In public discourse, an opponent’s identity and experience can matter more than their arguments. For instance, if you are a philosopher who supports the use of torture in a narrow set of circumstances on utilitarian grounds, you would not want to find yourself debating the ethics of such a position with a victim of torture. The optics of such a debate would be horrible, and in the minds of many observers they would place the philosopher at a decisive disadvantage no matter how careful or well defended his arguments happened to be. In the same way, whole groups of people consigned to the bottom of the identity politics grievance hierarchy are saddled with a similar handicap, often in situations far less contentious than the debate over torture.
On Saturday in Washington DC, a group of Catholic school kids fell victim to this presumptive logic. The progressive media ran with a story that confirmed their intersectional priors and, in the process, damaged their credibility, established an unsustainable precedent, and unwittingly affirmed President Trump’s demagogic “Fake News” mantra.
The prevailing media narrative in the immediate aftermath of the incident was roughly as follows:
- A group of boys from Covington Catholic High School were on a trip to attend the March for Life rally.
- The rally happened to coincide with an indigenous peoples’ demonstration nearby.
- Motivated by white privilege and racism (rather than, say, garden-variety teenage obnoxiousness), the schoolboys began chanting to drown out the activists.
- Native American activist Nathan Phillips was then surrounded by menacing and entitled youths wearing MAGA hats.
- Phillips beat his drum and sang a tune intended to heal the boys.
- The boys responded by mocking him and yelling “Build the wall!” while one of their number smirked into Phillips’s face, an act of effrontery that apparently reflects the entitlement and racism of white Americans, the moral arrogance of Trump supporters, the malevolence of privileged high school bullies like Brett Kavanaugh, and so on and so forth.
Footage has since emerged that provides a fuller picture of the incident, and it now appears that this narrative is almost entirely untrue. It seems that it was Phillips who approached the boys, beating his drum while they were minding their own business, chanting their high school cheer, and awaiting instructions from their chaperone. In every video of the incident that I have watched, the boys’ behaviour is arguably rowdy and insensitive, but I have yet to see any evidence that supports the far more egregious charge of racism. That is, unless we are prepared to accept that any confrontation between a Native American and a white youth is ipso facto racist, no matter who instigated it or why. Even then, the specific accusations made about the boys’ behavior seem to be false.
Prior to their confrontation with Phillips, the boys were arguing with a small group of Black Israelites (described in the initial media reports simply as “black activists”), who aggressively disparaged the boys’ “whiteness,” yelled homophobic slurs, and racially abused a black student. Unsurprisingly, the boys took exception to all this. But even though the video footage now corroborates the (truthful) account that the boys gave to the media in the wake of this incident, the Diocese has apologized and some of the boys now face expulsion.
On social media, an outpouring of righteous hatred was emptied over these young men, and Twitter was awash with calls for them to be assaulted or “doxxed” in the name of historical atonement and multicultural tolerance.
Honest question. Have you ever seen a more punchable face than this kid’s? pic.twitter.com/jolQ7BZQPD
— Reza Aslan (@rezaaslan) January 20, 2019
This disgraceful affair is further evidence of America’s spiralling polarization and of group hatreds being used to justify sanctimonious mobbing and violence. Activists and Twitter blowhards, some of them with thousands of followers, have run roughshod over the facts with a false narrative of grotesque privilege colliding with noble oppression that confirmed their ideological preferences. Their idle (and possibly cynical) demonization of schoolchildren was then amplified by click-hungry media sites trafficking in furious indignation and recklessly stoking sectarian anger. That Phillips played his own part in encouraging a misleading version of events does not excuse the failure to verify on the part of those uncritically reporting and circulating his remarks.
As white and wealthy Christian young men confronted by an ageing person of color, the schoolboys were placed at an immediate disadvantage on a number of identitiarian fronts, so that it was evidently felt that their point of view could be presumptively and legitimately disregarded. So entrenched have such assumptions become in the nation’s finest progressive minds, that supposedly serious news outlets splashed headlines across their websites like “Boys in ‘Make America Great Again’ Hats Mob Native Elder at Indigenous Peoples March,” with scant consideration for quaint notions like fairness or accuracy. And as a result of sunk costs and the incentive to save face, the odds of retractions—even in the face of compelling evidence—are slim.
This sad affair has allowed political charlatans, axe-grinders, and race baiters to wax poetic and connect the incident to their own personal bugaboos, be they experiences at the hands of high school bullies or racist white cisheteropatriarchy. Weaving comprehensive narratives about society from isolated cases (even cases in which the facts militate against those narratives) and engaging in moral preening targeted at entire identity groups is always dangerous. But in our current climate, it is deemed acceptable even so, so long as the objects of hatred hail from disfavored backgrounds.
The unfortunate fate that the boys encountered and the Orwellian dishonesty and public Two Minutes Hate that followed hew to a broader and increasingly familiar trend of exacting revenge on historically privileged groups for the secularized original sin imputed to their unalterable characteristics, without regard for truth, consequences, or even simple human decency. Whether it be the paucity of evidence corroborating the Kavanaugh allegations or the miscarriages of justice handed down by Title IX kangaroo courts, vindictive tribalism is being allowed to determine individual and institutional actions. Regardless of one’s political orientation, we will all suffer if this vengeful distortion of reality is allowed to get any further out of hand. A course correction that returns to a sober assessment of the facts before rushing to judgment is long overdue.
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