The Book of Proverbs tells us “He who answers before listening—that is his folly and his shame.” (18:3)
After a video clip of the unfortunate exchange between Covington Catholic High School students and a Native American tribal leader went viral, we can update that verse to begin “He who tweets before knowing.”
A third-party investigation by the Diocese of Covington, Ky., was under way this week to determine exactly what happened at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial after the Jan. 18 March for Life in Washington, D.C.
We’ve seen enough, though, to determine that once again the power of social media can propel a brief, unplanned encounter into an explosion of outrage traveling, it seems, at the speed of light.
A MAGA hat-wearing 16-year-old boy surrounded by boisterous classmates locked eyes with the elderly tribal leader beating a drum and chanting. That brought forth a dubious narrative that had the boys mocking and disrespecting the older man in a flagrant display of racism.
The criticisms and condemnations focusing on the students’ perceived behavior were quick and merciless—from major media figures to organizers of the March for Life, which the students had attended, to the students’ diocese and high school.
Less than 24 hours later, after additional video clips emerged showing a more complicated picture, most of the high-profile Church and media figures, as well as the March for Life organizers, had withdrawn their initial condemnations, and many of them apologized to the students.
Still, lives have changed, maybe permanently, as a result of this single incident, in which no one was hurt and no words were exchanged.
Nick Sandmann, a junior at Covington who was shown most prominently in the footage for standing directly in front of tribal leader Nathan Phillips, has received insults and death threats. That is truly regrettable, and we pray for his and his family’s safety.
It would be regrettable, too, if the March for Life itself loses any support as a result of this incident. The march has been an important part of the pro-life cause for more than 40 years and calls national attention to a critically important issue in American society.
There now are calls in the Catholic education community for the incident to be a teaching moment.
There are lessons to be learned about perceptions and public behavior, about respecting diverse cultures and, most of all, about speaking (or tweeting) about a situation without knowing all of the facts.
In the meantime, while everyone awaits the results of the investigation, we suggest some common sense policies that could be put in place immediately.
Catholic high schools that sponsor excursions to public events such as the March for Life should ensure there are sufficient numbers of adult chaperones, with no one adult responsible for more than a dozen or so teenagers; chaperones should intervene immediately in potentially volatile situations, herding the students away and calling for help if need be; and students should not be permitted to wear political attire or clothing with slogans of any kind if they are representing the school.
In the aftermath of the furor, Covington Bishop Roger J. Foys tried to reassure the students that they and the school will heal over time, and that it’s important to find out the truth of what occurred, whatever it may be.
“Know that I stand with you,” he said. “Together we will work this through.”
We sincerely hope that they do.