By now surely everyone in the country has heard of the confrontation between Native American veteran Nathan Phillips and a Catholic school student Nick Sandmann that occurred last weekend. While the initial news stories portrayed the younger Sandman as a hostile actor invading the space of the elderly Phillips, longer videos and additional testimony illuminate a more complicated narrative. Mr. Phillips himself seems to have initiated the contact and engaged the students in a confrontational and antagonistic manner. Some pundits have suggested that Sandmann could have done more to defuse the situation, but even so, it is clear that the teen was not the evil monster the first reports portrayed. By Monday morning, many people had apologized for erroneously condemning Sandman, but there are still a few clinging to a preferred narrative despite contradicting evidence.
Those first reactions were largely based on a still photo and very short video clip. “A picture paints a thousand words,” the old saying goes, but this picture encouraged a thousand incorrect assumptions and confirmations of bias.
For one thing, many of those who immediately condemned the student, and who now continue to justify his condemnation, are incensed by his “Make America Great Again” hat. Since he is a supporter of the President, they reason, he must be an evil person.
Likewise, Mr. Phillips is an elderly Native American, whose ancestors endured great injustice at the hands of white Europeans. As such, he is immediately an object of compassion and sympathy. Therefore, some reason, he must be a victim of the above-mentioned evil person.
But the reality is that both Phillips and Sandmann are human beings whose actual lives and motivations defy our gross generalizations and stereotypes. In his written public statement, the teen describes his confusion at the confrontation, and his idea that being still, quiet, and smiling would convey a non-aggressive and friendly attitude. As for Mr. Phillips, additional video evidence contradicts his testimony, and there are numerous questions about his previous activism and military service. Neither man can be effectively judged based on a still photo or 20-second video.
In seeking the truth about this situation, or any other, we must go beyond first appearances and prejudices. The chain of events, or history, prior to the moment in question, matter very much. In addition to history and context, we must consider the humanity of each participant. Instead of seeing them as “Trumper” and “Noble Native,” we need to understand that each man is a unique creation, made in the image of God, but also imperfect and prone to error. As such, each has the capacity to behave prudently or scandalously regardless of their ancestry or political viewpoints.
In pursuing truth, we often find our initial perceptions were misguided, especially those formed on the basis of appearance. In an example from the world of art, on first exposure to Donatello’s sculpture “The Penitent Magdalene,” we might recoil at the physical ugliness of the wretched woman portrayed. But the story and idea behind the sculpture is that even the most sinful and afflicted life can be redeemed by life in Christ. The Magdalene’s hands moving to prayer tell us that her ugliness is not the end of the story. It is only in pursing the history, context, and ideas behind the image that we can appreciate the truth and beauty of Donatello’s exquisite rendering.
Although this week many pundits are repenting their reactive critique of Nick Sandmann, there is little doubt there will be many future occasions in which we will be tempted to make a hasty judgment. The initial “picture” may be ugly, but over time additional information and testimony will bring a more accurate perspective and greater understanding. Perhaps we all need to exercise the somewhat lost virtues of prudence and patience while we seek the truth about any matter. This will take great self-discipline and maturity, but these virtues are essential elements in restoring civility to American public life.
Update: A reader noted that I had used the British spelling: “judgement” instead of “judgment.” I’ve corrected to the American spelling.