro-Life March, and they’re tying it to their compassion for babies. Still, when it comes down to it, the visuals are of a large group of young religious patriarchs being groomed to take up the reins of the patriarchy marching in a march deliberately planned to coincide with a March for Women. It’s ugly. (I added this point after the original post.)
8. I think I am pretty media savvy. I’m not as savvy as I thought I was. I think perhaps none of us are.

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