In the past week we’ve seen a controversy go through several clear phases. There was a video that some media outlets claimed was a bunch of white, MAGA hat-wearing kids harassing a peaceful Native American protestor. The video went viral with the usual condemnations from media outlets labelling this an example of privilege, with many of those outlets expressing their desire to dox and assault these kids. Some conservative outlets joined in the attacks from an establishment-conservative angle (but later apologized). Some conservatives offered more mild viewpoints, and even fewer actually tried to investigate the incident.
Upon investigation, it turns out there are additional videos that show the kids being verbally assaulted and harassed by a group of Black Nationalists, and the Indian, to be charitable, misrepresented the incident. This has resulted in a strong pushback against the narrative that went viral and, for many, resulted in even less trust for the mainstream media. All of this outrage, controversy, and hatred spewed against the students and so forth happened in the span of just a few days.
With a bit of hindsight, instead of relitigating this specific incident, or simply using this as confirmation bias against white privilege or the biased media, we might use this as a case study and, like the military after-action report, consider what lessons we might learn from this.
I’m in a unique position to do this because I’ve already shown how Greek historians dealt with and combatted fake news. The first key is from Xenophon. When his besieged army received terrible information from an informant, they were at first “greatly agitated and alarmed. But a young man…after reflecting a little on the matter, observed” that the news did not make sense and was likely false.
In other words, a bit of calm assessment and self-reflection in the face of fear and great agitation helped them make a better decision that, in this case, literally saved their lives. The Greeks remained alert and set guards, but the bulk of the army rested in security after seeing through the fake news they were given. Whenever and especially when we receive bad news, our first instinct should be to reflect and observe, not rage and overreact.
We should do those things because chances are the second factor is at play. Polybius wrote that some people deliberately begin in the middle of the story, not to inform but to “thrill, delight, and beguile” their readers. “And so in everything our final judgment does not depend upon the mere things done, but upon their causes.” In other words, we have to realize that some people are professional agitators, they like to be popular, get clicks, and advance their agenda, but in doing so they often leave out important pieces of information and context that greatly affect our judgment. This is sometimes due to error or the limits of the medium, but it can also be completely deliberate. At the very least, it should give every reader a healthy skepticism and make them revert to step one: calm reflection.
For example, the media replayed the Rodney King beating almost nonstop, but they edited out a crucial few seconds that showed King violently lunging at police and the officers’ ineffectual use of Tasers. Those critical few seconds, combined with the knowledge that King was high on drugs and had led cops on a dangerous chase for the minutes prior, caused the jury to acquit the officers. Many people who didn’t have that information ended up rioting.
After calmly reflecting and waiting for the entire story and context that accounts for bias, the final step is to remain part of the solution, that doesn’t include venting rage on social media. Thuycdides wrote about this civil strife: “Ill-considered boldness was counted as loyal manliness; prudent hesitation was held to be cowardice in disguise, and moderation merely the cloak of an unmanly nature. A mind that could grasp the good of the whole was considered wholly lazy. Sudden fury was accepted as part of manly valor, while plotting for one’s own security was though a reasonable excuse for delaying action. A man who started a quarrel was always to be trusted, while one who opposed him was under suspicion.”
Sudden fury and ill-considered boldness for your cause does not make you a true hero. Reinforcing step two, the true hero applies prudent hesitation and grasps the good of the whole (story.) There are many things that make me angry, and the treatment of those high school kids from Kentucky is one of them. But in being part of the solution I refrained from forming an immediate opinion, though I had some initial impressions. Then I waited for the entire story to come out while biting my tongue and exercising discretion on social media. Now that we’ve had some time to reflect with more information, I can calmly start to dissect the matter and offer some judicious advice. I could have made this a full-throated broadside against the media and race baiters, but I prefer to let my calm and reasoned arguments convict them. I hope we can apply the same lessons to the next controversy of the day, so that the Bablyon Bee parody that says Internet outrage replaces baseball as the national pasttime remains a joke.