“Don’t Doubt What You See with Your Own Eyes”

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Laura Wagner, writing for the Concourse section of Deadspin, called her post about the Covington High School controversy in Washington “Don’t Doubt What You See with Your Own Eyes.” What we have learned over the last two weeks is exactly the opposite—that we do need to question what we see. The extreme tension that exists in our nation was once again apparent after brief clips went viral showing teenagers from the school, some wearing Make America Great Again hats, seeming to taunt a Native American elder, Nathan Phillips. These clips were quickly followed by longer videos and the argument that there was more to the situation than was immediately apparent from the shorter clips. Some who posted the clips have apologized for taking them out of context. Others stand by their condemnation of the teenagers. Either way, anyone who expresses an opinion about the confrontation on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial should watch more of the most complete video than what was originally aired. In argumentation, context does matter. Even the New York Times had to admit a rush to judgment: “Interviews and additional video footage suggest that an explosive convergence of race, religion and ideological beliefs — against a national backdrop of political tension — set the stage for the viral moment. Early video excerpts from the encounter obscured the larger context, inflaming outrage.”

Those who condemn the students say they know taunting and disrespect when they see it. One young man, Nick Sandmann, faced down Phillips in what most consider a rude and rather odd and awkward way. You can read his account of what he was trying to do. His actions have led to his appearance on Today and an invitation to the White House as well as calls for his expulsion and death threats against him and his family. You can also read how Phillips felt threatened by the students, who, after he approached them, encircled him.

It may not be relevant that the students largely resisted the temptation to fight back when a small group of African American Israelites yelled all sorts of vulgar and insulting comments at them. This belligerent group turned their attention to the students only after exhausting their insults directed toward Native Americans nearby. They targeted the students because some were wearing the MAGA hats and, seemingly, because the students are Catholic. It is relevant that Phillips approached the students, trying, he says, to defuse what he saw as a volatile situation, instead of their approaching him to disrupt his chanting, as was implied by the early reports. (A typical early headline read, “Teens in MAGA hats taunt Native American elder at Lincoln Memorial.”) The students were shouting school chants—and jumping; Phillips was drumming and chanting. When he approached them, they continued chanting and jumping—and dancing—to his drumbeat. If there were chants of “Build the Wall” or “Trump 2020,” as some have claimed, they are not audible in the video.

We have all known obnoxious teenagers. Many of us were probably, at times, obnoxious teenagers ourselves. America saw Nick Sandmann with a smart-aleck smirk on his face and a red MAGA hat on his head—and attacked. When I watch with my own eyes the video of what happened before and during the encounter on the steps of the memorial and when I read what Sandmann and Phillips say about what happened, I can’t judge the honesty of what they say about their reasons for what they did. I can argue, though, that the telling of what happened by the annoying teenager matches more closely the facts of what happened than does the telling by the weathered elder.

Photo Credit: “tunnel vision” by André P. Meyer-Vitali on Flickr, 10/22/2011 via a CC BY 2.0 license.

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About the Author
Donna Haisty Winchell directed the first-year writing program and codirected Digital Portfolio Institutes at Clemson University before her retirement in 2008. She edited several freshman writing anthologies and continues to write about argumentative writing and about fiction by African-American women. She is the author of The Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument with Annette T. Rottenberg.