When it first appeared online on the Friday of MLK weekend, all we knew was what we saw: a video of an elderly Native American man chanting and beating a drum, standing face to face with a grinning teenage boy in a “Make America Great Again” hat, both of them surrounded by a crowd of laughing, shouting, singing white teenagers, the Lincoln memorial rising up in the background.
Needless to say, the video caught people’s attention. Within hours, voices from every corner of the internet were weighing in. There was anger. There was indignation. Some people pointed to the whole situation as a sign of the times. Others, however, rushed to defend the teenagers. We don’t know the whole story, they said. Don’t you remember being young and stupid?
And then, we began to get some context. We learned that the Native American man was Nathan Phillips, a veteran of the US Marines. He was participating in the Indigenous People’s March. He told The Washington Post that he was trying to defuse tension between the students and other protestors, when he was suddenly surrounded by teenagers shouting, “Build that wall!” Phillips tried to leave, but then, he said, “that guy in the hat stood in my way… and wouldn’t allow me to retreat.”
The success of a democracy hinges on how well-informed its people are.
The “guy in the hat,” we soon learned, was a student named Nick Sandmann from Covington Catholic High School. He and had his fellow students were marching in the Pro-Life Rally.
According to Sandmann’s statement, when they arrived at the Lincoln Memorial, they were immediately harassed and insulted by “four African American protestors.” New video footage would soon corroborate this: members of the Black Hebrew Israelites—a religious fringe group that, in its most extreme form, holds white people as their enemy—began shouting slurs at the students. In response, Sandmann said, they began to sing “school spirit chants to counter the hateful things that were being shouted at our group.” That’s when Nathan Phillips came right up to him. Sandmann said he tried to remain still and calm and look friendly. “I never felt like I was blocking the Native American protestor,” he said.
Both Phillips and Sandmann gave countless interviews over the next few days, clarifying their respective sides of the story. Some things became clearer; other things didn’t. Many people admitted they were wrong. Others stood by their previous positions. Things died down a bit. And now, it’s been over a week, and the media has moved on. And so have we, probably.
What did we learn?
It can be easy to shrug the whole story off as a fluke or pat ourselves on the back for being right all along. But, if we just move on, I think we’re wasting a valuable opportunity. If we don’t stop and examine this situation, context and all, then we’re bound to repeat the same mistakes again.
So. What can we learn from this?
1. A lack of information can lead to poorly justified outrage.
If we’re going to be outraged, we should be outraged by the whole picture, not just the piece we happened to glimpse. In their consequential essay, “What Americans Know about Politics and why it Matters,” Michael X. Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter write that “Political information is to democratic politics what money is to economics; it is the currency of citizenship.” In other words, the success of a democracy hinges on how well-informed its people are. Taken by itself, the initial video clip of Phillips and Sandmann was pretty incendiary. It looked like something to get angry about. But that’s the scary thing about social media: when everything is presented in the same manner, everything looks credible. I will admit, when I first saw the video, I assumed that what I saw was, in fact, the whole story. But it wasn’t. That fact was humbling. As a result, I feel challenged to be more discerning. I hope you do, too.
2. Recognize the story you are telling yourself.
One of the most fascinating things about the whole story is the way in which every party believes that they are somehow the victim. Phillips feels like he doesn’t have a place in the nation he is native to, Sandmann and his fellow students feel unfairly criticized and persecuted and even the Black Hebrew Israelite extremists identify with the Jewish narrative of slavery and discrimination. Now, we can argue about which people group has more of a right to claim themselves a “victim,” but in a way, it’s a moot point, because that’s the narrative their telling themselves. And you and I are adhering to a narrative, too, and that narrative influenced the way we reacted to this story.
Let this story help us recognize the narratives we are telling ourselves, and see the ways that, supported by history or not, they blind us to the possibility of seeing from another perspective.
I immediately sided with the Native American war veteran because of the association I have for MAGA hats. But then, I read Sandmann’s statement, where he says, “ I am a faithful Christian and practicing Catholic, and I always try to live up to the ideals my faith teaches me—to remain respectful of others, and to take no action that would lead to conflict or violence.” What do I do with that? That complicates my narrative. And that’s a good thing! Let this story help us recognize the narratives we are telling ourselves, and see the ways that, supported by history or not, they blind us to the possibility of seeing from another perspective.
3. More hatred is not the answer.
No-brainer, maybe. But I look at this whole thing, and I don’t know if anyone should be 100% proud of the way that they responded to it. People called Phillips a liar and even worse, and other people sent death threats to Sandmann. How is that helpful? How does that move us forward? If there’s anything we remember from this debacle, I hope it’s the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “ Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” So easy to say. So hard to live out. But we shouldn’t give up trying. I want to try. How about you?