“Rorschach test” already feels like such a weary metaphor for what happened last weekend on the Mall between a Covington Catholic High School student and a Native American elder. But it’s hard to think of another recent incident that’s metastasized so quickly and been interpreted so disparately — an insight into how you see the world and how you understand your place in it.
Meanwhile, the story grows, or maybe it finishes: On Wednesday morning Nick Sandmann, the smiling teenager at the center, sat for an interview on NBC’s “Today” show. “My position is that I was not disrespectful to Mr. Phillips,” he told Savannah Guthrie. “I respect him. I’d like to talk to him. In hindsight, I wish I could have walked away . . . but I can’t say I’m sorry for listening to him and standing there.”
We could quibble about his word choices — is “listening to him and standing there” what really happened? — but that’s the point: We quibble. Conversations unravel. All week long, personal experiences have been unpacked like suitcases and brought forth as evidence.
A man I know who went to an all-boys Catholic school saw only typical adolescence in the videos: a group of kids, already hyped up by an encounter with the profanity-yelling Black Hebrew Israelites, firing off testosterone like careless sparklers. If sparks landed on the Native American protesters, my friend thought, that was incidental.
I floated this with another friend, a woman, who raised an eyebrow. Maybe some of the other students were caught up in a fog of poorly supervised hormones, but Sandmann wasn’t, this friend pointed out. He wasn’t screaming. He was making the conscious decision to stand in Phillips’s path, and to smile.
It's the smile that we've been dissecting all week.
Sandmann meant it to defuse the situation, he told Guthrie. He said he was trying to communicate to Phillips that, “This is the best you’re going to get from me.”
That was an interesting sentence. It implied Sandmann thought a senior citizen with a drum was trying to “get” something more from him. In Sandmann’s mind, Phillips had come to provoke, rather than bring peace.
Is provocation a chant and a drum, or is provocation a flat smile and a decision not to move? (“As far as standing there, I had every right to do so,” Sandmann said.) Which one of them is the peaceful act, which one could be misinterpreted?
The most insidious bully in my junior high wasn’t someone who stuffed smaller kids in lockers, but a smaller kid himself: slender, handsome, with a last name that appeared on a big building in town. What he would do, mostly, was stare. Stare and smile, and walk very close to his less-rich, less-handsome targets. Not touching, but close enough to show that he could have touched them if he wanted to.
Complaining to adults was useless, because he insisted he wasn’t doing anything, and teachers — reading the letter of the school handbook rather than the spirit — were forced to agree.
And it’s funny, how awful “not doing anything” can feel to the person it’s not being done to. How infuriating or unsettling.
It’s funny, what a slender rich kid’s vehement denial can do to your mind-set: Maybe he wasn’t doing anything. Maybe he was just smiling. Maybe he was just smiling even when you made it clear you were trying to pass, and you were on the verge of tears? Maybe he was trying to defuse the situation, and you’re the one who was crazy.
That scene in front of the Lincoln Memorial was a circus; I’m glad I wasn’t there.
That interview with Sandmann was measured, and filled with the right words: “in hindsight,” “respect.”
But I don’t think my friends and I were crazy in junior high. I think our classmate knew exactly where the line was, and how to walk up to it. I think making people uncomfortable wasn’t the point; the point was making sure the uncomfortable people knew there was nothing they could do about it.
He was also, we’d be sure to point out now, “just a kid.”
How do we talk about kids? How do we talk about the distinctions between teenage cluelessness, and bad behavior, and bad behavior that's really racism?
How do we use that word, “kid,” when we’re talking about white boys and white girls and black boys and black girls and rich kids and poor kids?
The Covington Catholic students were minors who were apparently mature enough to participate in the abortion debate — one of the most complicated issues of our time, and what brought them to Washington — but not mature enough to walk away from hecklers.
“I wish we could have just walked away,” Sandmann said a few times Wednesday, while saying he wished Phillips “would have” walked away: a tiny linguistic quirk implying he didn’t have the option to leave, but Phillips did.
But I quibble.
How do we parse out blame, when some of the players were minors and some were adults? Does it matter that the Black Hebrew Israelites were shouting awful, homophobic things (anyone in D.C. knows these men are trolls), but there were only five or six of them, and dozens of Covington students in MAGA hats?
Does it matter that they were in MAGA hats? It’s hard for me to imagine anyone wearing them now, in 2019, wouldn’t understand they’re not just a sartorial choice.
But I quibble. I know I quibble.
It’s hard for me to talk about what happened on the Mall without bringing in every experience I've ever had: the knowledge that people who are used to having power know how to wield it in subtle ways. The knowledge that I’ve been on the receiving end of it, and once or twice, the giving end of it. The frustration of thinking, Can’t you see what’s happening? While at the same time wondering if I could trust myself to know what was happening.
The story grows. Conversations unravel.
Maybe you think Sandmann didn’t do anything and is a victim of an Internet mob.
Or maybe you think, as Guthrie wondered aloud in the interview Wednesday, that standing there was its own act of aggression. The appearance of doing nothing while actually doing something.
It’s hard to imagine anyone’s minds changing by this point, though. We’re all tugging around our personal experiences. They’re very heavy.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.