If you’ve checked the news at any point this past week, you’ve no doubt heard about the standoff with the Covington Catholic school kids and the “Vietnam-times” veteran at the March for Life, as well as what really happened there. Even if you’re not a meme enthusiast, you may be quite familiar with what is now being called the “assault smirk.”
This week’s Freedom Philosophy already covers many of the important lessons to be learned from this recent example of fake news. The purpose here is to focus less on the overarching story and more on a very important detail: the assault smirk.
This smirk (if not a smile) was the image of choice for nearly every news outlet, and became the key moment that many people used to judge the entire situation. What’s concerning are the vastly different interpretations of that facial expression, and the true motive behind it.
Some on the right viewed it as the go-to expression for a nervous kid thrust in the spotlight trying to appear calm and collected. Other right-wingers called it a smirk of defiance, a confident assertion that the kid will not be intimidated. The second explanation is what Nicholas Sandmann, the wielder of the assault smirk, claimed is the correct one.
Looking towards the left, the interpretations paint a more treacherous picture. Some saw entitlement, contempt, and white privilege. Others saw bigotry and racism, leading some to go so far as to call for violence against the smirking kid. A few people even compared him to Brett Kavanaugh, implying he has a future of sexual assault.
Which interpretation is the right one? If it really was an act of bigotry, he would never admit to it in a public interview. But if we had to wager, it’s better to rely on the social group he’s part of (the right wing). The reason for this will be explained in a bit.
So what’s the point of bringing up all of these different assertions about a strange smile?
The fact that they’re so different, along with the confidence behind each interpretation, is what’s important. The political divide has reached the point where even a smile is controversial.
The smirk, as well as several other political controversies, stem from one main issue: language differences in symbolism.
Most people can understand that a symbol can have two separate meanings across two separate groups. The swastika offers the most blatant example. Displaying a swastika in Germany will earn you up to three years in jail. Display one in India and angry people would be the last thing to expect.
The difference between Germany and India isn’t their opinion of the Nazi regime. The symbol represents two completely different things in each society. And that needs to be taken into account when interpreting motive. If a German man traveled to India, one could not blame him for having an initial negative emotional reaction to the sight of a swastika, but it would be unfair of him to label the people of India as Nazis.
Other examples of differences in symbolism can occur when two groups live within the same society, which can lead to conflict through misunderstanding. The Confederate flag offers one example. Notice how the controversy is not about whether what the flag represents is good or bad. The controversy is only over what the flag represents.
One of today’s most controversial symbols is the red MAGA hat, and there are two reasons for this. Everyone agrees that it represents Trump, and with that comes specific policies. Both the pro- and anti-Trump sides can agree that there are a few policy positions that Trump clearly represents (anti-Obamacare, pro-tariffs, etc). These positions are controversial, and thus a reason the MAGA hat is as well, but they are clearly defined, meaning both sides accept that these are positions the hat represents.
The second reason has to do with the greater cultural aspect of what Trump represents (dubbed “Trumpism” by critics) that the left and right cannot agree upon. Trumpism has less to do with Trump and more to do with his supporters.
To a pro-Trump individual, the MAGA hat represents free speech, nationalism (the anti-globalist kind), the anti-establishment, “owning the libs”, patriotism, etc. To the more extreme anti-Trumpers (described as having “Trump Derangement Syndrome”), the MAGA hat represents white supremacy, patriarchy, nationalism (the socialist kind), xenophobia, and other forms of bigotry.
Of course, one must not forget that these groups are just generalizations and do not apply to everyone. Viewing these groups as a concrete dichotomy leads to calling David Stockman a communist.
Dilbert creator Scott Adams refers to this phenomenon as the Two Movie Reality, in which these two groups will view the same occurrence, yet derive completely different stories from what has happened. And this is where we tie back into the life-threatening assault smirk.
If we could remove the MAGA hats from that scene in front of the Lincoln Memorial, the interpretations of Sandmann’s facial expression would be less extreme. The MAGA hat conveys a lot of information to people, and people of different worldviews interpret it in different ways.
For this reason, communication is key. As people become trapped in their own echo chambers, they begin to rely entirely on their own worldview, and often forget that certain symbols and language can have certain meanings depending on the ideological context.
In most conflicts of worldview, there is an objectively correct answer. A government policy either works or it doesn’t. A description of an event is either accurate or it isn’t.
Certain terms and symbols don’t always have a universally agreed upon definition, which means it’s important to understand the point of view of the one using them in each scenario before assessing what they mean. Without taking a moment to understand what our opponents are trying to say, an awkward smile becomes the newest face of white supremacy.