Over the weekend a controversy arose at the annual March for Life rally in Washington DC, when video leaked of a supposed ugly and racist confrontation between youth marchers from the all-boys Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Kentucky, and a Native American man beating a drum. At first sight, the confrontation seemed to fit the narrative we are used to hearing by now: MAGA-wearing white (and mostly young) men jeering, taunting, and humiliating minorities as proof that Trump’s Presidency has unearthed the racist, white nationalist and populist upswell that has lain dormant in American cultural and political life for decades—until now. Major news outlets ran typical story headlines: at the New York Times it was “Viral Video Shows Boys in ‘Make America Great Again’ Hats Surrounding Native Elder”; the Washington Post ran the story “‘It was getting ugly’: Native American drummer speaks on his encounter with MAGA-hat-wearing teens,”; and the BBC read “Video of US teenagers taunting Native American draws fire.” On queue, a firestorm of protest erupted on social media.
However, subsequent video and reporting (also here, here, here, here, and here; even the NYT ran a second article) uncovered the larger context and revealed a different picture. The Covington boys had been peacefully supporting the March for Life but were confronted by a small group of Black Hebrew Israelites who hurled insults and racial epithets their way (e.g., “racists,” “bigots,” “white crackers,” “faggots,” and “incest kids”; they also threaten violence against the teens and attempted to goad them into lashing out). As reported by Nick Sandmann, the student who came face-to-face with the drum-beating Native American Nathan Phillips, one of the students in their group asked their chaperone if they could sing and chant school spirit songs as a way to constructively respond to the profane insults. This caused Phillips to think that a violent clash was imminent, and so in an attempt to diffuse the situation, he placed himself between the black nationalists and the Catholic boys, beating his drum and singing. The teens didn’t know how to respond initially, unsure of whether Phillips was supporting them or the black nationalists. However, they eventually joined with his chanting, which, unfortunately, many have interpreted as an act of disrespectful mocking instead of friendship and solidarity.
The testimony from Phillips conflicts with Sandmann’s. Phillips claims that the Catholic boys “were in the process of attacking” the Black Hebrew Israelites, characterizing the teens as “beasts” and the black nationalists as “prey.” After inserting himself between the two groups, Phillips thought that the teens had turned against him: “These young men were beastly and these old black individuals was their prey, and I stood in between them and so they needed their pounds of flesh and they were looking at me for that.” Supposedly they were chanting “build the wall” and hostility and racism were written across their lynch-ready faces. However, later testimony and video evidence cast doubt on Phillips’ take. Sandmann wrote that at no time did the Covington teens threaten the black protestors, and that it was Phillips who singled Sandmann out and approached him. The youth didn’t know what to do; he smiled, he said, “because I wanted him to know that I was not going to become angry, intimidated or be provoked into a larger confrontation.” At one point he even hushed up one of his classmates who was going to respond to the black nationalists. He believed that by remaining clam and motionless he could diffuse the situation. Thankfully, there was no violence, and the situation did calm down.
The upshot of this incident is still unclear. Covington Catholic High School issued a statement condemning the actions of the students and promising an investigation. Phillips has been interviewed on multiple media outlets and held up as a model citizen. A petition on change.org calling for the termination of the Covington High School principal (among other things) has already garnered over 19,000 signatures. The Black Hebrew Israelites have been conspicuously ignored.
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It is ironic, if not fitting, that the Covington Controversy (which we shall call it) occurred almost on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year (Monday, January 21, 2019). These kinds of incidents, which appear to happen weekly at this point, uncover a putrid and ugly public discourse and the underbelly of American civil society. More than this, however, they expose the rotting soul within many everyday people. We seem to have learned little from the preaching and example of Dr. King. If we are to change, we ought to pay more attending to how he approached conflict, justice, and public life. To this end, I want to make three brief points.
First, major news and journal outlets do us a great disservice by their skewed and hasty reporting. There always seems to be a race as to who can report the juiciest stories first, and both headlines and story content read almost verbatim across multiple sites. It is understandable why many Americans have given up on major media and consider them an enemy to truth and to the people. Additionally, the reporting has an ulterior underside: any story that can further the popular, elitist, and anti-Trump narrative is seized upon and magnified. The NYT wasted no time in connecting the Covington Controversy with racial tensions in Trump’s America:
The encounter became the latest touchpoint for racial tensions in America, particularly under Mr. Trump, who has painted immigrants in broad strokes as rapists and drug dealers and recently mocked Senator Elizabeth Warren with a reference to Wounded Knee and Little Bighorn, sacred ground for Native Americans whose ancestors fought and died there. Across the country, Mr. Trump’s name—and his campaign for a wall on the southern border with Mexico—have been used to goad minorities, including by high school students at sporting events.
