You probably have heard about the controversy of the students from a Covington Catholic school who were accused of mocking a Native American veteran. A longer version of the video reveals that the initial interpretation of high school students seeking to disrupt a protest from a Native American does not seem to be accurate. I am not going to comment on which is the more accurate interpretation. I do not have to make that comment to be incredibly sad at what is transpiring.
We are in such a polarized society that it has now become acceptable to destroy the lives of kids if it furthers our goals. Doubt me. Some have talked about wanting to punch the kids. Assault! Nice. Other have said that they should never be forgiven. Because being an idiot at 16 is the unforgiveable sin. At the very least they should be doxed right? We know what happens when social media mobs take over and how lives can be ruined. It is bad enough if an adult has his or her life ruined by a bad joke or misstatement. Now we are seeking to ruin the lives of 16 year old kids. Truly, are we crazy?
Do you remember when you were 16? Do you remember how stupid you could be? I do. Perhaps that is why I was not eager to jump on the bandwagon when this first came out. But then again I do not tend to jump on such events until enough information has come out so that I know what I am talking about. I have a 24 hour rule that I imperfectly follow. I try not to comment on a news event for at least a day. It is my way to limit the times I have to later eat crow.
But for the sake of arguing let us assume that the boys did just what the initial story alleged them to do. They went and harassed a Native American while that Indian made his protest. What then? Is what they did terrible? Yeah. Should they be punished? Absolutely. Should that punishment be that they are doxed, tarred as a racist, and casted out of respectable society for the rest of their lives? Once again, have you ever been 16? Or to put it another way do you want to be judged for the rest of your life by the worst thing you have ever done?
My point is that even if the initial story was correct this overreaction says a lot about what we have become. Do we really think that we should not forgive them? Criminals who break into our homes can be forgiven, but not 16 year old kids. Assault them? Dox them? Did people actually listen to what they are saying, or read what they are writing, when they decided to dehumanize these boys? Or did it just feel good to have a villain that we can treat like dirt?
Just so I am not misunderstood if the first interpretation is true, I am not saying that punishment should be withheld. A suspension or possibly expulsion may be needed to help them see the error of their ways. Even with the current version of the story there may be room for correction. What I am saying is that the punishment should not be a life sentence of stigma for someone who is 16. Does that make me soft on potential racism? Or does it make me a human who understands that 16 years olds can get carried away? You decide.
If you believe me to be wrong about treating them differently because of their race, religion and other characteristics then change those factors for the boys and the Indian protestor. Were the same voices asking for these boys’ lives to be destroyed distraught when an Antifa professor attacked protestors with a bike lock. No, it was the conservatives who went on the warpath then, (showing that this is a bipartisan problem) while progressives were largely silent. When a Trump supporter was pepper sprayed, was there a demand for doxing and assault from the same voices who found the youth from Covington so “punchable”? To ask the question is to answer it.
So we know how to give the benefit of the doubt and understand how things can get out of hand when it is people on our side of the political fence. Deep down we know it is wrong to treat those on the other side with such contempt, but we do not seem to be able to overcome our temptation to do so. This is the type of mentality that leads us to thinking it is all right to ruin the lives of 16 year olds as long as we can further our political narrative.
Note that I have assumed the worst about the boys and still I am appalled at how they were treated. Now we know that reality is different than the original story. I wonder how the people who sent the family insults and death threats feel right about now. Probably they still hold onto their hate by blowing off the new evidence. That way they can justify their terrible actions. In fact, it would not surprise me if they now hate the boys even more. There are social-psychological theories that would predict such a reaction. It reminds us that hate will not end hate. It will only multiple hate.
So where do we go from here as a society? Can we resolve to stop this social media mob mentality which seeks to destroy the lives of our political enemies, even if they are teenagers? I think adaptation of my 24 hour rule would be a start. If we slowed down and did not just pass on the latest outrage, then we would limit the scope of these social media mobs. Why not allow more data to come out? If the information confirms our initial reaction, then does it really matter that you were the first on your Twitter feed to insult your political opponents?
Second, we can try to humanize those on the other side of the political and social fence. Is it too much to ask that we try to understand how people may have made a misstatement or unkind comment? Is forgiveness really that hard to express? Can we try to envision how we would feel if one from our side of the political fence made such a misstatement or joke? I am not arguing that we should ignore obvious and gross comments of racism, harassment or insults. But a measure of grace seems appropriate more often than not. One day you may need that grace yourself.
Finally, can we start talking with those on the other side of the cultural and political fence to see how they interpret different situations? It would not have helped that much with the Covington situation as there was initial condemnation from the left and right. But often we may see a reasonable explanation from those with different political opinions and those explanations may slow us down from making a rash judgement on those in our social out-groups.