KC Noland/Instagram; Fatherly Illustration

The Nick Sandmann Controversy Was About America Hating Teenagers

When commentators saw an edited video of Nick Sandmann and Native American Elder Nathan Phillips, they jumped on an easy narrative about a terrible kid and missed the story.

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Over the weekend, a viral video surfaced showing Covington Catholic High School student Nick Sandmann smirking in the face of Native American Elder and Vietnam Veteran Nathan Phillips. Before any real reporting occurred, hot takes were being fired back and forth from entrenched positions on the left and right. The narrative seemed clear: Sandmann, wearing a MAGA hat, was a young racist baiting a peaceful participant praying at the Indigenous People’s March. But that narrative was false. There was much more to the story — as has now been reported. Does the longer story exonerate Sandmann or the Covington Catholic boys? Absolutely not. But it makes it clear that the immediate reaction to the “controversial” images was colored by more than just social media users’ and columnists’ tendency to make assumptions about political confrontation. Americans are pretty quick to believe the worst about teens — particularly smug-looking teens.

The original viral video was clearly cut from a larger context in order to sow divisiveness. The Twitter account where the video was first pushed has since been banned. Twitter released a statement saying the account violated terms of service prohibiting deliberate attempts to manipulate the public conversation by using misleading account information. So let’s stipulate from the outset that the context here is, in part, the American public getting spammed.

That said, the case of Sandmann and Philips was chosen by malefactors for a reason: The public was primed by extant bias against teens. Put that teen in a MAGA hat and engines get started. There is just something about a smirking teen that doesn’t sit well with adults (and, yes, MAGA hats have been, over the last few years, a sartorial choice made by many avowed racists). Sandmann rapidly became a synecdoche for youthful arrogance and disrespect. He became every kid who ever shrugged off an adult with a taciturn “whatever” or drove too fast through a neighborhood or, yes, said something deeply terrible that he would later regret as an adult. Sandmann was, on some level at least, villainized because he — with his handsome young mug — looked like a villain to many Americans.

And it’s not just Americans on the left by the way. Consider how much vitriol the far right has flung at the activist survivors of Parkland, specifically David Hogg, for having the audacity to suggest high school students shouldn’t have to live in fear. Hating on teenagers is a bipartisan affair. Why? Because of the myth of the shitheel teen holds sway. We assume that the kids are not alright.

Here’s what’s funny: The kids are basically just a more alright version of the adults. Data reveals a simple truth: Today’s teens are better behaved, more cautious and less likely to get themselves into trouble than ever before. Teen incarceration rates are down, as is teen drug use and pregnancy. The kids can be real dickheads, but they’re fine.

Is that to suggest that Sandmann and the Covington Catholic School boys whooping it up in the video are spotless lambs sent to the medias rhetorical slaughter? No. When placed into context, the motivations for Sandmann and his classmate’s actions are better understood but are no less bigoted. In truth, the event seems to have been a regrettable clash of loosely chaperoned and excitable boys being baited by a notoriously inflammatory group of Black Hebrew Israelites who were on the Mall that day. Philips, apparently concerned over an escalation between the groups entered the fracas offering a prayer which the boys, already wound-up, took to be a provocation. Total clusterfuck. No one looks good.

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All the mitigating circumstances actually make the incident more interesting on raising kids and caring about kids level, if not a political one. Why, for instance, was so little press devoted to the culpability of the adults supposedly keeping an eye on these children. Additionally, we could discuss why young white men wearing MAGA hats feel emboldened to mock a native American with war whoops. Their behavior is their fault, but it didn’t come out of nowhere. We could even discuss why children are primed for confrontation rather than conversation when confronted with unfamiliar or frightening ideas. And that conversation, believe me, gets really messy really fast.

But those aren’t the conversations the media had or is having, because in jumping to conclusions and offering adults the easy narrative, the waters have been muddied. The conversation is no longer about children. It’s about politics. While that is understandable, it’s a damn shame and a waste of a perfectly good teachable moment.

If we want to have real stories about our national ills, media outlets and commentators on all sides need to be willing to jettison bias, especially when it comes to kids. Is Sandmann a villain? No. Unequivocally no. He seems to be a kid who did something wrong. But, at the end of the day, he’s just a kid. And it’s not his fault he’s in high school. He’ll grow out of it. Hopefully, he grows out of some other stuff as well.