Of course, in the light of further details, this connection is doubtful (read: I’m not condoning Trump’s words or behavior). The New York Times, Washington Post, BBC, and a host of other news agency are simply failing to do their jobs—to report prudently and honestly on matters that are important to the country. I italicize this last bit because the problem with the news is not just sloppiness, bias, or disreputable motives, but that the very concept of what counts as newsworthy has become wildly distorted. Frankly, this issue shouldn’t have made national news. It was a local confrontation that involve a very small number of people (perhaps one hundred or less); there was no violence, and no police intervention; the situation was defused and everyone went home. Subsequent details revealed those originally charged with wrongdoing were probably not guilty, and those who were guilty were passed over in silence. If anything was to be done, it should have (and easily could have) been handled by local authorities and institutions (as Covington Catholic High School is). This approach to news reporting respects the elementary principle of subsidiarity: that local issues should be handled locally, and only escalated to state or national attention if the situation warrants it. In this case, it clearly did not.
The result is that we as a people are bombarded day in and day out with one controversy after another. Millions of people reading the news, on social media, and through comment boards become embroiled in a relatively minor and local incident that all of us would be better off never knowing about. This is exhausting and unnecessary; it pollutes our public discourse, it requires an inordinate amount of due diligence just to get to the bottom of things; it creates tension and conflict between family, friends, and strangers that needn’t be, it contributes to a national narrative that is greatly distorted if not outright false, and it distracts us from things that truly matter. The blame for this lays partially (and perhaps primarily) at the feet of our commentariat class (the rest of it is on us, see next point): they wildly inflate minor, local issues, report them in a one-sided manner, prematurely issue judgments before all the details are known, and then have the temerity to proclaim that this is just one more piece of evidence of Trump’s toxicity. We desperately need to recover a sane and healthy approach to national news that is able to discern the truly vital issues from the ephemeral, and which does so in a balanced and beneficial way.
Two other quick points. First, notice the racial double-standard by the New York Times and other outlets. The Black Hebrew Israelites were saying truly vile and racist things, but they were not the focus of any news story. The NYT called their slurs “racially combative comments.” Right, that’s it. If the white, Catholic teens had been saying the things the black nationalists were to either the Black Hebrew Israelites or the Native American group, they would have been flayed and skewered. Why did the black nationalists get a pass? Because this double standard is the manifestation of a racial worldview and paradigm that inconspicuously but ubiquitously undergirds almost every racial conversation in America today. That paradigm, which can loosely be represented by the moniker of “critical race theory,” partly avers that racism is a product of power, and thus minorities by definition cannot be racist because they have historically (and even currently) been powerless. To be sure, this is an erroneous understanding of racism, but it is what drives news outlets to their double standard. Second, Phillips’s experience and his interpretation of what happened to him can be instructive. Eye-witness accounts, first impressions, and subjective experiences may not be accurate. Phillips’s understanding of what was happening, how the boys were relating to him, and the motives of people around him seems to be misguided. This reminds us that we must always hear both sides of every story (cf. Proverbs 18:13, 17), and that we need to be patient until all the evidence has come forth. We dare not simply rely upon so-called “lived experiences” as the final arbiter in a debate or controversy.
My second point relates to our response to the media. We are partly to blame for spreading misinformation, jumping to conclusions, judging and condemning impulsively, and the like. This morning, in commemoration of MLK Jr. Day, I was reading some of Dr. King’s sermons and speeches. In his sermon, “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart,” King warns us of the following:
This prevalent tendency toward soft mindedness is found in man’s unbelievable gullibility. … This undue gullibility is also seen in the tendency of many readers to accept the printed word of the press as final truth. Few people realize that even our authentic channels of information—the press, the platform, and in many instances the pulpit—do not give us objective and unbiased truth. Few people have the toughness of mind to judge critically and to discern the true from the false, the fact from the fiction. Our minds are constantly being invaded by legions of half-truths, prejudices, and false facts. One of the great needs of mankind is to be lifted above the morass of false propaganda (pp. 2-3).
“Soft mindedness” describes the state of the American body politic right now. We are gullible and believe whatever the media industrial complex tells us. We share their false propaganda online and with indignation, supposing that somehow we are exposing lies and aiding the truth, which will lead to a fairer and less hostile America. We gnash our teeth in the a-personal and abstract comment box, conjuring up an abundance of acrimonious vitriol that tears down others and generates more of the same. We don’t realize that how we are corrupting our minds and souls, and in the process the soul of our nation. In his sermon, Dr. King goes on to point out further consequences of soft mindedness:
We do not need to look far to detect the dangers of soft mindedness. Dictators, capitalizing on soft mindedness, have led men to acts of barbarity and terror that are unthinkable in civilized society. … Soft mindedness is one of the basic causes of racial prejudice. The tough-minded person always examines the facts before he reaches conclusions; in short, he postjudges. The tender-minded person reaches a conclusion before he has examined the first fact; in short, he prejudges and is prejudiced (pp. 4-5).
