There’s been an extraordinary news story in the US recently that seems to me to illustrate some of the ideas sitting behind the ManyStory approach very vividly.
This was the story of the boys from Covington Catholic High School who were vilified for harassing and mocking a Native American Elder.
The initial video clip that went viral on the internet, and a subsequent interview with Nathan Phillips, the Elder concerned, fired up a torrent of abuse and condemnation. Even the boys’ school and Catholic diocese hastened to condemn them.
Then further video footage emerged, suggesting that the initial accounts had been very inaccurate. And guess what?
People’s response to the new information was largely driven by their existing political predispositions. Those on the left continued to see nothing but white harassment even when it was clear that Nathan Phillips (a veteran activist, amongst other things) had walked up to the teenager and started banging a drum inches from his face. And those on the right exonerated the boys entirely, despite some clear examples of poor behaviour.
For a fairly full (and as far as I can see, informed and balanced) account of the whole affair, including the media’s poor handling of it, see this piece by Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic.
Why do I see this as exemplifying the ideas sitting behind the ManyStory Approach? On the one hand, it is clear that Confirmation Bias is playing a huge role here. The teenager was widely described as smirking; and once one had read that word, his smile certainly looked that way. But having read his account, I realised that was not the only way to see it: it could well be (it seems to me) a very embarrassed smile: the smile of someone who is out of his depth and doesn’t really know how to react.
And remembering my own teenagers, I couldn’t always be sure what their facial expressions were meant to convey – how much less likely is it that I can be 100% sure about a still photo of someone I don’t know in a situation that I don’t fully understand? And yet, smirking was what he was damned for…
As well as widespread Confirmation Bias, this event also exemplifies another issue: the fact that I find myself holding multiple stories in my head about the incident. I could easily believe the boy was smirking; not least because it looks that way (especially after the word was put in my mind). But I could also easily believe that Nathan Phillips, whose account shifted dramatically as more footage emerged, was really the provocateur in the situation. And whichever belief I choose to settle on, I can construct a plausible and convincing narrative to support.
Which brings me to the third point: the narrative was constructed not just from what was seen, but what was interpreted about what was seen. Some of the Covington boys were wearing MAGA hats: clearly they were racists! (in the eyes of those who see Trump as primarily a racist leader).
But in fact, that is not necessarily what the MAGA slogan means to these boys. They were on a pro-life demo (another reason for the left to vilify them, of course) and I know from my own contacts in the US that many American Christians voted for Trump not because they are racists, but because he stood on a pro-life platform, as opposed to the strongly pro-abortion platform of Clinton. So for those boys the MAGA hats are at least as likely to be symbolic of their pro-life credentials as any racists beliefs. But the narrative is so easy to create: white, teenage, male, pro-life, pro-Trump… they must have been in the wrong, in a confrontation with a Native American Elder…
All in all, a fascinating example of many of the issues that Shifting Stories seeks to address.