Pride, Prejudice and Covington Catholic

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- One way to tell who’s right about the kids from Covington Catholic High School is by looking at the pattern of conversions.

Students from the Kentucky school attending the March for Life in Washington D.C. were condemned for allegedly mocking a Native American drummer. As more video evidence came out, some initial critics of their behavior have apologized. Nobody who started out defending the kids (or defending them with a reservation or two) has turned critical.

The more rigorous way is to check the claims against the available evidence, as conservative media watchdog Allen Ginzburg has done. He concludes that the teens “were by far the most decent and honorable participants in this whole situation,” reporters and media commenters included. The inability of some people to concede the point seems to me to be a testament to the power of partisanship and pride.

But you can read the back-and-forth of those arguments elsewhere. I’m interested in one running theme of the debate: the immense confidence some of the critics have that they know the truth of the matter based on the way the kids look, and specifically based on the face of one of them, 17-year-old Nicholas Sandmann.

In Slate, Ruth Graham writes that Sandmann’s face is the key reason the story went viral: “It’s the kid’s face. The face of self-satisfaction and certitude, of edginess expressed as cruelty.” 

She quotes other liberal commentators who also read his soul from a brief video clip, or perhaps even a still: commentators who were sure that his face was that of a zealot, or an entitled brat. She could have quoted others, too, like the author Reza Aslan, who shared his conviction that the 17-year-old has a “punchable face.”

Graham draws a connection — others have drawn it, too — between Sandmann and Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Liberals had a lot to say about his face, too, none of it flattering.

“The face of a boy who is not as smart as he thinks he is, but is exactly as powerful,” Graham summed up. (A writer for a major media outlet complaining about the “power” of a then anonymous teenager is perhaps not as reflective as she thinks she is.)

For Anne Helen Peterson, a writer for Buzzfeed, both Sandmann and Kavanaugh have “the look of white patriarchy” -- hard to avoid, given that they are white and male – and reminded her of disrespectful kids she used to teach, kids who asked for extensions and plagiarized and snickered in class. She knew hardly anything about Sandmann. She didn’t need to know anything: She had seen his type before.

You heard this note of spurious recognition in the Kavanaugh debate, too. People who had no more information about Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations than anyone else were sure he was guilty because they knew frat boys just like him.

In many other contexts, it would be called stereotyping. We like to think that we are more alert to the dangers of generalizations about groups than earlier eras were, and about some of those dangers we probably are. But the habit of mind is hard to shake.

Sandmann had a MAGA hat, which helps explain some of the continuing vitriol directed at him. It’s more defensible to criticize him for his choice of headgear than for having a particular facial expression while white.

But the assumption of much of that criticism, sometimes explicitly defended, is that anyone who wears that hat (even a minor!) is a conscious agent of white supremacy. It’s an invalid inference based on membership in a large group that is more heterogeneous than the critics allow.

Don’t a lot of our political debates these days, especially on Facebook and Twitter, fall into this pattern? Instead of reacting to what other people are saying, we react to what we think people like them believe.

You can find this behavior on all parts of the political spectrum, and sometimes on both sides of an exchange. It’s a cognitive flaw and a civic failure.

Sadly, though, I don’t expect Ruth Graham or Reza Aslan or the others to have real second thoughts about how they have conducted themselves in this episode. I know their type too well.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.