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The Founders and Religious Liberty

Why Do Conservatives Care So Much About the Covington Catholic Controversy?

AP Photo/Bryan Woolston

As the national firestorm over the Covington Catholic 'harassment' story rages on, liberal MSNBC host Chris Hayes took to Twitter to make an observation.  From his perspective, he hasn't seen the American center-right coalition as united or energized over any story since Justice Kavanaugh's confirmation hearings (which House Democrats may soon try to re-litigate).  The reason, he suspects, is that conservatives are furious and alarmed by the online mob's ideological bloodlust, which short-circuits fundamental values and virtues:

I think he's partially correct.  Many people called Hayes out for describing due process as a "privilege," as opposed to a constitutional right, but I suspect he wasn't focusing exclusively on that term as a legal matter.  He was referring to the concept of social due process, as well.  As we watch the virtual hordes continue to descend upon these Kentucky teenagers (forcing the closure of school today) over a clearly debunked narrative, many Americans are livid.  Political actors attempting to ruin others' lives and reputations based on tribal outrage signaling -- while disregarding serious problems with the corresponding "evidence," or lack thereof -- is the common thread between the high-stakes Kavanaugh episode and last weekend's relatively low-stakes cultural skirmish.  It enrages and frightens people who fear that they, or their friends and loved ones, might be next.  If you're on the "wrong" side of our political divide, it increasingly feels like there's an army of fellow citizens primed and ready to believe the worst about you, and to act accordingly and aggressively.

Hayes makes a fair point that when you're atop the cultural barricades, protecting people with whom you sympathize against others' seek-and-destroy impulse, it's important to bear in mind those who suffer similar injustices, but who aren't necessarily part of your loosely-defined in-group.  It's also wise not to become the mirror image of what you loathe, applying unjust standards to those you'd viscerally like to see suffer, regardless of the relevant facts. Relatedly, I'd wager that many defenders of the Covington teens have thought about those Americans who've found themselves embroiled in quasi-equivalent situations, accused of various cultural crimes, but without the benefit of multiple eyewitnesses and video footage disproving falsehoods and exposing important context.  How many people have been wrongly sacrificed on the altar of outrage, sullied or penalized on account of faulty hearsay?  Some ruthless and myopic actors are evidently more than willing to spin distortions, even when there's a high probability that photos or videos could emerge to disprove or undermine their accounts.  What has happened over the years in the absence of such independent evidence?

We need more social due process, more second chances, and more grace in our culture.  We are right to "fight like hell" on behalf of that proposition, and to intervene when the mob rushes to railroad their Hate Objects du jour.  That doesn't mean lacking empathy for others, or excusing genuinely bad conduct.  But swarming, rapacious, pariah-making S.W.A.T. teams must not be allowed to ransack people's lives without significant scrutiny, pushback, and accountability.  Furthermore, we shouldn't allow our expanding appetite for zero-sum politics to be exploited by outside forces, deliberately seeking to divide us: 

Twitter suspended an account on Monday afternoon that helped spread a controversial encounter between a Native American elder and a group of high school students wearing Make America Great Again hats. The account claimed to belong to a California schoolteacher. Its profile photo was not of a schoolteacher, but of a blogger based in Brazil, CNN Business found. Twitter suspended the account soon after CNN Business asked about it...Late on Friday, the account posted a minute-long video showing the now-iconic confrontation between a Native American elder and the high school students...That version of the video was viewed at least 2.5 million times and was retweeted at least 14,400 times...[Experts call] the account suspicious due to its "high follower count, highly polarized and yet inconsistent political messaging, the unusually high rate of tweets, and the use of someone else's image in the profile photo." Molly McKew, an information warfare researcher who saw the tweet and shared it herself on Saturday, said she later realized that a network of anonymous accounts were working to amplify the video.

Our endlessly-reinforced contempt for one another is creating an easy opening for foreign interests to manipulate us into turning our negative energy inward.  It is deeply unhealthy, but such machinations wouldn't be successful if so many partisans weren't addicted to the brain candy of reinforced stereotypes.  It's that very phenomenon that helps explain why so many conservatives are up in arms over the Covington affair.  It's not merely the unfairness and the lack of 'due process' that's been grating; it's also the virtually-undeniable fact that these teens were prematurely pilloried, with so many influential people piling on and refusing to retract, due to their irresistible blend of immutable characteristics and political views.  David Brooks is absolutely right about this:

Saturday was a day of liberal vindication. See! This is what those people do! This is who they really are. Reza Aslan, the religious scholar, tweeted a photo of the main Covington boy and asked, “Have you ever seen a more punchable face than this kid’s?” The filmmaker Michael Green showed the same image and tweeted: “A face like that never changes. This image will define his life. No one need ever forgive him.”... Sunday was a day of conservative vindication. See? This is what those liberals do! They rush to judgment, dehumanize and seek to expunge us from national life. The main boy wrote a public letter that was consistent with the visual evidence and that was actually quite humane.

In this case the facts happened to support the right-wing tribe. But that’s not the point. The crucial thing is that the nation’s culture is now enmeshed in a new technology that we don’t yet know how to control. In this technology, stereotype is more salient than persons. In this technology, a single moment is more important than a life story. In this technology, a main activity is proving to the world that your type is morally superior to the other type...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.

Media and political elites were determined to turn this into an "emblematic" story because its initial, superficial details perfectly confirmed everything they already wanted to believe.  Some detractors who've experienced pangs of guilt over participating in what turned out to be a hoax have stealthily deleted tweets and slinked away.  But others are so self-righteous and convinced of their own moral superiority that they're refusing to look at what's right in front of them, justifying their actions as serving the larger "good."  Pesky details aside, the kids deserved it.  It's this brand of proud, fact-averse combatant that makes Brooks' hopeful conclusion feel naive.  Sadly, it's not the least bit "hard to believe" that the conditions he laments will endure indefinitely.  

They say decline is a choice.  Our polarized social and mainstream media platforms -- beset with bias and operating under an incentive structure that prizes the amplification of strife -- are making that choice seem not just easy, but inevitable.  And thus we plod ahead, day after day, armor on, ready, if not eager, for the next brawl.  It's thoroughly toxic, and it's likely here to stay.

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