“There is always a gap between the experience and the fuller truth. One problem is that the size of the gap (between the event and our speaking out about it) is inversely proportional to what we think we already know.”
A little over two weeks have passed since events on the Capital Mall led to a video and a torrent of comments concerning high school students from Kentucky and a Native American veteran going viral. Fortunately, more information surfaced (longer videos) and more deliberate thought resulted in a fuller and more revealing picture of what happened.
There is much to be learned from all of this, but a walk through the main points first would be helpful. (A fuller timeline of pertinent events can be obtained from a number of follow-up articles, including an excellent summary article by Caitlin Flanagan, Adam Serwer’s article, and Ian Bogost’s article, all from The Atlantic. The following are points from these articles.)
- On Friday, January 18, 2019, a group of white teenage boys wearing MAGA hats interacted with an elderly Native American man on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
- Social media reported the teenagers chanting “Make America Great Again,” menacing him, and taunting him in racially motivated ways.
- There was a short video of the interaction.
The short video lit up social media, and the still-shot of the teenager smiling at the Native American propagated rapidly along with condemning comments about racism and bullying on social media.
However, slowly and too quietly, issues began to arise.
- Was it problematic that the video offered no evidence that these things had happened?What mattered was that “it” had happened, and that there was video to prove it. The fact of there being a video became stronger than the video itself.
- What led to this charged moment? From the short clip alone it is impossible to tell.
- The point of the viral video apparently was that it was “proof” of racist bullying, yet showed no evidence of it. Regardless, the boy quickly became the subject of rage and disgust. “I’d be ashamed and appalled if he was my son,” the actress Debra Messing tweeted.
Then a second video appeared, seemingly reinforcing the first.
- Shot shortly after the event, this video consisted of an interview with the drummer, Nathan Phillips.
- This was also the first in a series of interviews in which Phillips would prove himself adept at incorporating any new information about what had actually happened into his version of events. His version appears all encompassing, and he was never directly confronted about his conflicting accounts.
Only slowly, after an initial rush to find information to fill the “gap,” did a fuller picture begin to emerge.
- (From Adam Serwer’s article) An analysis by Reason’s Robby Soave posited that “far from engaging in racially motivated harassment, the group of mostly white, MAGA-hat wearing male teenagers remained relatively calm and restrained despite being subjected to incessant racist, homophobic, and bigoted verbal abuse by members of the bizarre religious sect Black Hebrew Israelites, who were lurking nearby.”
More relevant context, but still incomplete. This led to some media reversals, but the new information had little or no impact on the social media storm.
Then, a fuller hour and 45 minute video surfaced that provided significant context. From Flanagan’s article,
- The full (new) video reveals that there was indeed a Native American gathering at the Lincoln Memorial, that it took place shortly before the events of the viral video, and that during the new video the indigenous people had been the subject of a hideous tirade of racist insults and fantasies. But the white students weren’t the people hurling this garbage at them—the young “African American men preaching about the Bible and oppression” were doing it. … they were Black Hebrew Israelites, a tiny sect of people who believe they are the direct descendants of the 12 tribes of Israel, and whose beliefs on a variety of social issues make Mike Pence look like Ram Dass.
Flanagan’s article provides more disturbing details from the video about the Black Hebrew Israelites’ confrontation with the Native Americans. The leader directs attention to the teenagers,
- The (video) camera turns to capture five white teenage boys, one of whom is wearing a MAGA hat. They are standing at a respectful distance, with their hands in their pockets, listening to this exchange with expressions of curiosity. They are there to meet their bus home.
- Now we may look at the (first) “heartbreaking viral video,” as well as the many others that have since emerged, none of which has so far revealed the boys to be chanting anything about a wall or about making America great again.
- Phillips keeps walking into the group, they make room for him, and then—the smiling boy.
- One of the videos shows him (the boy) doing something unusual. At one point he turns away from Phillips, stops smiling, and locks eyes with another kid, shaking his head, seeming to say the word no. This is consistent with the long, harrowing statement that the smiling boy would release at the end of the weekend, in which he offered an explanation for his actions that is consistent with the video footage that has so far emerged, and revealed what happened to him in the 48 hours after Americans set to work doxing him and threatening his family with violence.
- As of this writing, it seems that the smiling boy, Nick Sandmann, is the one person who tried to be respectful of Phillips and who encouraged the other boys to do the same. And for this, he has been by far the most harshly treated of any of the people involved in the afternoon’s mess at the Lincoln Memorial.
- Even if new information arises, the elite media have botched the story so completely that they have lost the authority to report on it.
- By Tuesday, The New York Times was busy absorbing the fact that Phillips was not, apparently, a Vietnam veteran, as it had originally reported, and it issued a correction saying that it had contacted the Pentagon for his military record, suggesting that it no longer trusts him as a source of reliable information.
