The big story over the weekend was the curious case of Nick Sandmann, a student caught on viral video wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat and smirking at a singing Native American man who was beating a drum. The whole episode constitutes a lesson in what is wrong with (a) the news media, (b) Twitter mobs, (c) the culture of political protest, and (d) the culture of political commentary.
First, let's review the facts. Initially, a short video was posted online somewhere, and an attached comment claimed that a group of white teenagers were chanting "build the wall" with their Trump hats, and that they then surrounded a group of Native Americans and got in their faces. Later, a series of longer videos appeared that made obvious the fact that the situation was quite different. What really happened was that the MAGA teenagers were killing time after being part of some pro-life Catholic protest, and in doing so came across some fringe group of African-American bigots who started calling them homosexual epithets and saying things that, by all accounts, are pretty bizarre. (For example, they told one of the MAGA boys that the others were going to harvest his organs. That's crazy.) Finally, a third group of protestors -- a Native American group whose goals were not clear to me -- decided to walk up to the MAGA boys for some reason; one of them grabbed a drum and beat it in student Nick Sandmann's face, while Sandmann stood there, trying to put on a defiant face of calm composure.
In short, we were initially lead to believe that the MAGA teens were the agitators; it turns out that they were the real victims here, victims of two other groups who decided to get in their faces and agitate them.
In the wake of the first video, the one that made the boys out to be the antagonists, many news media reports simply piled on without bothering to investigate the full set of facts. I could talk about media bias or about lazy journalism, but what we all really know is that getting the facts wrong, right out of the gate, serves the media's purpose better than getting the facts right would have. By getting things wrong in the first place, the media has created a more dramatic news cycle; more drama equals more clicks, more clicks equals more ad revenue, more ad revenue equals more bad reporting. Think about it: If I tell you something completely false on Day 1, then I get to write another article on Day 2 that merely questions the initial falsehood. On Day 3, I get to validate the additional facts coming in, and then finally on Day 4, I get to write a concluding article with all the right information in it. Then I also get to write a series of op-ed pieces reckoning with "society's" tendency to latch-on to first impressions and come to biased conclusions.
In this way, the media plays on our sense of outrage in order to stretch a single day of click revenue into a full, week-long news cycle, with all the clicks and impressions that entails. And, by participating in those clicks, we reward the news media for that very behavior and ensure that it will happen again next time.
The second most guilty party in this fiasco is the culture of political protest. If you've never participated in or attended a political protest, you likely have no idea what this culture is all about. But if you have, then you understand full well that this is a subset of people who think it's fun to spend an afternoon yelling at people. That should tell you everything you need to know about them. Think how preposterous it is that a school would sponsor a field trip to Washington DC, where the kids will all get together and yell about abortion. That's not education, that is madness. While I don't think the MAGA teens should have been subjected to what they've gone through, perhaps next time they will be a little more circumspect about what they can expect from an afternoon of political activism. Yelling at people for fun will get you all riled-up. So, when you're finished with your "fun," and meet a bunch of people who have become similarly all riled-up, you can probably expect conflict. If you're not expecting it, you're not very self-aware. Hopefully these kids have learned a valuable lesson, and they don't grow up to be anything like the people in the other two protest groups. The people in those two groups obviously seek out differently minded groups to go yelling at. And the result is what you see this week.
Twitter mobs -- a term I'll apply to any social media outrage mob -- also have this proclivity toward yelling at people for fun. That's the main reason I stopped using Twitter: I don't think yelling at people is fun. I don't think snarking at people is fun. I don't think apoplexy is mentally healthy, much less entertaining, and anyone who actively fosters that kind of thing in their own lives -- indeed, in their leisure time -- is, in my opinion, insane. It is far more productive to use your leisure time to foster healthy relationships, get outside, create some art, move your body around, than it is to find things on the internet to yell about or prove wrong.
Many political commentators I follow on social media were quick to take sides. Those who did so early on had a lot of egg on their faces. One rather famous libertarian commentator mentioned that he'd like to punch the kid, and put forth that the kid was a clear example of "toxic masculinity." That commentator now has to retreat into a bit of soul-searching, and I hope he finds it productive, because this is not the first time he's jumped the gun on fake news. Others are smugly presenting the fact that the initial story was wrong as proof of how dumb the reactionaries are. I'm not sure this is a productive response, either, though. Ultimately, they're all just piling-on.
So, what am I doing here? Am I just piling on? Maybe I am. What I think I'm trying to say is this: Stop reading the news; stop participating in the media's use of outrage-marketing to turn minor events into major news cycles; stop yelling at people for fun; stop using social media to make yourself angry.
Go outside, get some sunlight on your face. Breathe deeply. Play some music or draw a picture or read a book. Spend some time improving your relationships with other people. Spend your time wisely on things that make you happy. Life is so short and so precious. Don't waste it on this kind of nonsense. Learn to recognize when you're being played, and run like hell from it. Run into the welcoming arms of the love of your life and stay in that embrace for an hour. That's an hour well spent.
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