A Picture Paints A Thousand Errors in Judgment

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.

donatello,_maddalena_nella_nuova_collocazione_03[1]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.

Eighth Day of Christmas Resolutions

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I’ve been told that New Year’s resolutions are garbage, so I’m making some Eighth Day of Christmas resolutions to pursue during the next 365 days.  Hopefully these won’t be garbage.

Among the goals regarding my spiritual life and physical health, I have resolved to return to writing on a regular basis.  For a variety of reasons, I had taken a hiatus from public writing that was supposed to be a year, but stretched into nearly four.  Now I believe it is time to begin again.

My goal has always been to tell the truth.  Unfortunately, the truth does not always make people happy, and it certainly doesn’t engender affection for the speaker.  Like most humans, I do enjoy being approved and liked, but I also suffer from a strong inclination to question popular mantras and seek underlying reality.  Deconstructing a popular mantra makes one, well, unpopular.

The challenge of course is in presenting perspectives in a way that does not alienate and which might be persuasive.  While I am certain that photo-shopped memes and personal attacks do little to persuade the persuadable, even presentation of cold data can upset readers.  This problem has accelerated in the past few years, and as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt note in their 2018 book “The Coddling of the American Mind,” many young people see themselves as fragile and interpret any intellectual challenge as a literal, physical threat.  Not only do many of them expect to be kept “safe” from diversity of opinion, they perceive challengers as “evil” individuals who must be silenced by any means.

I would suggest that even before the trend described by Lukianoff and Haidt, many of us have been guilty of over-generalizations.  If we hear certain headlines or bumper-sticker-length mantras frequently enough, we begin to accept them as facts, even the “truth.”  We may not only believe in them, we actually invest in them on both an intellectual and literal level.  Therefore, a challenge may not just interrupt a mere perception, but an entire life-path.  Hence the animosity towards those who challenge our beliefs.

But I am resolved on this Eighth Day of Christmas to try to tell the truth anyway.  Sometimes, of course, I will get it wrong, and I can only beg for grace in those inevitable circumstances.  Sometimes my readers will disagree with my assessments, and I hope they will engage in non-personal, open-minded debate of any issue on the table.  Although it may be at times with fear and trepidation, I am resolved to write about what I have learned, and what I see.  To paraphrase Thomas Merton, if a writer is too cautious to write what may be criticized, he (or she) will never write anything that can be read.

If you want to help other people, you have got to make up your mind to write things some men will condemn.
Thomas Merton

My prospective readers will no doubt criticize, but hopefully find my offerings worth reading.

May your Eighth Day of Christmas be blessed.

 

In Defense of November

 

In which I stand athwart November yelling, “Stop!”

The day after Halloween I was horrified to discover some of my social media friends announcing that it was time to start playing “Christmas” music.  Some of these friends are even putting up a tree, baking cookies, and enjoying hot chocolate.  Sure enough, on November 1st some stores began blaring the musical news that “Santa Claus is coming to town,” and rushed to deck the retail halls with boughs of imitation holly.

Bah, humbug.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not really a Scrooge when it comes to Christmas.  I love the season as much as anyone else.  But here I raise my Ebenezer: in order to really keep Christmas, we need November.

In the years before Halloween became a multi-billion dollar industry, November 1st was the day most Americans packed away costumes and sent the jack’ o’ lanterns to their eternal rest on the compost heap.  Some of the less-desirable candy may have lingered for a few days, but for the most part, we moved into the next season, which was not Christmas.

But it was more than “not Christmas.”  Although I grew up in central Florida, which features little, if any, seasonal change, our school teachers punctually changed the bulletin board decor on November 1st to reflect the natural beauty occurring in more northern regions.  Out were pumpkins, bats, and ghosts, and in were colorful leaves, turkeys, pilgrims and Native Americans.   We learned about our history, both good and bad, and prepared to celebrate an official day of thanks-giving.

In addition to Thanksgiving celebrations, in some years November general elections bring at least a temporary reprieve from political campaigning (unless you live in Broward County, Florida), and we pause to remember our service men and women on Veteran’s or Remembrance Day.  The month seems to be filled with opportunities for reflection on less material values.

We might consider November as a kind of fast.  Although fasting has a negative connotation, it has many benefits.  Scientists have learned that fasting from food improves health, and when I’m fasting from social media and ‘screens’ I’m very productive in other ways.  Without the smart phone in hand, I experience quality time with real live humans, read good books, and think out my next article.  When we fast, or set something aside, we do not enter a void.  Rather we replace one thing with another; fasting can lead to deeper contemplation, insightful prayer, greater appreciation of nature, and cultivation of our relationships.

And when our fast is completed, our celebration is so much richer and genuine.  The Christmas celebration is for the birth of a savior.  But unless we recognize our need for a savior, perhaps through remembrance, contemplation, or metaphorical time in the wilderness, the Christ-mass is reduced to a meaningless, materialist celebration of consumption.  If you want to really understand Christmas, you need to set aside a November.

Properly observed, November allows for a more thoughtful, reflective, and thankful season; a much-needed pause between the excitement of Halloween and Christmas.  Please don’t Christmas our November; November is a rich and beautiful time of year filled with its own observances and customs.  And if we keep Christmas in its rightful place, we can truly keep Christmas in our hearts.