Usually by 8am, I’m out of the house, but on Wednesday, we had gotten 7 inches of snow (with more falling) and I was watching road conditions and school cancellations on TV. Pinned in by the unplowed streets, I left it on, even after the chirpy voices of the Today Show came on.
This is all to say that I didn’t set out to watch Savannah Guthrie interview Nick Sandmann, but I did. Partially, because there was nowhere to go, but also because there was the promise of the other side of the story (though it’s not clear whether they will also interview Phillips). Actually, the story of the encounter between Nathan Phillips, Native-American elder, and Nick Sandmann, high school junior from my hometown area, has more than two sides, with more sides sprouting every day. As each side clamors for facts, there has been fact finding, and then fact finding on the fact finding: Phillips didn’t actually serve in Vietnam. But he did serve in the Marine Corps. Nobody can hear the boys shouting “build that wall.” But some boys were miming a tomahawk chop. There are 4 hours of video and some people have taken the time to watch it all to see WHAT REALLY HAPPENED.
It’s as if, once we see what REALLY happened, once we get all the “facts,” we will be able to determine some objective view of the truth and thus answer that all important question: who’s right? Is it Phillips? Is it Sandmann? The media supports us in this battle, with conservative and liberal outlets using their sheen on the encounter to declare moral victory and lambast the other side.
As I watched, I had a sinking feeling because I knew that there are no answers to those questions. In interpersonal relationships, in the journey of life, there are no perfect actors, no singular motivations, no one-sided people. When we declare a winner and a loser, everyone loses because we have denied those very complexities that make us human.
Over the last two years, we Americans have been seeing the damage of this denial. While we cling to our values as “right,” we don’t have the bandwidth to ask why others believe they are just as right. As we dig for evidence to support our victory, we are deepening the divide in this country, the same divide that has left government workers without paychecks, the same divide that threatens our legacy as the land of the free and the home of the brave. The problem with dividing people into wrong and right is that we cannot work together towards a greater end. And in the end, we will kill each other or be killed at the hands of a greater adversary.
Who’s right? Who’s wrong. These are questions that will destroy us. And Nick played into them beautifully. Supported by his family and friends and a PR firm, he did his part, helping each side etch their line in the sand, giving each side more stones on which to whet their swords, giving each side emotional fuel for the fire of superiority. He had the national spotlight and a chance to mend the rift debilitating the cultural, governmental, familial, and environmental realms of our country, but he (or the people coaching him) declined.
What could he have done instead? He could have reminded us of some very basic principles of human relationships which we seem to have forgotten. Let’s look at three things he said, and three things I wish he would have said instead.
1) “My position is that I was not disrespectful to Mr. Phillips.”
This response implies that so long as Nick didn’t believe that he was disrespectful, no harm was actually done. When he says, “it is my position,” he suggests that his viewpoint is the one that matters. Instead, I wish he had reminded us that intent does not equal impact. That is, how you intended for something to come across does not absolve you from acknowledging how that action might have impacted someone, from their perspective. Distinguishing intent from impact is hard: Studies show that we we’re wired to weight intent very heavily, even if the impact is the same. Many of us have probably encountered people who have refused to acknowledge their detrimental effects by claiming that they just want the best for us.
The cost of this disregard is immense: any hurt is never acknowledged because the person with intent never understands the person with the impact. Without acknowledgement and understanding, there is no way forward to resolve the problem or conflict. If you want some life-changing reading on this subject, please check out Non-Violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg.
So what could Nick have said instead? He could have said that he did not intend to be disrespectful but would like to try to understand how it may have come off that way to Mr. Phillips or others. And Phillips should be held to the same standard. Even if Phillips didn’t intend to intimidate, he should still acknowledge the potential impact of his actions.
2) “We’re a Catholic school, and it’s not tolerated. They don't tolerate racism, and none of my classmates are racist people.”
When asked how his classmates were reacting to Phillips, Nick asserted that no one at his high school (where students recently defended blackface as “school spirit”) is racist. This absolute statement shows why inequality is so hard to address. Part of the explanation is the intent-impact gap: his friends would never intentionally be racist, so therefore they aren’t racist. The other part is the difference between judging actions and judging people. The reluctance to judge people is part of the reason why nice people act in ways that are racist, but no one wants to call them out.
What could Sandmann have said instead? He could have just said that he didn’t see or hear anyone reacting to the Black Israelites or Phillips, and left it at that. Instead he invokes his Catholic schooling, sidestepping the idea that people with religious affiliation can absolutely be judged for their actions. Otherwise, Catholic clergy who have committed acts of abuse would be beyond reproach.
3) “As far as standing there, I had every right to do so.... I can't say that I'm sorry for listening to him and standing there.”
When Guthrie asked if Sandmann owed anyone an apology, he could have offered one of those non-apology apologies that we often hear from people suddenly spotlighted in the media. Instead, he declined to offer one at all, reiterating his own perspective (“I had every right to be there”). This was, to me, the greatest missed opportunity. With his response, he could have reminded us that apologies acknowledge impact without necessarily implicating intent. For example, he could have said instead: “I apologize that my actions may have caused Mr Phillips and other people distress.” This admits nothing, except that impact was had. AND he would have come off as more mature than most adults on tv today.
So, why didn’t he say those words? These two sentences from his statement to the press may provide a clue:
“I work hard to achieve good grades and to participate in several extracurricular activities.”
“I will not stand for this mob-like character assassination of my family's name.”
You may wonder, how do these comments clarify the video? They don’t. But they tell us more about Nick. They say that he is afraid - afraid that the benefits accruing to someone who gets good grades will no longer accrue to him. They say that he is angry - angry that what is owed to someone from a good family might be diverted. He feels he has something to lose: a good college, a good job, maybe someday a seat on the country’s highest court. What he doesn’t see, is that his biggest loss would still put him in a better place than his adversary after his biggest gain. And that it’s not really about him as an individual in the first place.
Nick failed to help mend this country. But the truth is that we as a society failed him. Who is teaching our children emotional intelligence? Who is teaching our children effective communication and conflict resolution? Who is teaching our children empathy and compassion? I don’t know. I wish that, in his circles of support, the teenage at the center of this controversy has people who teach him the difference between intent and impact, between actions and people, between something that is about you and something that is about something much bigger. But I surmise that a boy with such a community might never have been in such a video in the first place.