Four Lessons From the Covington Kids Kerfuffle

Don’t tweet, and other useful tips.
January 23, 2019
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As Ross Douthat notes in this absurdly brilliant column, the controversy over the Covington kids neatly fits the description of the fictional algorithm known as “The Scissor.”

The scissor is a statement, an idea or a scenario that’s somehow perfectly calibrated to tear people apart — not just by generating disagreement, but by generating total incredulity that somebody could possibly disagree with your interpretation of the controversy, followed by escalating fury and paranoia and polarization, until the debate seems like a completely existential, win-or-perish fight.

As the Scissor scenario unfolds, author Scott Alexander describes the downward spiral of the debate:

It doesn’t activate until you start discussing it with somebody. At first you just think they’re an imbecile. Then they call you an imbecile, and you want to defend yourself. Crescit eundo. You notice all the little ways they’re lying to you and themselves and their audience every time they open their mouth to defend their imbecilic opinion. Then you notice how all the lies are connected, that in order to keep getting the little things like the Scissor statement wrong, they have to drag in everything else.

Anyone who has been in the middle of one of these fights knows what comes next. Eventually, “they’ve just got to make everybody hate you so that nobody will even listen to your argument no matter how obviously true it is.”

If this all sounds familiar, we’ve already seen the Scissor in operation with the debates over Colin Kaepernick, Brett Kavanaugh, campus rape, gay weddings cakes… and now the MAGA kids at the Lincoln Memorial.

Since President Trump has decided to seize upon them as his latest cudgel, we’ll be debating these students ad nauseum, or, not debating so much as striking postures and hurling imprecations. Umbrage will be taken. Accounts will be blocked. And we will all be dumber for it.

At the risk of being sliced apart, here are several lessons of the whole squalid mess:

  1. Viral videos are the Rashomon of our time. People see what they want to see, and seize on the details that fit their narrative and confirm their bias. Even worse, they can be weaponized through selective editing and the folks who push them out do not always act in good faith. By next year, we might find our timelines flooded with truly bogus “deep fake” videos. So, no, you can’t necessarily believe what you see. Which leads us to..
  2. Don’t. Just don’t. You know this is right, but your thumbs will get itchy the next time you see a snippet on Twitter and you’ll fire off your indignant hot takes. Because that’s what our social media world demands and you get a dopamine hit from the virtue signaling and outrage.  (And, yes, I’m guilty of this too, tweeting out “WTF is wrong with people,” after the first videos appeared.) But the reality is that our capacity for intelligent thought has not caught up with the speed of the demands to be apocalyptically outraged at a moment’s notice. It’s one the reasons we seem to be trending so rapidly toward a collective nervous breakdown.
  3. Reality is frustratingly ambiguous. A warning here: In some circles, this is arch-heresy, because any nuance sounds like on-the-one hand-on-the-other bothsidesism. But despite the imperative to choose sides, reality is less often black-and-white than shaded. In the case of the Covington kids, the narrative shifted from portraying them as symbols of brutish intolerance, to the counter narrative that saw them as brave exemplars of MAGA manliness. Neither is likely true. They were teenage boys who sometimes acted well, and sometimes poorly, because that’s the way life is. And this brings us to the final, and perhaps most important, point.
  4. Don’t make kids cultural icons. This is as true of the Parkland kids as of the Covington kids… because they are (do I need to say this?)  children. There is something deeply cynical about co-opting children to advance a political narrative, but it is also abusive and foolish. Young people can be wonderfully sincere and even eloquent (as well as arrogant, self-righteous, and brutish) but there is a reason we don’t let them vote or sign contracts. No matter how poised they might appear, they are neither intellectually or emotionally prepared to lead complicated social, political, or economic crusades – that’s what we have adults for.

Okay, now you can block me on Twitter.

Charles Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.