Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Outrage! Outrage! OUTRAGE!

I suppose that, in an ideal world, everyone would be content and so there would be nothing to protest about and hence no demonstrations in the streets. Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world and, this side of the eschaton, are not likely to do so. Hence, people will be discontented, and some will protest and demonstrate - as in this society they have every right to do. By inclination (and perhaps also as a consequence of having previously studied and taught political science), I am more biased in favor of political action (starting with voting) and less inclined to symbolic and expressive political gestures. But symbolic and expressive political gestures have their legitimate place; and, in any case, we live in a free society where symbolic and expressive political behaviors such as protests and demonstrations are every citizen's right.

So let us stipulate at the outset that everyone who participated in the now famous events at the Lincoln Memorial last week, events that have sparked so much predictable outrage on both sides of our great national political divide, everyone who participated had every right to be there protesting and demonstrating for his or her cause, whatever anyone else thinks of that cause. Of course, that does not absolve any of them from reasonable expectations of proper behavior, standards of which, however, continue to decline in this age of social media and mass-produced outrage And therein lies much of the problem. Twitter, for example, as John Gehring recently wrote in Commonweal has become "a performance space where we showcase our polished outrage and virtue."

Not having been there, I must, like most Americans, rely on conflicting accounts of the incident. It seems fair, however, to infer that the acute confrontation began with the provocative behavior and language of the "Black Hebrew Israelites," which at some point led to Nathan Phillips getting involved, which resulted in the widely viewed image of his apparent personal confrontation with one of the high school students. Accounts differ and continue to confuse about what exactly transpired, who said or did what, and who was provoking or reacting to provocations. As is often the case, there may be plenty of blame to go around. Meanwhile, the Diocese of Covington has wisely pledged an "independent, third-party investigation," and should be lauded for doing so.

The high school students may or may not have been engaging, as the Commonweal article insists, "in a form of harassment." Yet clearly some questions need to be raised. Obviously, a lot has changed since I was their age, but now as then there must be some expected standards of appropriate behavior to which students are expected to conform -  at least on occasions such as this when they are publicly representing their institution in a very visible way

In the long sweep of human history, adolescence is a newly invented concept. It cannot be construed to absolve adolescents of any and all responsibility for their actions. But it does diminish responsibility - certainly in our society and certainly when they suddenly find themselves far from home in a strange situation that must have been bewildering at best and likely frightening as well. But with that diminished responsibility comes increased responsibility - remote as well as proximate - on the part of relevant adults. I think Gehring's Commonweal article somewhat overstates its case on several points, but I echo his obvious question: "Where are the adults chaperoning these students? Teachers or parents are nowhere to be seen. If a few clear-headed grownups had moved the students along, the situation could have been defused." This question is so obvious that I am amazed it has not been everyone' first reaction. 

Adult responsibility in such a situation is remote as well as proximate, however, which brings us inevitably to the matter of the MAGA hats some students seem to have worn and which may have helped trigger the initial hostile reaction to them. What kind of preparation, instruction, guidance, or (since this was a Catholic school) catechesis did they receive before their trip to Washington? Certainly students are citizens with a personal right to express themselves, but they were there as the representatives of their school, and the adults remotely as well as proximately responsible for their behavior should have known better than to permit wearing MAGA hats to the March! 

At minimum, someone in a position of responsibility should have recognized how provocative such hats would be. It is one thing for a student personally to choose to identify with the despised policies of an unpopular president. It is quite another thing for him to act in a way that identifies his entire school with such policies and with a president opposed by the majority of Americans. If such a student was ignorant of this, that only raises more questions about what those responsible have been teaching or failing to teach.

And, given the dramatic disconnect between the president's policies and the moral values one would like to think they are being taught at such a school, the issue of adult responsibility for their preparation, instruction, guidance, and catechesis seems that much more significant.

Of course, the students were in Washington to participate in a political demonstration. But they were there to participate in a very specific political demonstration - the annual March for Life. They were not there to advocate for Trump's border wall, and had no business identifying their school - much less the March itself - with Trump's border wall or any other administration policy. By doing so, they not only hurt the image of their school but they also did damage to the March for Life and insulted those of their fellow marchers  who believe as passionately in the human dignity of immigrants and other victims of the policies represented by those  hats. And, if they didn't understand that, where again were the adults who should have taught them?

Sadly, so far at least, the main thing we have learned from this horrendous episode is that we as a nation are increasingly divided into two teams and that, whatever happens, it is all about being outraged at the other side, about real or suitably simulated outrage, outrage, and ever more OUTRAGE! 

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