Sunday, January 27, 2019

Why I'm still talking about Covington

A week after the media meltdown over Covington, it's not surprising that some people are starting to say eh, this is old news; people have apologized, so why not give it a rest?

You could give various responses about the larger significance of the debacle, that some people haven't adequately recanted, etc.

But I want to add something, which is that this feels personal because it could so easily happen to any of us. The encounter was so mundane that you have to wonder what other non-events will be used to try to destroy you or me. It happened to be video-recorded not because it mattered, but because that's just so easy with 2019 technology.

I didn't have to worry about that when I was 16, but I can't help thinking: what would it have been like if this had happened to me when I was 16? Are some people not having that thought because they see him as the Other, and consequently lack empathy for him?

I also think about what will happen if I ever have a kid. Would my 16-year-old always stay on the right side of the face police? Or might he occasionally be awkward at that age? What if he had some kind of a mental or physical disability that caused him to have facial expressions or body movements that people took the wrong way? (I say "he" because so much of the vituperation that's been directed at the Covington kids has been explicitly based on their gender.)

In the past few days, I've been under the weather (getting better now, so don't worry about me), and sometimes as I've stood around in a public place, I've stopped to think: hey, I might have had an inappropriate facial expression just now, because of a combination of feeling a little out of it and feeling physically uncomfortable. If someone were video-recording me, could they find one still that made it look like I was "disrespecting" the wrong person?

When I see a post saying the kid's "smirk" (always that same exact word choice) is proof that there's something bigoted or wicked about him, I wonder if the person saying that has gone through life always making an appropriate facial expression for every social situation. Would you even want to be someone who always makes what others consider just the right expression? That sounds like someone who's very safe and inoffensive and well-scripted, not someone spontaneous and flawed and quirky.

I grew up in a far-left college town, and I've known so many young people who were free spirits, who were nonconformists, who were determined to be themselves no matter what anyone else said, who had a passion for noisy music and experimental art, who listened to the color of their dreams . . . And back then, it didn't seem incongruous that they were mostly on the left. Today, I see so many people on the left sternly admonishing a 16-year-old for having the wrong smile in the wrong place at the wrong time. That's a prissy attitude which seems like the antithesis of so many lefties I've known. How can you be a young person who identifies as left/liberal and take that attitude? I've always had my differences with the left, but for most of my life I at least would have admitted that hey, a lot of them are cool people, interesting people, people who are worth talking to, especially if you don't share their politics. And that has no resemblance to some of the self-appointed arbiters of propriety we've been seeing on social media.

I want to say to some of these people joining virtual lynch mobs based on the latest viral video: Is that really who you are? Or are you too afraid to say what you really think? Or have you forgotten what you really think because you're more focused on . . . looking just right?

Saturday, January 26, 2019

"Respect your elders"?

Amid all the talk about how the Covington story was falsely reported and how the mob against those kids summed up everything wrong with social media, one point seems to have gotten lost: no matter what version of the facts we believed, it was always absurd to say, in response to seeing a Native American in his 60s, that the teenagers needed to "respect their elders." That phrase can be used to mean many different things, but I'd suggest that it's so problematic it should be replaced by clearer statements that don't rely on cliches.

We should not respect anyone based on what demographic group they belong to, whether it's age, ethnicity, or anything else. Each individual either does or doesn't deserve respect based on what they've specifically said or done. Just think how many of the people who said "respect your elders" after watching that video have the utmost disrespect for Donald Trump, who, as the 72-year-old leader of our country, is as much an "elder" as anyone. Of course, "respecting your elders" is an effective approach in many social situations. But the word "respect" can refer to either outward behavior or internal thoughts/feelings. If it means the latter, then no one believes you must genuinely respect all of your "elders" (whoever they are). Some of your "elders" are fundamentally at odds with each other, so to respect one of them would be to disrespect another. It's even been argued that teaching kids to "respect their elders" could lead them to accept being abused by adults.

There are valid arguments in favor of "respect your elders": that we should honor those who've come before us, who've struggled in ways we haven't, who've worked hard to make the world better, and who've gained wisdom over the years. As a general attitude toward older generations, that's fine — but that's not what people meant when they said "respect your elders" about the Native American man at that event. They seemed to mean that he as an individual must be respected at all times, but we can't know that from clicking on a short video someone recorded with their phone.

