Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Ruth Conniff: Our Dangerous Impulse to Demonize the Other Side

We need to check our impulse to see young white men as evil.

I felt it, too. Millions of people experienced a thrill of outrage watching the viral video of protesters outside the Lincoln Memorial last week. The smug, smiling white boy in a “Make America Great Again” cap, who came on a school trip to attend an anti-abortion march, was blocking a Native American elder who had come for the Indigenous Peoples March. Other boys danced, mockingly, as the older man sang and played his drum. The whole scene seemed to sum up the overt racism and triumphant arrogance of white Trump supporters.

Except that, in a longer video you see that the boys were not blocking Nathan Phillips, the Native American man. Instead, Phillips approached the boys. And the entire scene, as various marchers converged on the National Mall, was more circus than standoff.

Now that circus has metastasized into a war over the reactions to videos of the incident. Sandmann is on national TV to defending himself, and Donald Trump is blaming the “fake news” for victimizing the boys. First there was the messy, ambiguous encounter, then the rush to judgment, and now both sides scolding each other and retrenching. It’s a microcosm of everything that is wrong with our national politics.

In the longer, hour-and-forty-seven-minute video (now deleted from Facebook), you can see that a handful of Black Hebrew Israelites, members of an obscure sect, spent more than an hour spewing bizarre, bigoted religious theories at the boys, calling them sinners, homosexuals and school-shooters, and supporters of a “faggot President.” The Black Hebrews also provoked participants in the Indigenous Peoples March, calling them “Uncle Tomahawks” and “$5 Indians.” At one point, Shar Yaqataz Banyamyan tells the indigenous marchers that they are on the wrong side of God, and that’s why their land was stolen from them.

What can we learn from all this?

The first lesson is that the social media outrage machine is leading us all by the amygdala. Our instant, fight-or-flight responses to news stories are not to be trusted.

Secondly, a lot of us are suckers for stories that cast white males in Trump hats, as aggressive, loutish, entitled jerks—in other words, as mini Donald Trumps.

That’s not good, because if we are ever going to undo the damage of the Trump era, we are going to have to allow for the possibility that even Trump supporters could be better than Trump.

The President, who constantly stokes fear and outrage with his alarmist and bigoted remarks, bears a lot of responsibility for our toxic political culture.

But he’s not the only force pushing us into destructive, thoughtless, warring camps.

The only way we are going to recover some sanity and intelligence in public life is if we stop freebasing news and commentary that bypasses reason and goes directly to our id. We badly need to develop some practices to deal with the epidemic of online road rage. For a lot of us, that means checking our impulse to see young white men as evil.

Nick Sandmann put out a statement about the confrontation on the Mall. The statement may have been crafted with the help of a Republican PR firm, which has led a lot of progressives to discount it. But its tenor is so much at odds with my first perception of Sandmann’s smug, smiling face in the viral video, that it brought me up short.

Watch the whole thing again and you’ll see some bewildered-looking, smiling boys stepping aside for Nathan Phillips and his drum. The other boys, who are dancing, find the situation funny—but their behavior seems less aggressive when you consider that Phillips came right up to sing directly to them. Some are surprised, some are wrong-footed and happily going along with what seems like a zany situation. Others may be just as contemptuous as it originally appeared. But the larger context changes your sense that all of these boys are posterchildren for the kind of impudent, in-your-face disrespectful attitude we associate with Trump.

It’s scary to think that people around the country turned violently against these kids based on a mistaken impression they picked up online.

Sandmann says he and his family have received death threats.

It reminds me of the Nazi prom photo incident Baraboo, Wisconsin, where another group of white, teen-aged boys became infamous overnight. Those boys, who were caught apparently giving a Nazi salute in a high-school prom photo, also received death threats. Some of them, who did not participate in the salute, were accused of being white supremacists anyway.Self-righteous, public shaming of kids is almost certain to backfire.

Commentators around the globe weighed in, disparaging the boys as a group, as representatives of white, rural people in general—a group generally looked down on by urban Democrats, and now, in the era of Trump, held in open contempt. Some thoughtful community members I know in Baraboo have managed to organize public forums, educational programs, and personal one-on-one discussions in which the boys apologized, voluntarily, to a Jewish family in town. (I wrote about that whole incident here.) But the media circus around the event pushed community members into a defensive posture and made it harder to foster empathy and healing.

Self-righteous, public shaming of kids is almost certain to backfire.

The whole job of teenagers is to figure out who they are. They do this by venturing out into the world, unprotected by parents and teachers, to learn about others, and about themselves. If we stereotype them as sociopaths and predators right out of the gate, we push them toward the very qualities we dread.

The last thing we need in the Trump era is a moral panic about white boys. Instead, we should be teaching those boys, and ourselves, to calm down, to exercise compassion, and to use reason instead of getting overwrought.

The scene in front of the Lincoln Memorial was not encouraging.

In one way, it was a model of American democracy, with people gathered in the public square to argue about some of the great themes that have divided our country since the very beginning: slavery, racism, the theft of indigenous land, white privilege, women’s rights, and what the phrase “Make America Great Again” really means. 

But instead of a reasoned debate, it was crazy town. The Black Hebrew Israelites spouted their nutty, bigoted ideas. The boys from Covington, on a school-sponsored field trip to march against women’s right to choose, jumped around like a bunch of lunatics chanting their school fight song as one of their classmates stripped off his shirt. Nathan Phillips decided to interpose himself between the two.

“Who’s the caveman now?” Black Hebrew Israelite Shar Yaqataz Banyamyan, yelled.

The answer, it turns out, is all of us. We need to evolve.


© 2018 The Progressive

If we are ever going to undo the damage of the Trump era, we are going to have to allow for the possibility that even Trump supporters could be better than Trump.

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