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You Can’t Tell Someone’s Evil Just By Looking At Their Face!
“I often don't feel like my friends and colleagues even know how to *think* anymore”
You can’t tell someone’s evil just by looking at their face! You just can’t! It’s 2019 and this shouldn’t be a controversial opinion. But at the end of a long and bitter week that featured far too much discussion of those MAGA-hat-wearing teens from Covington Catholic High School — a problem I’m contributing to here, but for what will likely be the last time in this newsletter — that’s what’s sticking with me: a bunch of grown adults, some of them journalists, some of them famous, some of them famous journalists, announcing to the world that they can tell Nick Sandmann is evil by the way he smiled at the Native-American activist Nathan Phillips as the latter banged a drum a few feet from him.
Maybe the fact that this, of all things, is what’s lingering in my mind means my own values are suspect — we’ll get to that. But you can’t tell someone’s evil just by looking at their face! How could anyone claim otherwise? I’m glad Northeastern University put out a press release in which Lisa Feldman Barrett, a psychologist there who studies how humans express emotion, explained that there isn’t even solid evidence that people can accurately distinguish a smug face from a respectful one — the interpretations of Sandmann’s expression held by many liberals and conservatives, respectively. “You can’t look at someone’s face and know how they feel,” she said. “The evidence is very clear on this.” If you can’t even tell that, how can you tell someone’s evil just by looking at their face? You can’t! It shouldn’t take a press release to convince you of this!
The breaking point, for me, was an article on Esquire’s website headlined “I Saw the Smirk With My Eyes, But Felt It in My Gut.” In it, Dave Holmes explained that he saw his younger self in Sandmann and his classmates. “That face is me at that age,” he wrote, “joining in the abuse of the gayest kid in class, on the days when I managed to work my way to second-gayest.” I am sorry that Dave Holmes was reminded of his difficult childhood as a result of this incident, but this really has nothing to do with Nick Sandmann! (What makes his article even weirder is that the only interaction in all the extended footage of the Covington teens during which even we liberals are forced to admit they conducted themselves admirably was when they pushed back against the Black Israelite preacher-hecklers’ homophobia.) *
(*See correction at the bottom of this post — this paragraph has been updated.)
Holmes at least explicitly said he doesn’t think the kids’ lives should be ruined, but he was just the tip of the projection-iceberg, anyway. Others said that Sandmann’s face was that of a rapist. Or a hardened racist. A bunch of people posted, by way of comparison, infamous civil-rights-era photos of courageous African-Americans protesting peacefully, or trying simply to go to school or eat in diners, while sneering white racists crowded them and glared at them and smirked at them in ways clearly, in context, intended to communicate something like You are not welcome here and I know I have the power to oust you and to rob you of your dignity and if that fails I can probably just physically harm you and there is nothing you can do to stop any of this. (Holmes’ article included one of these photos.) I saw at least one person post an arguably even more infamous photo that “shows a member of the [Nazi] Security Service [Sicherheitsdienst or SD] cutting a Polish Jew’s beard” off in Warsaw while one of the bastard’s fellow-Nazi buddies looks on smiling, like everyone’s having a super fun time. A Nazi forcing a Jew to shave his beard. Nick Sandmann, wearing a MAGA hat and standing there smiling dopily after Phillips approaches him banging a drum. Quite a comparison.
I deeply dislike Tucker Carlson — I wish there was no such thing as Tucker Carlson — but when I was on a stationary bike at my gym the other night, I saw he was talking about all this and I switched to Fox News’ audio channel. The dude is an evil genius. He just nailed it. He squeezed every last possible drop of outrage from the anti-Covington online pileon. He did what Fox News does so expertly: These far-left idiots hate you and hate everything you stand for. They’re trying to take the country from you, its true and rightful owners. He turned what was, in reality, an immensely confusing and multifaceted incident that has sparked massive, searing infighting within left-of-center communities into a pat and urgent us-versus-them parable: This is what they want to do to you. This is what they think of you. “Imagine if it was your kid,” he said, or something to that effect. You could practically hear his viewers swooning into his arms. Our kids are at risk — Coastal Media Elites want to hurt them! But Tucker will protect us.
Of course, if the vast majority of left-of-center online commentators had handled this whole thing more responsibly, Carlson still would have found the three who didn’t and offered up the same oversimplified parable, or at least a highly similar one. But there’s more at stake here for people on the left than the issue of sparking a roaring right-wing backlash without getting anything important in return. Principles matter. They really do. And when you don’t exercise your principles, they atrophy and then one day you need them and they’re not there anymore.
