The Covington Catholic boys episode was an ugly, monumental fail for everyone involved — an embarrassing number of people, actually. The coastal elites and the media mob rushed to judgement, had to walk it all back and never connected the dots on what really happened.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There’s a lot to unpack in this story. And a lot to be learned.
ICYMI – nah, I’m not going to bother this time. You’d have to be living on the dark side of the moon to have missed the latest media mess. And even after anyone with any self-awareness and self-respect had apologized, some media zealots continued to play identity politics. One called it white privilege:
— Tina Jordan (@TinaJordanNYT) January 20, 2019
Another called it white patriarchy:
One theme of the conversations over the past 24 hours = how deeply familiar this look is. It’s the look of white patriarchy, of course, but that familiarity — that banality — is part of what prompts the visceral reaction. This isn’t spectacular. It’s life in America. pic.twitter.com/TmziDwAjYA
— Anne Helen Petersen (@annehelen) January 21, 2019
While still another said it was all Trump’s fault and the media was the victim …
Viral stories take time to develop, this creates challenges for actual reporters, and the pro-Trump Internet is good at pouncing in the gap. We know this. The Covington story has become a really sticky example of all of that at work https://t.co/88720xHLf2
— Abby Ohlheiser (@abbyohlheiser) January 22, 2019
You just can’t make this stuff up.
Practically every columnist on Earth had to chime in after the fact. David Brooks came closest to getting it right, scoring some effective points in How We Destroy Lives Today. It was a good wholesome piece but the NY Times columnist danced all around the real issue and somehow managed to miss the mark. The column started out on the right path:
“Within living memory, political polarization had at least something to do with issues, but in the age of social media it’s almost entirely about social type. It’s about finding and spreading the viral soap operas that are supposed to reveal the dark hearts of those who are in the opposite social type from your own.
“It’s about finding images that confirm your negative stereotypes about people you don’t know. It’s about reducing a complex human life into one viral moment and then banishing him to oblivion.”
Brooks wasn’t alone in describing the original video of the high school kid with the MAGA hat and the American Indian facing off as “viral,” and accepting that as a given without stopping to consider what it really meant.
Viral is what’s new. Viral content and the social media mobs it creates. And when I say new, I mean new in the sense of pre- and post-social media.
Before the interactive web and user-generated content the word viral was limited to biology, and mobs only formed in physical locations. Today an individual takes a cellphone video, posts it, the social media hordes rush to judgement, the media swoop in and all hell breaks lose. As recently as 10 or 15 years ago that could never have happened.
Of course you can say that partisan politics plays a role, but ask yourself how we became so divided as a nation in the first place? Think about it.
The interactive web began with the advent of WordPress, YouTube and social media sites like MySpace, Facebook and Reddit around the start of George W. Bush’s second term. Years later Gallup declared Bush and Barack Obama the most polarizing U.S. Presidents in history. I’m sure Trump would easily top that list now.
Let that sink in for a moment. The three most polarizing Presidents in U.S. history just happen to be the only three Presidents in office during the social media age. Coincidence? I don’t believe in coincidences.
Brooks does go on to say that “the nation’s culture is now enmeshed in a new technology that we don’t yet know how to control,” which sounds comforting but strikes me as a blanket excuse for bad individual behavior, albeit a lot of individuals (more on that in a minute).
You can’t simply excuse “the nation’s culture” for chronically screwing up on social media and expect some nebulous entity to come along and clean up the mess at a later date. The social media genie is out of the bottle and nothing will ever put it back.
Finally, Brooks closes with this:
“The Covington case was such a blatant rush to judgment — it was powered by such crude prejudice and social stereotyping — I’m hoping it will be an important pivot point. I’m hoping that at least a few people start thinking about norms of how decent people should behave on these platforms.
“It’s hard to believe that people are going to continue forever on platforms where they are so cruel to one another. It’s hard to believe that people are going to be content, year after year, to distort their own personalities in service to a platform, making themselves humorless, semi-blind, joyless and grim.”
The problem with his logic is that it’s, well, so logical. Generally speaking, human behavior is not ruled by logic but by emotion.
Facebook and Twitter did not make us this way but they have revealed an ugly truth about how humans behave under certain conditions. Just like lab mice in a Skinner Box experiment, we are creatures ruled by a crude, million-plus-year-old caveman brain that technology found a way to trigger.
The kind of behavior behind the Covington mess may not be how we want to behave or how we choose to behave but, like it or not, it is how our brains work on social media. We simply can’t resist pushing that lever to get a treat, even when we know it’s a bad idea.
I’ve heard lots of people call this a teachable moment but I’m not sure whom they’re referring to or how they expect that to work, exactly.
Look in the mirror. Your giant head is mostly cerebral cortex – a thinking, reasoning brain. But beneath that enormous, highly evolved intelligent machine is a tiny little limbic system that reacts to emotional stimulus by releasing powerful neurotransmitters.
That mechanism evolved over millions of years, so it’s a long time in the making. And if the smart brain hasn’t taught the dumb one how to behave yet, I’m pretty sure it never will.
Image credit YouTube screen shot