By Adrian Flynn
In the past few months, many Beacon students have freely shared their opinions on two major political incidents: the Covington confrontation and the Jussie Smollett episode. Similar sentiments of outrage were expressed by many liberals across the nation in response to these two events. As we have now learned, both of these incidents were much more complex and nuanced than anyone could have realized at first glance, or at first post. As a consequence, a multitude of the opinions shared by people both at Beacon and around the country now seem to be contradicted by the facts of each case. Even more significantly, the immediate outpour of public reaction uncovers a wider issue: rushes to judgment in our polarized political landscape.
Both the Covington and Smollett incidents gained traction as they circulated on social media. No matter what angle of the political commentary, a narrative was always meant to be illustrated in sharing the video. The short clip of Nick Sandmann and Covington Catholic students in an apparent confrontation with Native American activist and veteran Nathan Phillips was initially circulated on the left for the primary purpose of provoking outrage from people who were susceptible to seeing Sandmann and his classmates as the sole wrongdoers. This was a notion widely held by Beacon students who rushed to post their opinions on the matter. Even the Covington Diocese rushed to criticise the actions of the students. Without defending any incendiary actions by the Covington students (who seemed to move their arms to mimic a tomahawk chop to the beat of Mr. Phillips’ drumming and chanting), further investigation revealed that the initial confrontation was largely caused by a group known as the Hebrew Israelites at the scene. A fuller picture of the incident came to fruition with the full (hour and a half long) version of the originally circulated clip and more videos taken from different angles. Indeed, a recent investigation found that the students “did not instigate” the confrontation, a conclusion which lines up with Sandmann’s comments on the Today Show. Still, the presence of the MAGA hats worn by the Covington students undeniably added another layer of complexity to the incident because of its implications and symbolism, though it likely doesn’t help in assessing exactly what happened in the incident itself. Simply put, the incident as we now understand it does not support a simple conclusion, yet conclusions were drawn from the incident for the purpose of justifying convenient political statements.
Similarly, the Jussie Smollett story has struck a raw nerve with Americans on all sides of the political spectrum. This expression was evident amongst Beacon students who both shared their thoughts on social media and in person at school. Smollett claimed that he was attacked by two men wearing MAGA hats and yelling racial and homophobic slurs, as well as citing their support for President Trump. Of course, at the first break of the story, there was no real way to tell that Smollett had possibly staged the incident. However, in the following days, many media outlets began to report the inconsistencies in Smollett’s report with evidence that he orchestrated the attack, and the story began to unravel from there. Chicago police chief Eddie Johnson then confirmed the staging in a press conference on February 21st. Still, Beacon students and many other people who shared the narrative seem to have not reconciled the fact that they had possibly used false information to justify their political beliefs. Of course, the unique quality of Smollett’s position as an LGBTQ African-American also adds a layer to the incident because of his effort to capitalize on the intense polarization around the stances on people of color and those in the LGBTQ community held by the Trump Administration. It would be unfair to say that this was intentional on their part, but this gets at the main point: we have an issue with rushing to judgment.
It is extremely tempting to share a story relating to a trending topic if it confirms or validates your beliefs. But, as we have seen, if we do not know the facts of the incident at hand in and out, then we cannot speak to it through a political lens. Information flows at lighting speed in the digital age, and instead of digesting the true essence of these two stories, many people used the small amount of information available to support their preconceived beliefs rather than to challenge them. Instantaneous information seems to demand instantaneous conclusions. However, trying to use developing stories and incomplete narratives to support your political views actually undermines them as the facts and information are not always sound. On the contrary, using pieces of news and information to challenge your beliefs actually strengthens them because it forces you to refine them in the wake of new or previously unknown developments.
How do we determine what information is reliable and objective as opposed to news and social media posts that are fraught with bias and factual inconsistencies? In our current political climate, the unbiased truth struggles to shine through because it does not always push a political agenda and seems unappealing to one’s personal conclusion. In order to become more responsible citizens, voters, and consumers of media, we must question how we get our information and challenge the sources on which we rely. While this is a high bar to set in current times, it is one that we must uphold if we are to preserve an informed democracy and a population capable of critical thinking. Rushing to judgment does not serve the purpose of engaging in a serious political discourse nor does it serve as a means to find the truth. In the future, social media activists and Beacon students alike should consider taking a breath when the inevitable next big story hits our feeds, and take time to reflect on all angles before we presume to form our own narrow conclusions.