Ironically, it isn't respectful to leap to a positive judgment about someone based on their ethnicity. Is seeing a Native American of a certain age and immediately saying, "Respect your elders!" really that different from meeting someone who's Asian and quickly praising them for "speaking good English," or routinely mentioning that "some of my best friends are black" during any conversation about race? Those kinds of statements might sound positive on the surface, but it's well-known that they're insidiously patronizing. They treat people as ethnic placeholders instead of as fully formed individuals with unique strengths and weaknesses.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Why are adults freaking out about a smiling kid?

In the novel 1984, George Orwell wrote about a dystopian future where “to wear an improper expression on your face (to look incredulous when a victory was announced, for instance) was itself a punishable offense.” It was called a "facecrime."

Julie Irwin Zimmerman writes in the Atlantic:

I watched with indignation Saturday morning as stories began appearing about a confrontation near the Lincoln Memorial between students from Covington Catholic High School and American Indians from the Indigenous Peoples March. The story felt personal to me; I live a few miles from the high school, and my son attends a nearby all-boys Catholic high school. I texted him right away, ready with a lesson on what the students had done wrong.

“They were menacing a man much older than them,” I told him, “and chanting ‘Build the wall!’ And this smirking kid blocked his path and wouldn’t let him leave.” The short video, the subject of at least two-thirds of my Twitter feed on Saturday, made me cringe, and the smirking kid in particular got to me. . . .

“Where were they chanting about building the wall?” my son asked. His friends had begun weighing in, and their take was decidedly more sympathetic than mine. He wasn’t sure what to think, as he was hearing starkly different accounts from people he trusted. I doubled down, quoting from the profile of Nathan Phillips that The Washington Post had quickly published online, in which he said he’d been trying to defuse a tense situation. I was all-in on the outrage. How could the students parade around in those hats, harassing a man old enough to be their grandfather—a Vietnam veteran, no less?
Reason magazine has details based on about two hours of videos:
One student did not get out of Phillips['] way as he marched, and gave the man a hard stare and a smile that many have described as creepy. This moment received the most media coverage: The teen has been called the product of a "hate factory" and likened to a school shooter, segregation-era racist, and member of the Ku Klux Klan. I have no idea what he was thinking, but portraying this as an example of obvious, racially-motivated hate is a stretch. Maybe he simply had no idea why this man was drumming in his face, and couldn't quite figure out the best response? It bears repeating that Phillips approached him, not the other way around.

And that's all there is to it. Phillips walked away after several minutes, the Black Hebrew Israelites continued to insult the crowd, and nothing else happened. . . .

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. . . .

Phillips enters the picture around the 1:12 mark, but if you skip to that part, you miss an hour of the Black Hebrew Israelites hurling obscenities at the students. They call them crackers, faggots, and pedophiles. At the 1:20 mark (which comes after the Phillips incident) they call one of the few black students the n-word and tell him that his friends are going to murder him and steal his organs. At the 1:25 mark, they complain that "you give faggots rights," which prompted booing from the students. Throughout the video they threaten the kids with violence, and attempt to goad them into attacking first. The students resisted these taunts admirably: They laughed at the hecklers, and they perform a few of their school's sports cheers.
Rep. Thomas Massie wrote:
Would you have remained that composed at that age under those circumstances? . . . Even when taunted by homophobic bigots . . . they insulted no one.

In the context of everything that was going on (which the media hasn’t shown) the parents and mentors of these boys should be proud, not ashamed, of their kids’ behavior. It is my honor to represent them.
The Atlantic writer now realizes that her son was right to question the outrage. She says:
Take away Twitter and Facebook and explain why total strangers cared so much about people they didn’t know in a confrontation they didn’t witness. Why are we all so primed for outrage, and what if the thousands of words and countless hours spent on this had been directed toward something consequential? If the Covington Catholic incident was a test, it’s one I failed. . . .

Will we learn from it, or will we continue to roam social media, looking for the next outrage fix? Next time a story like this surfaces, I’ll try to sit it out until more facts have emerged.
An update to that Reason article quotes the student's public statement about the event, which says: "I would caution everyone passing judgement based on a few seconds of video to watch the longer video clips that are on the internet, as they show a much different story than is being portrayed by people with agendas."

