The “Smirk seen ’round the world” Updated 7/28/2020

sandmannUpdate: Most of what’s below was posted January 2019. Since then, the boy in the left of the image filed defamation lawsuits against several news agencies and a few of them have settled.  Here are a couple of articles about those lawsuits and their resolution. This topic also fits well with the new course concepts around knowledge and knower, knowledge and technology, and knowledge and politics.

CNN Settles Lawsuit Brought by Covington Catholic Student Nicholas Sandmann (1/7/2020)

Numerous national media outlets painted Sandmann and his classmates as menacing — and in some cases racist — after an edited video emerged of Sandmann smiling, inches away from the face of Nathan Phillips, an elderly Native American man, while attending the March for Life on the National Mall. A more complete video of the encounter, which emerged later, showed that Phillips had approached the Covington students and begun drumming in their faces, prompting them to respond with school chants.

And another from 7/24/2020

Interesting situation from a TOK perspective. Below is a collection of articles about the topic. They raise a lot of interesting questions about how we acquire knowledge and the relationships among the various ways of knowing. It also lends itself to ask about the primacy of some WOKs over others.


Download Lesson plan on “the smirk”

Download smirk articles handout

TOK Day 31 (daily student worksheet)

What’s also interesting is how impactful the image was. The image seemed to be a perfect representation of how many people view the current moment in the United States. It fit perfectly into prior assumptions about the world and spoke to a deeper truth. Interpreting and explaining this image!and fitting it into preexisting mental schema seemed pretty easy.

Once more and more videos started to emerge and the greater context became known, there were some interesting developments. Some people backed off their initial judgments and acknowledged that they may have jumped the gun on their evaluation of the situation. Some made this a larger point about media bias. Some stuck to their initial interpretations and stayed focused on the image. Even if something is not true in the particular sense, can we still use it as an example of a “larger truth”? What does it take for people to change the overarching narrative they believe? Did that image of the smirk capture something true that the longer videos may not have?

Some of the questions raised here are similar to the controversy around Serena Williams and the penalties she received at the US Open earlier this year (I spent a class discussing this earlier in the year you can access my materials here). Williams, and many others, believed her penalties and treatment were a consequence of sexism or racism. While sexism and racism may exist in society in general, how do we know they are true in this particular case? To what extent can we know at all what motivation in some someone’s mind?

To me the most interesting questions about the “smirk seen ’round the world” focus on the relationship between intuition and reason when deciding what we believe to be true as well as the role of perspective in acquiring knowledge. Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor for the rider and the elephant is an interesting read that explores this

Knowledge Questions: What is the role of intuition in acquiring knowledge? What is the relationship between intuition and reason in acquiring knowledge? What is the reliability of knowledge acquired through intuition/reason? To what extent do people change their minds when facts change? What is the role of prior experience when interpreting new information? What is the role of perspective in acquiring knowledge? To what extent does personal perspective limit the certainty of knowledge?

I Saw the Smirk With My Eyes, But Felt It in My Gut (interesting to note the original title of this article was “The MAGA Teen’s Smirk is Indelible in My Hippocampus”)

The world is getting meaner. The teens on the National Mall are symptoms of a larger ailment.

The smirk of privilege, framed by MAGA hats and mocking laughter, is all that’s there, despite what the kid in the picture—via the public relations firm his family had the means to retain—says. It is unmistakable, which is why the image was shared as widely as it was. It would not have gone viral if it didn’t resonate, if we hadn’t seen this particular strain of American smirk as long as we’ve had photography.

If You Still Think Nick Sandmann’s Smile Is Proof of Racism, You’re Seeing What You Want to See

Some are incapable of viewing the MAGA-hat-wearing teens from Covington Catholic as anything other than pure evil.

Others have doubled down, offering a variety of explanations for why the new evidence doesn’t sway them. Some of this is just goalpost shifting: Maybe Sandmann didn’t do anything wrong, but what about the kid who made the tomahawk gesture? An image of Covington Catholic high school students in black body paint at a basketball game in 2012 is somehow supposed to be damaging to Sandmann’s credibility (The New York Daily News: “This won’t help Nick Sandmann’s case”), as is the fact that public relations experts reviewed his statement (uh, of course they did).

How We Destroy Lives Today

Interesting piece from David Brooks who focuses on how the case unfolded and discussing the rush to judgment and the role of social media. Interesting article but also fascinating to read here are the comments about the article.

From Brooks:

In this one episode, you had a gentle, 64-year-old Native American man being swarmed by white (boo!), male (boo!), preppy (double boo!) Trump supporters (infinite boo!). If you are trying to rub the pleasure centers of a liberal audience, this is truly a story too good to check.

From the comments section:

As a woman, I have experienced boorish behavior from boys and men for a long time, from jocks to fraternity guys to corporate culture. I remember well all the lewd comments from men at work, I remember my HBS banker sister being called uptight because she didn’t want to go to a strip club with her male work colleagues. When I see boys with MAGA hats – you cannot ignore what those hats represent – when I see them doing tomahawk chops, when I see them jumping up and down, when I see a young man smirking, I draw my conclusions of what those boys represent.

Here is the video that the screen shot was taken from

A video that puts together different clips with some captions and a bit of editorializing

And a much longer video with some greater context (some foul language here)

One last one in case you’re still reading (I googled “smirk seen round the world” to see whether I was the first to come up with it, I obviously wasn’t, but I found this piece which is worth a read also)

That self-satisfied, smug, arrogant look of condescension and feeling of superiority, for no reason other than the fact that he is privileged white boy wearing a red hat that claims that he wants to “Make America Great Again.”

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