A troubled and troubling country

What is in a smile?

It was all over the internet at the weekend: a short video of boys from a Kentucky Catholic high school, in Washington for the annual March for Life, mocking a peaceful Native American elder from an Indigenous People’s March. Their ringleader stood smirking at the man while other boys gathered around chanting to drown out the elder’s speech and drumming. They were wearing MAGA hats, which tells you everything – doesn’t it?

No, it doesn’t, as a two hour video of the same incident later showed. But reaction to the original snippets does tell you something, wrote one (Catholic) mother in The Atlantic on Monday.

Admitting that her own initial reaction got it wrong, – she was one of many, indeed multitudes, for that is the scale we are dealing with on the internet – Julie Irwin Zimmerman described the whole thing as a political Rorschach test, that psychological test where you are shown inkblot images on a piece of paper and are asked to describe what you see. The popular understanding of it is that it reveals a person’s unconscious thoughts, motives, or desires.

Substitute the video story for the inkblot, Zimmerman suggested, “tell me how you first reacted, and I can probably tell where you live, who you voted for in 2016, and your general take on a list of other issues — but it shouldn’t be.”

Yet this is the depth of unreason to which political, indeed not just political but general civilized discourse has now descended, and not only in America.

When more video of the confrontation – it cannot be called anything else – was shown it was not clear who was confronting whom. But there was now a big enough question mark over it all to make some of the outraged begin to backtrack. There was no real evidence that the boys said or did anything that was hostile.

According to a statement issued by the student at the centre of the controversy, Nick Sandmann, the students were also victims of harassment by the indigenous group’s protest, and they had tried to defuse the situation by singing school spirit songs over their chants.

Sandmann said the encounter between himself and Nathan Phillips, the Omaha elder, was “a misunderstood moment taken out of context.” He claimed that he was utterly confused by the man who had confronted him on the assumption that because he was wearing that particular cap, he was a die-hard supporter of Donald Trump.

Phillips, meanwhile, maintained that he and his companions felt threatened by the confrontation with the students, most of whom were white.

Argument over the video evidence continued in Rorschach mode. But media scholar Ian Bogost in a piece for The Atlantic drew the sanest conclusion:we should just Stop Trusting Viral Videos.

Well, good luck with that. The video hits your screen and where you are on that Rorschach scale will determine the rest. You don’t ask yourself is this viral – because that proves nothing about what you have just seen. Really principled media people – how many of them are there? – will have rules about checking sources, but that takes no account of what happens when the virus is raging through the body politic.

A great deal of the interpretation of the visual in this case hangs on the smile of young Nick Sandmann as he stands face to face with Nathan Philips.

Bogost offers the opinion that the actual intentions and motivations of Sandmann and his colleagues seem vital to any account of what took place. “But not only can we never really know what those were, they also don’t matter once the original video has been shot and shared. That short clip shows a young man with a smirk, wearing a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat, appearing to stare down a Native elder: Simply describing the scene, at this political and cultural moment, suggests a racist threat.”

That opinion really shows us the problem at the heart of this truly appalling state in which we find ourselves.

The problem is the breakdown of trust. Of course, there are many things which we may never really know about each other. But to deal with that lack of knowledge we have the quality of trust. Abandon our readiness to trust each other and take offence at careless words and ambiguous looks, and we compound the deficiencies in our capacity to know to a terrifying degree.

One man’s smile may be another man’s smirk – but to categorically call what you see on Sandmann’s face a smirk betrays naked prejudice. That smile could mean many things – nervous fear, a desire to be a friend, bewilderment. And the general appearance of the group of boys? Have any of the outraged ever been in the presence of a group of raucous schoolboys? These look perfectly normal. They are not the picture of mature refinement – but what group of boys on a day out ever are?

Without trust, as this episode demonstrates, identity politics rushes in to fill the vacuum. Should we not begin by simply seeing one American disagreeing with another. Why should racism have anything to do with it? It might, but is that conclusion just another consequence of the inherent prejudice of the viewer? Simply reflect on the motive which brought these boys all the way from Kentucky to Washington – to vindicate and defend the right to life of unborn children of every race on the planet, of every shade of skin.

America is not alone in experiencing such ill-founded social eruptions. We must believe that we can do something about it, but will we?

(This is the revised version of this article which was published this morning – January 23 – on MercatorNet.com under the heading What really happened between some Catholic schoolboys and a Native American elder? The original was published on this blog on Tuesday evening.)

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