A couple months ago, I wrote this in response to a different viral video that left out crucial context:
I generally don’t watch this kind of online video that supposedly shows everyday discrimination. Video isn’t reliable. Video is a thin slice of a much larger thing. Video leaves out so much. Video can leave out context that would completely change your view of what you’re seeing. Getting outraged by video alone, without knowing the full story, isn’t the best use of my time.
Yet many adults have been harassing this kid online. I can't believe some of the things people are willing to say in public! Some journalists have been deleting their earlier reactions to the incident:
Recode editor and New York Times contributing op-ed writer Kara Swisher, for instance, deleted one tweet saying she was thinking of “finding every one of these shitty kids and giving them a very large piece of my mind,” and other tweets throwing slurs like “Nazi” and “nationalist.” . . .

The New Republic’s Jeet Heer deleted a tweet arguing the MAGA hat-wearing teens were “racist.”

CNN’s Bakari Sellers deleted a tweet suggesting the kids should be “punched in the face.”
But Reza Aslan still hasn't deleted this tweet, along with a photo of the kid:
Honest question. Have you ever seen a more punchable face than this kid’s?
Aslan is a prominent commentator on religion who's written a book about Jesus, but his tweet is the opposite of "Turn the other cheek." Instead, he's trying to incite people to hit a kid who had a nonviolent response to hate.

Some have defended the outrage against the kids by pointing out their "Make America Great Again" hats. But it shouldn't be a national news story that some teenagers have political views that are different from yours. No matter how strongly you disagree with their politics, attacking kids for being politically active is cowardly. I'm against Trump and I support a legal right to abortion, but I'm not going to express my political views at the expense of a random kid who I don't know.

It seems like most of the people who are doubling down on the initial outrage have been focusing on the young person's smile. How is it OK to make a national news story out of not liking someone's smile? Mocking someone's smile is as bad as telling someone they have to smile more, and we're all supposed to think the latter is blatantly offensive, right?

As an extreme example, a Facebook post by Slate calls the kid's facial expression "the smirk of evil." Think about it: adults going online to type out that a random kid — not a famous person and not someone who's even being accused of a crime (as far as I know) — is "evil." And his full name, image, and school have been made public. I don't know how adults can sleep at night after going to work and trashing a kid who isn't even alleged to have done anything seriously wrong.

I've used the word "smile," not "smirk," but many people are calling it a "smirk." Why that word choice? Ann Althouse (my mom) writes:
When is a smile a "smirk"? The dictionary says, when it's affected or simpering or silly and conceited looking.

But I'd like a deeper psychological explanation of what is supposed to be in the mind of the smirker and how observers of smiles decide they have a window into that mind. My hypothesis is: People see what they want to see. That means: When people tell you what they think they see about the inside of another person's head, they are opening a window for us to peer into their head.

And, of course, that means that if we talk about what we think we see in the mind of the observer of another person, we too reveal ourselves. We express misunderstandings and expose ourselves to being misunderstood.
Just think how different the reaction would have been if the media had framed the story differently — if they had focused on other people hurling homophobic and racist slurs, instead of focusing on the kid's smile.

The day after the incident, Slate ran a piece saying the "new footage doesn’t exonerate the kids in the red caps." But "exonerate" them from what? Standing around and smiling?

The onslaught against these kids has been a Kafka-esque farce. They were summarily pronounced guilty (not in the legal sense, of course, but in the media) . . . without the charges even being specified.

We need to resist this kind of online bullying. If it's allowed to be done against people who are on the other side of you politically, it will happen to people on your side too.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019


Martin Luther King, Jr. would have turned 90 today.

Anne Frank would have turned 90 later this year.

Did you ever think of them as being the same age?

Monday, January 14, 2019

Happy 50th birthday to Dave Grohl!

He stuck around.

I love this statement by Dave Grohl in his acceptance speech for Nirvana's induction to the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 2014 (starting at 5:00 in the video):

I have to thank my beautiful wife, Jordyn, and my two daughters, that I hope grow up to inspire people just like every musician I grew up inspired by. Because I think that’s the deal, is that you look up to your heroes, and you shouldn’t be intimidated by them; you should be inspired by them. Don’t look up at the poster on your wall and think, “Fuck, I could never do that!” Look at the poster on the wall and think, “Fuck, I’m gonna do that!”