(Interestingly, in an interview on the ‘Today’ show, Nathan Phillips claimed that Sandmann, the teenager from Kentucky, had been ‘coached’ before giving his statement, referenced above. It would appear that the older Phillips appreciates more shooting from the hip, as contradictory as the results might be, than for a young teenager to become prepared and consistent on a national stage.)
As more information became available, the gap narrowed, but the pendulum still swung wildly thanks to the media and social media. From Serwar’s article,
- The incident became a national story in part because of the way the images seemed to confirm first one sweeping narrative, and then another, opposite one: the first, that the heart of Trumpism is prejudice; the second, that anti-prejudice, abetted by the liberal media, has become a malevolent force comparable to racial oppression. But only one of these bears any resemblance to empirical reality, and that would still be the case no matter what unfolded in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
Finally, it seemed, the media were coming under criticism from some of their own, however too late and too narrowly reported. From Flanagan’s article,
- How could the elite media—The New York Times, let’s say—have protected themselves from this event, which has served to reinforce millions of Americans’ belief that traditional journalistic outlets are purveyors of “fake news”? They might have hewed to a concept that once went by the quaint term “journalistic ethics.” Among other things, journalistic ethics held that if you didn’t have the reporting to support a story, and if that story had the potential to hurt its subjects, and if those subjects were private citizens, and if they were moreover minors, you didn’t run the story. You kept reporting it; you let yourself get scooped; and you accepted that speed is not the highest value. Otherwise, you were the trash press.
The reality is that the speed and openness of social media have put unintended but huge pressure on legitimate journalistic outlets to “up their game” to be competitive – speed over fact checking and ethics. Pressure to close the gap.
Interestingly, I came across a social media thread that began with swift judgmentalism (“typical white teenagers,” “don’t they know there’s unintended consequences for their behaviors”), which then eventually proceeded to recognize some new and conflicting information, and which finally led to a meek and reserved posture (“I think we overreacted a bit quickly”). All this in an open thread, ironically, itself an unintended consequence. The speed to close the gap is indeed inversely proportional to what we think we already know.
Ian Bogost’s article, Stop Trusting Viral Videos, highlights the errors that can propagate from knee-jerk responses to seemingly “concrete evidence.” These knee-jerk behaviors Ramesh Ponnuru describes in Bloomberg as, “Instead of reacting to what other people are saying, we react to what we think people like them believe.”
Not just in this event, but it seems everyone and everything are being sucked into, intentionally or unintentionally, a vortex, a death spiral of behavior.
It’s as if social media has become the sea into which people are chumming their opinions as bait into a feeding frenzy of limitedly informed but volatile fish, in an attempt to garner attention.
What are the underlying factors, controllable factors, that contribute to this?
Realistically speaking, there is not one factor that’s involved, but many. And while they are all known, they are not all known, that is, not all accepted as being related much less as needing to be taken into account.
A quick rundown,
- Confirmation Bias. This is the mental bias where each of us preferentially selects (reads and believes) information that is consistent with what we already believe we know as true. (Ergo, Ramesh Ponnuru’s comment above.) Throwing the chum happens because it’s fodder for another’s confirmation bias. This happens because
- We live in Bubbles. Our Bubble has been formed by the environment we grew up in and is continuously reinforced and strongly influenced by the people and events around us. It becomes our Personal Culture. We gravitate to others who are like-minded, who have similar confirmation biases and thus would fit neatly into our world, our Dunbar Bubble. Within this Bubble, it is impossible to know, experience, and process everything, because
- There Will Always Be Missing Information. Information is missing because either we do not have access to it (in spite of the Internet), or, since we cannot realistically process all of it, we intentionally filter it out (with the walls of our Bubble). As a result,
- We Don’t Know That We Don’t Know “What” We Don’t Know. And we don’t even realize that this statement applies to all of us. We’re comfortable in our Bubbles. As long as no one disrupts it or tires to pop it.
7 Words to Change the World
There is indeed much to be learned from this situation, but only if one is willing to learn.
The solution is very simple, but because the four conditions above are so intimately connected it is very difficult to grasp and put into practice.
It involves choosing to adjust our shields (the filters that are our Bubble walls) and choosing to listen. It means not only recognizing and accepting the fact that
I Don’t Know That I Don’t Know “What” I Don’t Know,
but becoming willing to openly add just 7 Words, confessing it freely,
I ACCEPT I Don’t Know That I Don’t Know “What” I Don’t Know, BUT I’M WILLING TO LISTEN
and then practicing it.
(P.S. For a very good article on listening, see FastCompany’s 6 reasons why you’re a bad listener (and how to change it) )