Hannah Arendt, the Covington High School Students, and Charity in our Political Culture

In politics, charity requires that we not assume the worst of those we disagree with politically, at least not without substantial proof. Charity is not some fuzzy feeling; it is the principle that motivates people to seek all of the facts about a situation prior to judgment.

The recent engagement between Covington Catholic High School students, Black Hebrew Israelites, and protestors from the Indigenous Peoples’ March brings to mind a line from Hannah Arendt’s famous 1967 essay “Truth and Politics”:

While probably no former time tolerated so many diverse opinions on religious or philosophical matters, factual truth, if it happens to oppose a given group’s profit or pleasure, is greeted today with greater hostility than ever before . . . The facts I have in mind are publicly known, and yet the same public that knows them can successfully, and often spontaneously, taboo their public discussion and treat them as though they were what they are not—namely, secrets.

Today, we see the continuing relevance of Arendt’s observation that facts may be public and yet still taboo. The media furor over the altercation at the Lincoln Memorial highlights how easily accessible factual evidence can be sidelined in public discussions of important events. In this case, longer videos that provided more context for the conflict and the testimonies of Covington high school students were ignored in the immediate reporting following the altercation. Though headlines began to change after a few days, acknowledging the situation’s complexity, there was undeniably a rush to assign blame without regard for facts.

Conversation around the incident now revolves around its status as a “Rorschach test” of sorts. Many have observed that your interpretation of the story depends more on you and your experiences, rather than what actually occurred. A person’s view of the Covington High School affair has become a kind of political litmus test. Yet people who share similar worldviews came to different conclusions on whether or not to reassess their judgments of the students once new evidence appeared. Why? What differentiates political partisans who welcome truth wherever it may be found from those who do not?

People’s divergent reactions to new evidence about the Covington High School students highlight an important precondition for the pursuit and maintenance of truth in politics: charity. Without a commitment to a charitable interpretation of their political opponents’ behavior, the media and the public lose the motivation to seek the truth about those with whom they disagree.

The Altercation

The relevance of Arendt’s words struck me as I watched the nearly two-hour video of the encounter between protestors, comparing it with what I had been led to believe about the altercation from news stories I had read.

The video opens with a group of five protestors representing the Black Hebrew Israelites shouting at passersby, using profanity as they verbally attack a variety of targets, including “the white man,” practitioners of indigenous religions, and “loud” and “wicked” women. Other groups of people vehemently argue against the Hebrew Israelites’ antagonistic rhetoric prior to the appearance of the Covington students. As tensions heat up between the two groups, Nathan Phillips and the other drummers clearly approach the high school students, contrary to initial reports. As the drummers begin to approach the students, the Black Hebrew Israelite group becomes excited, exclaiming their support and claiming that the drummers have come to their “rescue.”

I am not interested in imputing bad motives to these drummers. Still, these adults should have at least suspected that drumming in the faces of teenagers who had spent the better part of an hour being verbally harassed would likely not be perceived as peaceful. What I found most striking was the high schoolers’ restraint. It appears that most of the students initially understood the new arrivals to be friendly, and danced along with the drums. Once the situation began to devolve, Nick Sandmann, the student in front, remained composed. Several of the students continued to argue with the Hebrew Israelite protestors, while others loudly chanted school songs. None were obscene.

Problems with the Mainstream Narrative

Yet this was not the narrative widely reported by the news media and discussed on social media. Most news stories immediately used the terms “mocked” and “harassed” to describe the behavior of the students.

The high school students were prematurely labeled as villains, killing most people’s desire to seek information about their side of the story. The longer videos and the statements of the students were publicly available, yet they were conveniently ignored in the rush to vilify the teenage boys. Instead, journalists, celebrities, and politicians harshly criticized the behavior of actors on one side of the conflict, while choosing to ignore the actions of the other side of the disagreement.

Following the release of Nick Sandmann’s statement and the longer video going viral, many writers did begin to reassess their initial understanding of the situation, with some bravely admitting their mistaken rush to judgment. However, others continue to see no justification for the students’ actions. Some still see the main sin not in the students’ behavior toward Nathan Phillips but their wearing of MAGA hats and participation in the March for Life.

In the face of the facts, why were some people willing to update their beliefs on Nick Sandmann and the other Covington High School students, but others were not?

Truth, Opinion, and Charity

Arendt’s insightful essay on factual truth and opinion in politics provides an excellent diagnosis of why truth is often hostile to politics. However, it does not seek to provide an account of the personal orientations necessary to overcome these tensions.

I consider the protection of truth in politics to be tied to the principle of charity. In philosophy, charity aims at maximizing the truth or rationality of people’s statements. It is concerned with interpreting another’s statements in the most accurate way possible. This form of charity should be applied to our interpretation of facts relevant to the political realm.

In politics, charity requires that we not assume the worst of those we disagree with politically, at least not without substantial proof. Charity is not some fuzzy feeling. It is the principle that motivates people to seek all of the facts about a situation prior to judgment, while also exhorting people to maintain nuance in their analyses. Maybe my side did something wrong too. Maybe a political slogan does not capture the fullness of a person’s perspective. Maybe I should wait until I have more information before judging. Charity leaves no space for ignorant vilification, and it is ultimately incompatible with treating facts that could exonerate a fellow citizen as secrets.

Factual truth can only be arrived at through a fruitful and lively debate, which requires a posture of intellectual humility and charity toward one’s opponents. Both acquiring accurate facts and “enlarging” one’s mentality to include the perspective of others are actions that require a foundational motivation and commitment to a political charity, critically evaluating any public presentation of facts and pursuing the most accurate interpretation of contrary perspectives. Put another way, a charitable disposition in politics motivates individuals both to pursue factual truth and to consider the perspective of others when forming opinions.

What Does Charity Look Like?

Social media users—especially journalists—should not have had to be reminded that a particularly ambiguous three-minute video divorced of context is insufficient ground to condemn an entire group of people. Yet too many were willing to do just that. Almost no one asked the students to explain their actions, and most seemed content to treat the student perspective as taboo.

This is contrary to the spirit of charity. A media seeking truth would have initially reported the situation for what it was—a tense altercation—while waiting for more videos and eyewitness statements to provide context before interpreting the event and assigning blame.

The same charity should be shown toward Nathan Phillips. It appears that he at no point flung obscenities at the students (unlike the group of Black Hebrew Israelites). According to his own testimony, he saw the two groups of angry people, and wanted to intervene. It is possible that he misinterpreted the source of the tension, assuming that the group of students (which was much larger than the group of Black Hebrew Israelites) was the source of the threat.

That supporters of both sides have not been particularly charitable has caused an unnecessary amount of confusion about the facts of the case. This demonstrates that every US citizen has a stake in a more charitable, and therefore more informed, politics. If those with whom we disagree are not motivated to seek the truth about our stances, we are quickly forced into a position of despair, where deceit is seen as the only option for moving our political agenda forward. And a spiraling cycle of despair and hostility will only serve to further darken our political climate.

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