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Academic Rigor and the Covington Catholic Story

The dangers of offering hot takes on current events for a community that prizes rigorous methodologies and judicious conclusions.

February 4, 2019
 
 

When the word started coming in that there was more to the Covington Catholic / Nathan Phillips story than what the initial widely-shared short video showed, my first response was relief. Specifically, relief that I had not posted the piece that I had dashed off on the incident, a piece that was based on that few minutes of video, plus a galaxy of personal biases. That meant that I did not have to be one of the seemingly thousands of commentators who needed to offer a public mea culpa and cool off their hot take.

But then it occurred to me that it’s a rare and wonderful thing to have written evidence of one’s own real-live Rorschach test. And if you have a blog, well, you might as well share the evidence with your readers - and try to make some meaning out of the whole thing.

So below you’ll find my seven-hundred-word hot take on that first short video that I watched. You’ll see that, like lots of people, I was pretty willing to assume that those initial couple of minutes represented not only the entire incident, but also illustrated some essential things about the groups of people involved, most notably, preppy white Catholic boys in MAGA hats and drumming Native American elders with peaceful faces.

You’ll also see my most glaring bias. It can basically be summed up like this: I’m always looking for Martin Luther King Jr. In fact, it’s not a coincidence that I was preparing for a King Day presentation literally as I wrote the Covington Catholic piece.

Like many diversity progressives, I am deeply frustrated by the pervasiveness and destructiveness of racism, sexism and other forms of identity-based prejudice in our culture. But in contrast to the mood of the moment, I despise the culture of calling out and shaming. I prefer, in the spirit of the activist Pauli Murray, defeating the ugliness of prejudice by more beautiful means - by conversion to the good rather than a constant witch-hunt for the bad.

Of the many many smart commentaries interpreting the incident, I think my favorite might be what Caitlin Flanagan wrote for The Atlantic. I get the sense that she and I are kindred spirits in that our values are generally progressive but our standards for writers and analysts are based on rigor and reason, not underlying worldview agreement.

In addition to a most helpful tracing-of-steps that led up to the two minutes of video that so inflamed my tribe of diversity progressives, Flanagan has a word of advice for her fellow journalists:

How could the elite media -- The New York Times, let’s say -- have protected themselves from this event, which has served to reinforce millions of Americans’ belief that traditional journalistic outlets are purveyors of “fake news”? They might have hewed to a concept that once went by the quaint term “journalistic ethics.” Among other things, journalistic ethics held that if you didn’t have the reporting to support a story, and if that story had the potential to hurt its subjects, and if those subjects were private citizens, and if they were moreover minors, you didn’t run the story. You kept reporting it; you let yourself get scooped; and you accepted that speed is not the highest value. Otherwise, you were the trash press. 

As I read that, I could not help but think back to the conversations I had with my doctoral advisor at Oxford about what might be called academic standards. As someone who regularly read The New Yorker, The Atlantic and The New York Review of Books while I did my dissertation, I was fascinated by the question of what separates an academic researcher from a journalist, or an activist who writes articles and books. (I emphasize the term ‘researcher’ because I realize that what theorists do is meant to be different than what researchers do, although I think that one of the challenges in the academy right now is the dominance of theory-based approaches over researcher-based standards. That’s, however, a separate topic for a different time).

My dissertation advisor, Professor Geoffrey Walford, was very clear about the principles and practice that distinguish academic research and writing from other forms of nonfiction.

First and foremost, academic research is characterized by a rigorous process of evidence gathering. You can’t see and hear everything, but you and your academic colleagues need to be satisfied that the evidence you have gathered is reasonably representative of the person/community/subject you are studying. Never generalize from the first pieces of evidence you uncover. Always recognize that there is more to a situation, a person, a community than meets the eye. An academic cannot be fully objective but must always be rigorous.

Academic research is further characterized by analysis that puts the gathered evidence in conversation with theory. You use theory to help illuminate what you are studying, and you use empirical data to interrogate theory.

