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The competing narratives about a large group of young white men gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, most of them from Covington Catholic High School, caught on video either taunting people with racist remarks and behavior or being threatened and defamed by a drum-beating Native American, some black religious kooks, and the libs, makes me ponder how we might approach this dilemma from an information literacy perspective.
A recap: over the weekend video footage on Twitter captured scenes that many interpreted as a large gang of privileged white high schoolers who had gone to Washington to tell women what they couldn’t do with their bodies taunting a small group of indigenous people, especially a
Vietnam War veteran beating a drum and singing despite being surrounded and jeered at. People quickly found names and contact information for the school, the diocese, and the most prominent participant from the school group and urged people to take action. The diocese released a tweet that said basically “what?” and then a statement saying basically “heads will roll.” A Wall Street Journal reporter called for restraint, saying haven’t we all done things like this ourselves? The ratio roared back “hell, no.”
By Monday, additional video and a counter-narrative surfaced. The boys had been heckled viciously by a small but vocal group of African American religious nuts known for being offensive. The named high schooler released a statement saying he was the victim and the drummer was aggressively drumming at him, aided by a PR team hired to handle the crisis. Soon journalists recanted their initial coverage, and it seemed we had it all wrong.
Or not. Others took the backlash as being instructed to disbelieve our own eyes, classic gaslighting.
Since then, yet more video surfaced of the gang of high schoolers harassing girls, including one yelling out “it’s not rape if you enjoy it.” And Snopes fact-checked a photo that appeared to show students at the school wearing black body paint at a basketball game while jeering at a black player from an opposing team. Apparently covering yourself in black paint is a school tradition. The student who’s making the white power symbol? Maybe it was just an unconscious arrangement of fingers and thumb.
So what do we take away from this?
First, it’s true that things can blow up fast these days thanks to social media and everyone walking around with video cameras in their pockets. Also, outrage is a hell of a drug, and social media platforms are designed to engage our emotions because people who are angry are engaged and engagement is profitable. Also, doxing happens, and that isn’t cool.
Second, when there’s so much video around, we’ll have some Zapruder moments. There is no editor assembling it all into a single narrative, it’s a collage of viewpoints and every one of them is open to interpretation. The high schoolers were high-spirited and just didn’t know that the tomahawk chant is offensive. Their MAGA headgear and calling out “build the wall” is just patriotism, not alignment with white nationalism. They’re not only innocent, they’re the real victims. That rape quip – can’t you tell it’s a joke? Boys will be boys.
Others see something completely different, and I'm in that camp. What I see is a large group of over-excited young white men thronging around a much smaller group, surrounding and jeering at them because they can. I see white privilege, because only white boys are allowed to be boys. Black or brown kids the same age would be treated as a threatening mob and wouldn’t be excused because a group of religious nuts – lets say members of the Westboro Baptist Church – was shouting insults at them. They wouldn’t be defended by President Trump, who has predictably tweeted on behalf of the MAGA hat-wearing Covington Catholic students, slamming the press (of course).
There’s no checklist for this. There are no peer reviewed sources that can interpret this situation for us with scholarly authority. There are no simple answers. We have to interpret these events the best we can in context. We have to be wary of our own emotional responses when making judgments. We have to beware of instant news coverage that isn’t well sourced or messages shaped by PR teams. We have to avoid taking a side simply because that’s where our friends are. But we also need to see these events in the context of history and our divided information landscape that is being sorted even further by the centrifuge of social media. This is a difficult part of information literacy that we need to be ready to address. We all have some learning to do at a time when so many moments seem unteachable.
*Note: I've made two corrections in response to comments, inadvertently illustrating my own point.