People who drone on about principles (or norms, or discourse, or logic, or other boring subjects associated with insufferable dorks with thick glasses and inhalers) are never popular, but they’re even less popular during hyperpolarized times like, say, The Year of Our Lord 2019. So when you bring up principles, when you say something like, Hey, maybe it’s kind of screwed up for people with giant media platforms to treat a bunch of teenagers like this on the basis of so little hard evidence they really did anything wrong, or at least anything more serious than making a gesture that is admittedly offensive, but which countless Americans make at sporting events every year without getting sanctioned for it in any way, it does not go over well among members of your own tribe. We’re at war! We’re at war with the MAGA hats. You gotta pick a side — are you with us, the good people fighting the MAGA hats, or are you defending or, worse, condoning the MAGA hats? The idea that you can sit there somewhere in the middle twiddling your fingers wheezing on nervously about how it’s complicated is just dead wrong, nerd.
The single best article written about this accursed week is by Claire Potter, a professor of history at The New School who is working on a book about clickbait. “I think the most underreported story about #CovingtonBoys is how it got to us in the first place,” she writes. “It originated with a piece of clickbait that was chosen and edited, by persons unknown, to produce outrage on the right and the left. Originating in a fake account, and proliferated by other fake accounts, it was part of a professional social media campaign intended to disrupt.” The ‘clickbait’ she’s referring to here is the shorter video that first kicked off the outrage, a tight shot of Phillips and Sandmann and some of his classmates in which the teens come across far worse than they do when one watches the full-length video that was later released. As you’ll see when you read her article, Potter makes a strong, informed, careful, empathetic case. But what happened when she, someone with unimpeachable lefty credentials given her academic background, tried to alert those in her network that they appeared to be being manipulated by some unknown malevolent actor, and that the snowballing pileon was starting to do real-world damage to kids whose actions had at first been presented to the world in an incomplete and misleading light?
They turned on her:
It surprised me that people who had been so sure that the presidency had been stolen from Hillary Clinton by Facebook and Cambridge Analytica completely dismissed the possibility that their feeds had been hacked again. At its worst, friends and acquaintances often characterized my views as deluded, disappointing, and a distraction from the urgency of what was clearly, to them, an emergent racial justice crisis. In one case, an interlocutor told me flat out that I was lying, without a glance at the link to the CNN investigation that I had provided. Many expressed dismay that, if I pursued the clickbait story, I would contribute to the misapprehension that the Covington students were “innocent” (something I had never said, since I think it is an inappropriate way of describing anyone who is not Jesus, or a newborn baby). Some believed that my intent was to deliberately undermine and discredit Phillips, which was also not my goal.
This is how it works when you try to exercise your principles during a moment when it’s tough to do so. If Potter had said that online pileons are a problem, and that people shouldn’t rush to judge during a moment of outrage, in reference to a sympathetic-to-the-left target that was being attacked, her social and professional networks would have agreed, and would have applauded her for standing up for the victim (this strikes me as obviously true, but I also know it from personal experience). That’s the principles equivalent of someone tossing you a softball in a lazy arc. You can hit it out of the park, or at least make contact, without much problem.
But it doesn’t always go down like that. There are also principles curveballs and sliders and 103-mile-per-hour screaming fastballs. These are cases in which the underlying principles themselves don’t change — of course — but actually exercising them, or making contact with them, or whatever, gets much more difficult. (I am going to be called before The Hague to answer for all the human-rights abuses I am committing against metaphors in this newsletter.) During a week like this one, in which exercising important principles entails stating you think some smirking, whooping white kids in MAGA hats may have gotten a raw deal, suddenly it becomes a lot harder to say obvious, principled things like You can’t tell someone is evil just by looking at their face. Suddenly you look around and see your friends watching you, waiting to see how you’ll react — if you’ll react the right way — and the words get caught in your throat and you pipe down. People like Potter deserve credit for exercising important principles consistently. All too often, though, they get turned-on instead.
And here’s where a million derailing tactics come into play. Here’s where the whataboutistas arrive in droves. If you’re on the left and you express the opinion that maybe certain aspects of this incident were overblown by some people on the left, or express concern for those Covington kids being harassed and getting death threats, the whataboutistas will inevitably grab you by the shoulders and forcefully turn you a different way, directing your attention to some other, more serious event about which some other group of other people — it often isn’t even specified exactly who — didn’t express the concern they are now expressing about the MAGA teens. They’ll point you to a tragedy like 12-year-old Tamir Rice’s murder at the hands of police, for example, and say, “Well, he didn’t get the benefit of the doubt.”