Finally, academics are extremely judicious when it comes to stating conclusions. Do not declare even the strongest correlations as causal. Never assign intentions to your subjects, and don’t be so quick to accept the intentions that they state themselves.

The single greatest sin of an academic researcher is to claim that s/he is studying some part of the world, and instead report on his/her worldview. In fact, to pretend that your worldview is the world is the quickest way to get a research-based dissertation rejected by an examiner.

I dutifully followed all of those steps in doing my doctoral research at Oxford, and promised myself that even if I did not wind up in an academic position (which I have not), I would carry the wisdom of academic rigor with me wherever I went. Yet I find myself committing sins that I was warned against some twenty years ago with some frequency now. The latest evidence is the hot take I wrote on the Covington Catholic episode, which I have copied below and italicized to highlight that it is being posted as evidence of an error that I made, an illustration of how someone who is academically trained ought not approach the world.  

 Native American Elder Gets the National MLK Award

The story is not about the ugly actions of the white kids from Kentucky, it is about the beautiful response of Nathan Phillips.

The story is not about the ugly actions of the white kids from Kentucky, it is about the beautiful response of Nathan Phillips, the Native American elder.         

When I watched the video of what the boys did, my blood boiled, anger rose through my system, I starting ascribing to them all sorts of crazy things: they were every white kid that made fun of my brown skin growing up, they were like the white kids throwing bricks at Martin Luther King Jr when he marched in Chicago, like the white kids screaming at Elizabeth Eckford as she walked to Central High School in Little Rock in 1957.

Expel them from school! Inundate their inboxes with hate mail! Harass their families, their school, their churches! 

Note the Manichean imagination at work, the heavy helping of self-righteousness that accompanies pointing fingers at others.

But when you listen to the video interview of Nathan Phillips, the Native American elder, he points to a different way forward.

Yes, let’s make America great, he says. But let’s take a moment to define what that means. Greatness is a nation where people take care of elders and children, a country not symbolized by walls that divide but by signs that say welcome, a nation that recognizes, celebrates and shows gratitude to the many communities who have contributed to the American potluck. 

 These young people have energy, he says. How do we engage that dynamism in the service of the aforementioned definition of greatness?

There is no accusation, no self-righteousness, no Us / Them thinking in his graceful response.

Listening to him, I found myself filled not with feelings of rage and revenge, but reflection.

Do I really think it’s a good idea to take kids who clearly are not especially well educated on Native American rituals and contributions, and expel them from school? How about we ask the school to strengthen its curriculum around minority cultures in general, and Native American traditions in particular.

Do I really think that those sixty seconds of video represent all of what those kids are, or might ever be? Would I want the jerkiest sixty seconds of my sophomore year in high school be the only thing that the world sees about me?

Do I really think it’s fair that the entire pro-life march be tainted by that single video? While I do not believe it should be the law of the land, I greatly admire the values that the best people in the pro-life movement speak of – protecting the dignity of human creation, caring for the most vulnerable. Why not invite the very people who attended that march to live up to those values in all of their interactions?

Thank you, Nathan Phillips, for doing what Martin Luther King Jr taught us to do: respond to darkness with light, conquer hatred with love, turn enemies into friends.

Thank you for reminding us that the best opportunity to change people is when they have exhibited their worst selves - because it’s at those moments when human beings are most receptive to and grateful for the healing waters of forgiveness. 

Towards the end of the Montgomery Bus Boycott – 381 harrowing days of walking to work, enduring false arrests and physical attacks, for the minor victory of sitting front to back on public busses – Martin Luther King Jr gave a talk to the weary footsoldiers of nonviolence. He did not talk about the evil of their enemies, but instead of the great challenge of goodness that lay before the civil rights movement: “We have before us the glorious opportunity to inject a new dimension of love into the veins of our civilization … The end is reconciliation, the end is redemption, the end is the creation of the beloved community.”

Mr. Phillips, for responding to ridicule with reconciliation, for offering redemption when confronted with racism, for building the beloved community in our hearts and in our country – you deserve the nation’s Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Award of 2019.

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