Mob Mentalities
Image: Staff Sgt. Tony Harp

In the age of mob mentalities we must look harder for the truth

The release of unedited video footage of the MAGA hat-donning high school students and a Native American veteran has brought outrage in right-wing circles. As some accuse the mainstream media of blatant “false reporting”, one viewer even commented “CNN and MSNBC owe an apology to those sophomores. Oh wait, they’re Leftists – of course they won’t apologise.”

When the video first surfaced, the clip only showed a Native American elder singing while beating drums as he was surrounded by teenagers chastising him, evoking almost immediate denunciation. The framing of the video plays a significant role in this initial response as audiences tend to respond according to what they perceive and in ways that appeal to their intuitions. When we are presented with information, we are likely to see it as a whole truth rather than noticing its missing parts. While sufficient for everyday life, (questioning the truth of the most mundane things would quite frankly drive us mad), this approach can be dangerous for the formulation of sound opinions. 

The method of frame analysis, pioneered by scholar Erving Goffman, can help us understand how our response to events is dependent upon primary frameworks otherwise regarded as ‘common sense’. Indeed, everyone has these beliefs regardless of whether we realise their presence. When new footage surfaced, the context of the incident was widened as viewers were presented with some complicating evidence: the group of teenagers were in confrontation with four black Hebrew Israelites using racial slurs, and Nathan Phillips – the Omaha Nation elder who was present in the area for the Indigenous Peoples’ March – attempted to defuse the situation by singing the American Indian Movement song. In an interview with Democracy Now!, Phillips claimed that the song was meant to “bring unity between what I seen happening to the fabric of America, the racism, the bigotry.”

The Covington Catholic students’ actions were a clear representation of how American society has been divided on political grounds – and, in this case, to the level of children

The emergence of unedited footage has led to accusations that the original video had been tampered with by mainstream media to create a biased, anti-Trump narrative. It seems unclear how the new footage would justify the apparent antagonism that these students presented towards Mr. Phillips. It is true that there was no physical violence involved. It is true that Nick Sandmann, the teenager in the video, did not show signs of aggression and merely stood in front of Mr. Phillips smiling (rather snidely, if I might say so myself). However, the video clearly showed that Mr. Phillips, and a few other Native American activists, were completely surrounded by teenagers wearing various Trump paraphernalia. 

My comments about the danger of drawing opinions from mere intuition may lead you to think that I would give these high schoolers the benefit of doubt. Perhaps you’re wondering if I would forgive them as being too young to deal with tense situations. Rather, the Covington Catholic students’ actions were a clear representation of how American society has been divided on political grounds – and, in this case, to the level of children – without the provision of adequate political education. Without some corrective course, this is providing ample breeding ground for the spread of a mob mentality. In order to conform, these students validate and imitate their peers’ behaviour and reflect each others’ beliefs, resulting in a vicious cycle of re-confirmation and perceived self-justification.

Without some corrective course, this is providing ample breeding ground for the spread of a mob mentality.

These students were in Washington D.C. for a pro-life march. Showing up in MAGA attire just symbolises how the Republican stance on abortion is so entrenched in its ‘ideology’ that they seem to have coalesced into a Frankensteinian figure understandable only by its pledge to ‘Make America Great Again’. To anyone paying attention, though, Trump has co-opted these ideals for his own electoral benefit: ‘Make Trump Great Again’ at all costs is his prime and only concern. 

Yet what’s more worrying is the media’s fear of presenting themselves as “biased” or “too leftist” by criticising these boys. The heckling and hollering was forgiven after Sandmann published his statement of events, claiming that he was also attempting to defuse the situation. The issue is that there was no situation to defuse other than what the boys had perpetuated themselves, with the 100-strong pro-lifers facing off against just four people. In a perverse attempt at maintaining “journalistic integrity”, though, reporters have rushed to issue their “apologies” on social media. 

Ultimately, the question we face is whether we are ready to forsake our moral values in a scramble to avoid confirmation bias. Although it is true that our biases may hinder us from understanding the full extent of events, there is a point beyond which playing devil’s advocate simply becomes an exercise of legitimising wrongness. It is always worthwhile to take a step back and ask ourselves why we perceive events the way we do, but we must still remember that we are allowed to have an opinion ourselves.

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