Beware of Biases

Think back a couple of weeks and you likely remember the uproar about the students from a Catholic high school in KY and their faceoff with Nathan Phillips the fellow beating the drum on the Washington Mall.

By living in the area near the school, I can tell you that the fallout from this incident has been incredible – and all over the map. Many, including some who witnessed the entire event, have insisted that the boys acted in a very acceptable manner, given everything that had been happening (and excluded from the brief video clip which started the firestorm). At the same time, there have been cries of blatant racism leveled at the boys. For safety reasons, the school was closed the first day back after MLK day, since according to one printed source, that “threats have poured in against students and the school itself, with some going so far as to wish a school shooting upon them.” Even Twitter refused to take down many immediate calls for violence against the students.

Whoa Nellie, maybe it is time to take a breath.

There are a number of so-called “learning moments” from this episode, and let me suggest a couple. First, this example was chock full of potential political motivations, which by themselves can bring out some very strong, emotional biases. And it is helpful and necessary to know some of the political triggers which kick our biases into gear.

Let’s see, the kids were from a Catholic school in Kentucky; some were wearing Make America Great Again caps; Mr. Phillips is a veteran, who is considered a minority as a Native American; there were Black Hebrew Israelite activists involved; the President weighed in, supporting the boys… and so on.  One might say with all those incendiary ingredients in the mix, the question was not would this situation explode, but rather, how it would explode.

Consider a couple of perspective biases. 1) “Those Trump-loving, privileged Catholic boys from Kentucky think they are better than anyone else (including Mr. Phillips), when they are really just a bunch of ignorant racists – just like the President.”  2) “As a minority, you can do anything you please to get attention and pity, even if it is going after a group of kids, kids for crying out loud!”

Am I being too outlandish in these perspectives? You decide.

From various media accounts I have heard, there were obviously people strongly entrenched in each camp. And based on your own observations, you may have seen the formation of other camps, evolving from politically motivated biases. We are not talking about which camp is most right or wrong, but the acceptance that there will usually be a wide range of perspectives and emotions in circumstances similar to this one.

The second learning is about the need to get a more complete picture of the story, especially one as volatile as this one was. A day or so after the short video clip hit the airwaves, another narrative began to seep out that maybe there was more to the story than previous thought. That is when people learned of the slurs toward and harassment of the boys from the Black Hebrew Israelites (adults by the way), and the fact that Mr. Phillips had moved forward toward the boys, and actually confronted them.

Might those details have changed perceptions? It obviously did for many, as the longer video created a bit of a story of its own. For others, it either reinforced their immediate (and unchangeable) conclusions, or it was totally irrelevant and thus disregarded. That is kind of the way biases work on us. It is so much easier to accept messaging which supports our beliefs, than information which contradicts them.

So you know, here are a couple of my biases. First, I do not believe that Mr. Phillips looked at this group of students, decided they were all racists toward Native Americans and then opted to publicly call them out. (Mr. Phillips had actually stated he moved toward the students in an attempt to diffuse what might have become a dangerous situation between the students, and the Black Hebrew Israelites, slinging slurs and threats at them.) Second, I don’t believe these teenaged boys are inherently racist, simply because they are from a Catholic school in Kentucky, or wearing a Trump-slogan cap. (The student featured in the video, said he was also trying to diffuse any type of unrest, by doing nothing, except nodding his head, and smiling.) Some will think I am an idiot to hold these beliefs, because they do not align with their own. Others will easily share them.

One thing I do know for sure. I have no idea what either side was thinking, and their motives for choosing to act as they did. I have spoken with neither, and I was not there to see it. Nor was I privy to the complete interviews of the people afterwards. The only information I have ever had is what has been edited and released by all of those covering the story – which likely represents some of their biases as well.

So here is the bottom line. Although we all have biases, each of us can still choose to pursue understanding, rather than coming to judgment too quickly, from a mere snippet of information with which we immediately resonate. Biases are sneaky and powerful, seductively at work to prevent you and me from even considering a more complete and accurate picture. It takes real effort and courage to go against the grain of our comfortable tendencies, and be willing to look at something from a different perspective. I hope we are all willing to give it a shot going forward.

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