Perception, pre-conceived notions and politics

Stare-down in Washington

I’d guess that almost everyone has heard of the incident in Washington last week that is best described (in my opinion) as a stare-down that went viral. In case you’ve been living under a rock however, the details are as follows: A group of kids from a Catholic high school in Covington, Kentucky came to Washington to participate in the March-For-Life, an anti-abortion demonstration. They had gathered at the spot on the Mall where they were supposed to meet their bus to head home, which put them near a small group of Black Hebrew Israelites, a fringe group that purports to be the “true descendants of the ancient Israelites.” This group of maybe 4 or 5 then hurled epithets, taunts and racial invective at the kids, who responded with school chants and general rowdiness. Nathan Phillips, a Native American activist then walked toward the group of high school kids, drumming a skin drum and chanting. When he got to them, he came face-to-face with one of the students, a kid named Nick Sandmann wearing a MAGA hat, where both of them stood inches apart in what appeared to be a stare-down. Videos of this went viral, and by the time the evening news was over, most Americans had seen or heard enough to draw their conclusion about what happened (and the motivations behind it).  

That’s where it gets interesting to me. 

Depending upon your point of view, Nick Sandmann instigated the stare down. Wearing an arrogant smirk the whole time, and, backed by a bunch of shouting and hooligans, he showed his disrespect and self-perceived racial superiority to Phillips, who was only trying to bring “positive energy” to defuse a potentially volatile situation between the kids and the Black Hebrew Israelites with his drumming and chanting. 

Or, Nathan Phillips, a known Native American gadfly who has misrepresented his military service for personal aggrandizement, was the instigator, grandstanding with his cheesy drum and chanting. Sandmann, who has “great respect” for all races, was trying to calm his more boisterous buddies down while peacefully and respectfully smiling at Phillips to show he couldn’t be intimidated by him. 

The media by and large at first took the earlier narrative and ran with it. Nick Sandmann was painted as a racially insensitive jerk from a wealthy family, who was trying to build a little street cred in front of his hooligan buddies by confronting a diminutive, elderly Native American while smirking in his face. 

But within a day or so most of the networks had backed down from their initial reports. In a CNN interviewit appears that poor Nick was grossly mischaracterized; he’s actually a very respectful and generally nice kid and was only trying to calm things down. He said that, while he had every right to be where he was and has nothing to apologize for, he probably should have just walked away, yada yada yada. 

Additionally, Phillips may not have been exactly as he at first appeared to be; he may have let people believe he fought in Vietnam when he didn’t; he was the one being confrontational rather than Sandmann, yada yada yada.

Of course Trump and his spin team jumped on this with his “fake news” talking point, to show the media is irrevocably biased against the right. He even inviting Sandmann to the White House for a photo op; whether that pans out remains to be seen. It’s of interest to note that Sandmann’s parents hired a PR firm to help him “craft his narrative” and was undoubtedly coached him for his CNN interview, and Phillips’ “misrepresentation” of his military record and intent in walking up to the Covington kids was not quite what it appearedeither, so at the end of the day it seems to me that the most the media could be blamed for getting wrong is the nuance in each story. About the only perspective that survived unscathed (and which I am sure most people have already forgotten) is that the entire thing was stirred up by the idiots in the Black Hebrew Israelites.

My observation here is not which of the accounts is more accurate (in reality the truth is probably somewhere in between). My point is how two people can see the exact same incident, and depending upon their politics, their pre-conceptions and yes, their prejudices, can come to virtually polar opposite conclusions. I’ve written a couple of blogs on the book “Moral Politics” by George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist and professor at UC Berkely, who argues that our view of the world and things that happen in it are shaped by our pre-conceived notions and prejudices, such that it is impossible to perceive an event differently. Or, as Wikipediaexplains it, “lives of individuals are significantly influenced by the central metaphors they use to explain complex phenomena.It’s almost as if our brains are hardwired to perceive the world in a certain way, making it impossible to see another perspective. It reminds me of the “yanny/laurel” meme, where some people hear “yanny” and others hear “laurel” when the exact same audio is played. 

In any case, I find it fascinating, that people on both sides of our political spectrum could see in exactly the same video, things that support their ideology. But it also is distressing how polarized we’ve become in the US.

About BigBill

Stats: Married male boomer. Hobbies: Hiking, woodworking, reading, philosophy, good conversation.
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