In the heat of an online slapfight this tactic might work — who wants to be the guy or girl waving away a Tamir Rice mention? But it really is just a derailing tactic, because of course Tamir Rice getting murdered by police is much worse than MAGA teens getting harassed, and of course that incident reflects a history of oppression in which many black kids haven’t gotten the benefit of the doubt, but none of this erases or addresses the question of how everyone should have handled this incident. No human being who isn’t a sociopath would say “Because in the past snap judgments did horrible damage to members of marginalized groups, we should encourage the practice of making snap judgments about members of privileged groups.”
Whataboutista tactics are also just weird in a basic conversational sense. If I tell you that there was a small fire in my kitchen this morning caused by my cheap microwave, and that I’m going to contact the manufacturer, you probably won’t respond, “You seem awfully concerned about this fire, and are spending a lot of time obsessing over this microwave-manufacturer, but I don’t really hear much empathy for the victims of that five-alarm blaze across town that killed 12 people last month.” Or if you did respond like that, I would look at you quizzically, because 1) it’s trivially true that a five-alarm blaze that kills 12 people is worse than a spontaneously combusting microwave that kills no one, to the point that there’s no real reason to contrast the two, but 2) What the hell, man? We were talking about my microwave!
I’ll wrap this up. In yesterday’s newsletter, I mentioned that Freddie deBoer let me republish some of his essays. I was excited to do so, because every time you re-read them it feels like they are describing the world a bit more accurately than they did last time. One is titled “of course, there’s the backchannel,” and in it deBoer highlights what he argues is a big and growing flaw in many left communities: People are scared that if they point out their peers’ excesses or mistakes, they, the critics, will get shamed for it, so they express these concerns only in private, in backchannel communications. Because of this, certain problems go almost entirely unaddressed. “When within-group criticism is only voiced privately, there’s no opportunity for the group to evolve, to shore up its weakness, to evaluate its own problems, to correct its own course,” deBoer writes. Which, he argues, is “the condition in far too many left spaces today: a near-total inability to point out the cracks in the foundation for fear of being shamed yourself.”
This was a big week for the backchannel. It was crackling. “I often don't feel like my friends and colleagues even know how to *think* anymore,” one academic wrote to me in an email. It feels like things are melting down. Like the epistemic superstructure that usually holds us all in place, which has taken some serious hits in recent years, isn’t just shuddering and teetering but is close to collapsing entirely, and that if it does it isn’t quite clear how long the fall will be or where exactly we’ll land.
I don’t really have any solutions other than to quote deBoer some more:
What good, progressive, feminist, antiracist people need to be willing to do, if they want to grow this movement so that we can stop losing elections and start acquiring the power to actually make tangible change, is to be willing to say when you think that movement has gone wrong. You must be willing to say, publicly, I am with the cause, but I am not with this. You have to be willing to say, yes, the world is full of offensive things, and yes, I stand with you when someone does something offensive, but this particular claim to offense is not credible. You have to be willing to fight for social justice loudly and passionately and then, when someone takes the language of social justice [and] applies it to ridiculous and illegitimate ends, be one of the people willing to say “enough.”
There isn’t much more to say, really. Other than: You can’t tell someone’s evil just by looking at their face.
I lied, accidentally. Some of the content I advertised on Twitter for today’s newsletter is getting pushed to next week. As you can tell, the above thoughts on the MAGA teens became, well, a bit of a thing. I don’t think I’ll publish this type of longer take all that often in this newsletter, but this one had bubbled up in me a bit and I’ll be curious to hear any feedback — firstname.lastname@example.org.
Just be nice to people this weekend. When this week started to depress me, I found myself sending emails to a couple people whose articles had lifted me up, simply to say thanks, that I enjoyed their pieces. That made me feel better. I also emailed a researcher I’d been meaning to get lunch with forever to set that up, and he quickly responded to say early next week worked for him, and that also made me feel better. This is trite and self-help-ish but actual human interaction, online or off but away from public social media, makes all the difference in the world, especially at a time when it feels like everyone is trying to tear one another to shreds. So do something nice for someone this weekend, if you can, and I hope someone does something nice for you. (This is a level of sappiness you will rarely if ever get from me.)
I’ll see you guys next week.
(*Correction: Originally, this post included the sentence “I am sorry that Dave Holmes was so homophobic as a young man — though I’m obviously more sorry for the poor kids he victimized — but this really has nothing to do with Nick Sandmann!” I totally misread the quote from Holmes I was reacting to, in a weird and in retrospect silly way, as him saying he had gay-bashed, rather than been a victim and then joined in with the bullies to protect himself. I apologize for the error, but my main points about projection, judging people based on their faces, pseudo-psychological theorizing and projection, etc. all stand, including with respect to that article.)