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The Lesson to Take Away From the Confrontation Between High Schoolers and a Native Elder

6 minute read
Jeffrey Kluger is an editor at large at TIME. He covers space, climate, and science. He is the author of 12 books, including Apollo 13, which served as the basis for the 1995 film, and was nominated for an Emmy Award for TIME's series A Year in Space.

America is the land that nuance forgot, a place where layered discussions and complex ideas go to die. We now live in binaryland—a place where we know what we know and will abide no disagreement no matter how much evidence there is to muddy things up. If you doubt that, consider the holy mess that has been created by the Jan. 19 confrontation between a group of students from Kentucky’s Covington Catholic High School—many of whom were wearing red “Make America Great Again” hats—and Nathan Phillips, an elder with the Omaha Native American tribe, on the National Mall in Washington, DC.

Here is what is absolutely, positively, don’t-ask-me-a-second-time true: Phillips was peacefully performing a traditional drum chant and approached the boys, who surrounded him mockingly, with one junior in particular staring into Phillips’ face with an expression of unmistakable smugness.

Or here is what is absolutely, positively, don’t-ask-me-a-second-time true: The students were there for an anti-abortion demonstration (Catholic school, free speech, right to assemble: it doesn’t get more First Amendment than that) when a nearby group of Black Hebrew Israelites, a religious movement known for provocation, began taunting them, calling them “incest babies” and “school shooters.”

The students confronted them and Phillips tried to ease the tension by intervening. He came nose to nose with the junior who’s the focus of the debate, who insists that he and Phillips were of like minds. In a statement, he wrote that he “believed that by remaining motionless and calm, I was helping defuse the situation.”

Or here is what is absolutely, positively, don’t-ask-me-a-second-time true (and this time, I mean it): We don’t know what happened. We will likely never know what happened — not when so much hinges on unspoken intentions. Deal with it.

If the student had openly mimicked Phillips’ chant (which some of the other boys appear to be doing), we’d be clearer; if he had called him a name, ditto. In the most widely circulated still image, he does appear to be displaying the characteristic smirk that you can’t get through your teen years without flashing a lot. But a transition from a genuine smile to, say, a look of concern could pass through a lot of intermediary stages very fast; snap the picture at the wrong moment and all kinds of wrong impressions can be created.

The problem for the student is that there is more than a single static image: there is a video, and it doesn’t look good. When we’re trying to defuse a situation we have a whole vocabulary of nonverbal signals we use—head bobs, hand gestures, downward glances signaling submission. Most important, we back away; we don’t move into someone’s physical space. The student exhibits none of that. This appears to be a stare-down—nothing more—one that signals condescension and arrogance.

Or not. Panic makes us freeze. So does confusion. So does being a teenager torn apart by the seemingly existential imperative of being approved of by your peers and the larger human imperative of just plain being a nice person and showing a little respect to an old guy. I don’t know what was in the kid’s head in that moment—and neither do you.

So we retreat to our corners where there is certainty: It’s one more case of white, MAGA males behaving like white MAGA males. Or it’s one more case of righteous right-to-lifers being mocked by the multi-culti left for things they deeply believe.

But consider how quickly those simple interpretations fall apart. How would the argument have changed if every single thing were the same but the student had been wearing a Greenpeace hat? Would he have been protecting an elderly member of an indigenous tribe—even if he looked awkward doing it? Would he still be smug, but this time for committing the social felony of virtue signaling? What if it turned out that he didn’t care at all about Greenpeace and simply borrowed the hat from his sister on his way out of the house because it was sunny outside?

The great irony of this is that not only is there a little bit of footage of what went on; there’s a whole lot. Information does not always create certainty. A second video surfaced that runs an hour and 46 minutes, shot by one of the Black Hebrew Israelites. That ought to be enough to establish pretty conclusively what went on, but it doesn’t. More is not necessarily better when it comes to this kind of thing.

Here’s the thing about this latest pile-on: The public square is a roiling, boisterous place. Add to that how fraught things become when the whole black-brown-white human color wheel is involved. And add to that the force-multiplier of the Internet.

It is time we learn that this is not the sort of material we should use to build up absolute beliefs. We should use the oxygen required to add caveats to what we say. This does not require us to endorse both sides, but it does mean we must admit that we are not omniscient; we need not concede the ground, but we should acknowledge how shaky it is.

If the Hebrew Israelites really did call a bunch of boys “school shooters,” shame on them; same goes for the boys who did the Tomahawk chop at a Native American elder. If that elder really did try to drum some sense—literally—into the heads of the black men and the white boys, well, props for the good intentions but demerits for the execution. And if the boys themselves—including the one who’s at the center of the storm—really were behaving like young louts, consider that they’ve been around maybe 16 years, 17 tops. We call them juniors for a reason. If they feel some sting of public opprobrium, good. That’s why we evolved shame; it keeps us in line the next time. More important, that’s why we evolved parents, who enforce the lessons in more direct ways.

And for the rest of us, consider this next time: if there are few QEDs and mostly WTFs, it’s all just noise. Move on.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.