A comparison of the two realities drips with irony. On the one hand, America celebrated the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., an ordained minister in the American Baptist church, a bridge-builder across human difference and division, a person of prayer, measured response and careful discernment. A man who committed his life to the indominable power of love to both channel and temper the energy of righteous anger so that one’s personal outrage diffuses, rather than incites, prejudice, hate and their inevitable offspring: violence. On the other hand, the nation’s social media exploded with a viral video from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, a worldwide symbol of the courage needed and the cost that might be paid for trying to create a more just and humane world. Two different protest marches, a favorite Civil Rights strategy for awakening the conscience of Americans, collided with a third public demonstration and set in motion an example of the very racial, ethnic, religious and political prejudice and hate that Dr. King spent his life fighting.
The original one-minute viral video clip starting the controversy showed a tense encounter at the 46th Annual Right to Life event in Washington, DC, between several black men, a Native American gentleman beating a ceremonial drum, and a group of white high school students, many wearing Make America Great Again (MAGA) swag. The video had millions of views in a matter of hours on Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube and seemed to show an obvious situation. The students, from Covington Catholic High School, a Kentucky suburb just south of Cincinnati, confronted the Native American gentleman, who was participating in the Indigenous Peoples March, a simultaneous event occurring in Washington DC for the first time. One Covington student, Nick Sandmann, stood (with the kind of smirk that only an adolescent can muster) squarely in front of Nathan Phillips, a 64-year-old Indian activist, while other students did school chants, some seeming to mimic Phillips or Native Americans. Meanwhile, several men, identified as members of the controversial Black Hebrew Israelites movement, who believe themselves, descendants of the Israelites, hurled verbal taunts and threats into the maelstrom of noise, angry and flippant facial expressions, controversial hand and arm gestures and body posturing.
The video sparked a flood of immediate social media condemnations from the right and the left – some obscene and hateful. Actor Ron Perelman called Sandmann “a little b**ch.” GQ’s Nathaniel Friedman tweeted, “doxx ‘em all,” a term used for giving personal information, like home addresses and phone numbers, to the public. (Sandmann has received death threats and Covington actually had to close the school, opening a few days later with beefed up security.) New York Times columnist Kara Swisher said: “I’m thinking of finding every one of these sh***y kids and giving them a very large piece of my mind.” Republican consultant Ana Navarro called the teenagers racist, a behavior they learned from parents, teachers, society and leaders, singling out Donald Trump’s “constant dog whistles” as a contributing cause. Referring to Sandmann, popular religion writer Reza Aslan tweeted: “Have you ever seen a more punchable face than this kid’s?” Michael Green, a filmmaker, had this to say: “A face like that never changes. This image will define his life. No one need ever forgive him.”
Most of the posts had three things in common. Based on 60-seconds of viewing a complex situation, each writer knew exactly what was happening, each seemed to know the motivation of those participating in the drama, and each knew how to articulate a moral high ground.
But, even as people scrambled to share their #MoralOutrage, more video and testimonials from the incident got released, and the simple narrative of belligerent, racist adolescents became murkier. Many tweeters – some liberal, like actress Jamie Lee Curtis and pundit Frank Bruni; and some conservative, like Meghan McCain, Sen. John McCain’s daughter; and journalist Robby Soave – apologized for their rush to judgment. Popular Jesuit author, James Martin, SJ, issued a retraction: “This Teachable Moment can offer us if we are both open and humble, important lessons about racism and marginalization, about dialogue and encounter, and about truth and reconciliation.” And, David Brooks re-interpreted the actions of the students, and argued for putting it in its broader context, only to become a target of condemnation, too.
The Covington affair became, and remains, a hot mess. Regardless of how you think about the situation, it brings into broad relief a growing habit of making snap-judgments and hashtagging our moral outrage. Our technology, coupled with our diminishing ability to regulate emotion and our naïve confidence in our skills for reading the motivation of others with little data, is destroying our capacity, and perhaps even our appreciation, for the importance of learning to channel and temper our anger with thoughtfulness and love, one of the secret ingredients in King’s social action (not to mention many of the most lauded social reformers of the 20th century).
Of course, some of the forces driving for our #MoralOutrage era are different than Dr. King’s period of social reform. Many of those firing out their moral outrage are “rewarded for fierce conviction, for utter certainty, for emphatically taking sides and staying unconditionally faithful to what we’ve pushed for and against in the past,” columnist Frank Bruni confessed in his reflection on this controversy. “We each have our brand, and the narrower and more unyielding it is, the more currency it has and the more loyal our consumers. Instead of bucking the political tribalism in America, we ride it.”
Unfortunately, riding our tribalism is hardening the nation into the polarized hives that make it impossible to solve even our nation’s simplest problems. King’s point of departure came from a different place. He wasn’t trying to expand the base of his readership, listenership or viewership. (When he died, in fact, 75% of the nation disapproved of him.) King wanted the United States to live up to the values stated in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. He wanted opposing camps, warriors for different causes in the same room, to learn to appreciate each other and to debate with each other’s ideas. He wanted the nation to take a quantum leap of growth into the values and virtues of an ancient biblical notion of social justice, a way of being together as a Beloved Community that included all races, creeds and colors, socio-economic groups and education levels. He wanted to help the nation learn how to defuse the human tendency to rush to judgment about the motivations of others, to learn to listen more carefully, to dialogue more effectively with those who are different, and especially to develop a deeper sense of empathy for the suffering of all humans. Ultimately, he believed we could become deeper in our thinking and feeling, more accepting and understanding, and more resolute in addressing the issues causing human suffering. King believed in crockpot social activism – a strategy for the long haul that allowed our differences to simmer together into a vision and commitment to building a better world. We live in a time of microwave activism and knee-jerk #MoralOutrage and it is killing us as a nation.
Frederick Douglass once said: “At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed.” Perhaps the irony of the celebration of Dr. King’s legacy and the controversy in Washington DC on the same weekend will result in more of us pausing and reflecting on our moral outrage, how we express it, and what we hope to achieve in that expression.
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