The irony is as rich as it is dispiriting. By rushing to judgment about white teens who are supposedly being racist, the media and the American people actually become prejudiced themselves. They become the very thing they condemn. This is why we are in constant conflict and turmoil as a nation, and why the slightest offense sends us for a loop. By corrupting our souls we have positioned ourselves to be taken in and deceived by dictators and tyrants, who are more than likely to arise from the ranks of the depraved than to infiltrate from without.
My third and final observation is the following. After making the point that we must be relentless in developing a tough, prudent, and critical mind, King equally asserts that we must not allow that to make us calloused or cold. Instead, our lives must also be marked by tenderheartedness. To be tenderhearted we see people as people, not as cogs in a happiness-utilitarian machine. To be tenderhearted is to experience the beauty and brokenness of friendship, to enter into the joy and sorrow of family and friends. To be tenderhearted is to be genuinely compassionate as we are moved toward action by the pain and afflictions of others. To be tenderhearted is to view life as a window by which we see others, not a mirror only reflecting ourselves. Our example in tenderheartedness is none other than God himself as revealed in Jesus:
I am thankful that we worship a God who is both tough minded and tenderhearted. It God were only tough minded, he would be a cold, passionless despot sitting in some far-off heaven … But if God were only tenderhearted, he would be too soft and sentimental to function when things go wrong and incapable of controlling what he has made. … God is neither hardhearted nor soft minded. He is tough minded enough to transcend the world; he is tenderhearted enough to live in it. He does not leave us alone in our agonies and struggles. He seeks us in dark places and suffers with us and for us in our tragic prodigality (pp. 8-9).
God is both tough-minded and tenderhearted. He calls us to be a wise as serpents and as innocent as doves (Mt. 10:16)—at the same time! If we truly want to help make our nation a better place, to end our communal rot, and to restore the soul of America, we must do two things: introspectively examine ourselves and cultivate the virtues of tough-mindedness and tenderheartedness; and we must think global, but act local. We must care about goodness, truth, and justice at the global level, but act at the local level in small ways to see those things accomplished. Signing petitions, emoting on social media, arguing in discussion threads—these things won’t change the world. Look at the people around you and love them as people. This is more noble than a hundred op-ed articles.
Over at the Atlantic, Julie Irwin Zimmerman has labeled this incident the “Covington Catholic Test,” by which she means whether one is patient and waits for all the facts or rushes to judgment. She nails it when she says,
Take away the video and tell me why millions of people care so much about an obnoxious group of high-school students protesting legalized abortion and a small circle of American Indians protesting centuries of mistreatment who were briefly locked in a tense standoff. Take away Twitter and Facebook and explain why total strangers care so much about people they don’t know in a confrontation they didn’t witness. Why are we all so primed for outrage, and what if the thousands of words and countless hours spent on this had been directed toward something consequential? If the Covington Catholic incident was a test, it’s one I failed—along with most others. Will we learn from it, or will we continue to roam social media, looking for the next outrage fix? Next time a story like this surfaces, I’ll try to sit it out until more facts have emerged. I’ll remind myself that the truth is sometimes unknowable, and I’ll stick to discussing the news with people I know in real life, instead of with strangers whom I’ve never met. I’ll get my news from legitimate journalists instead of from an online mob for whom Saturday-morning indignation is just another form of entertainment. And above all, I’ll try to take the advice I give my kids daily: Put the phone down and go do something productive.
At the New York Times, David Brooks offers us a sobering assessment. He notes that the media is driven by social media to jump to conclusions:
Before you judge the reporters too harshly, it’s important to remember that these days the social media tail wags the mainstream media dog. If you want your story to be well placed and if you want to be professionally rewarded, you have to generate page views — you have to incite social media. The way to do that is to reinforce the prejudices of your readers.
Thus, he notes that the underlying problem is the use of Twitter and Facebook, technologies that seem to control us more than we do them:
The crucial thing is that the nation’s culture is now enmeshed in a new technology that we don’t yet know how to control. In this technology, stereotype is more salient than persons. In this technology, a single moment is more important than a life story. In this technology, a main activity is proving to the world that your type is morally superior to the other type.
My suggestion: for those who cannot use social media constructively, simply get off. Personally, I think Twitter is a cesspool and we’d all be better off not using it any more; Facebook has more potential to be used redemptively, so we should work toward that.
Ben is a graduate of Denver Seminary, having completed a double MA in New Testament Biblical Studies and Christian Apologetics and Ethics. He will be pursuing a PhD in politics starting in fall 2019. He loves reading, drinking coffee, and hiking in the Colorado Rockies. His academic interests include biblical languages and exegesis, theology, philosophy, politics, and economics.