Ever since the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned deadly—and the president recognized “very fine people on both sides”—educators have increasingly expressed concern with the danger of the story of “both sides.”
“It is the trap,” Jonathan Gold wrote for TT at the time, “of promoting false equivalence.”
That trap—in differing forms and degrees—has appeared again and again, most recently in the reporting of last week’s confrontation between a group of Black Israelites, students from Covington Catholic High School and an Omaha Tribe elder in Washington, D.C.
In media outlets like NBC News, NPR and USA Today, the version of events detailed in student Nick Sandmann’s statement is stacked on top of (or presented side-by-side with) the version explained in interviews by elder Nathan Phillips and other Native activists.
In a situation like this, where the stories of two sides are so widely available, it can be tempting to present students with the two different accounts and then step back to let them discuss or debate what happened. But as journalists increasingly shift the burden of truth-finding onto readers, it’s important to remember our students need more than “two sides” and time to talk.
We know that every narrative carries with it a past that informs the multiple perspectives of events and a context we need to understand its impact. We know that hearing multiple sides is the first step toward understanding a story, not the end goal.
We have to give students the tools and skills they need to interrogate a “two-sided” story, identify the problems it presents and be ready to address them.
Problem 1: Stopping at “both sides” ignores imbalances in power.
Reading Sandmann’s and Phillips’ accounts side-by-side, it may seem easy to recognize the power imbalances at play in the confrontation. As a white, non-Latinx teenage boy with a private school education and access to a PR firm, Sandmann holds far more structural power than Phillips, even if he is only 16. For many who read about the event, that power granted Sandmann more access to the benefit of the doubt and a presumption of good intentions.
We saw a similar dynamic at play in the testimonies of then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford. We may not know the truth of what happened in 1982, but we know the 2018 hearings reproduced a power imbalance. Senator after senator referred to Ford’s testimony as “credible.” However, after describing Kavanaugh’s testimony as credible as well, they voted in his favor. A Yale-educated man poised to take one of the most important positions in American governance, Kavanaugh was ultimately granted the benefit of the doubt.
How to address it: Make power dynamics visible.
Discuss the historical and contemporary impact of systemic racism, sexism, homophobia and more. Learning about settler-colonialism and white privilege can help students understand how these power systems developed and how they continue to shape common narratives today. To see these structures at work, students might compare the media’s representation of Sandmann to representations of teenage black or Latinx boys.
You can also share critical questions students can use to analyze news stories through a social justice lens:
- Who has power in this situation?
- What privileges (race, gender, class, etc.) are at play?
- Who shares a similar background to the majority of those who will adjudicate the situation (e.g., the media, lawmakers, historians)?
These questions help build critical reading skills, encouraging students to recognize when a report of an event gives more weight to those who already hold more power, or when journalists ignore the presence of a power imbalance altogether.
Problem 2: Presenting “both sides” often leads to false equivalences.
Especially since the advent of online “call-out culture,” accusations of injury are often quickly followed by accounts of the damage those accusations have caused or will cause in the life of the accused. Presenting these perspectives side-by-side runs the risk of suggesting that an accusation of racism, for example, is as bad as an act of racism.
We should know that being the victim of racism is more harmful than being accused of racism, but we’re talking more about how this most recent story has affected Sandmann than how it’s affected Phillips. We should know that being sexually assaulted is more harmful than being accused of sexual assault, but several senators equated the experiences of Ford and Kavanaugh, noting both were life-altering. We should know, intuitively, that Kevin Hart’s past homophobic remarks hurt young gay people of color more than the resulting controversy hurt Kevin Hart—but those young people didn’t get Ellen’s endorsement or sympathetic interviews.
How to address it: Encourage students to discuss bias and bigotry head-on.
What is the difference between being accused of harming someone and actually being harmed? Unpack this big question by working throughout the year to help students understand identity, to think about what it means when our identities are valued—or devalued. You can condemn unkindness or insults toward anyone and still help students see the difference between attacking someone for their identity and attacking them based on an action or choice they’ve made.
Problem 3: Presenting “both sides” often prioritizes intent and negates impact.
Too often, a “both sides” story becomes a conflict between what someone experienced and what the other person intended for them to experience. Even if we take Sandmann’s statement at face value, we’re left with a situation in which a Native man felt mocked and threatened and a young man doesn’t see a reason to apologize because he was trying to remain calm and diffuse the situation. This sort of framing misses the point.
How to address it: Teach about intent and impact.
As we often repeat here at Teaching Tolerance, educators have to prioritize impact over intent, not only in their practice as teachers but also in the way they frame stories. In discussing history, literature or current events, we can prime students to do the same. Have them consider: “What was the result of this encounter or situation?” “How did this encounter or situation make the participants feel?” “What harm was done and why?”
This allows students to see the complexity of actions. Their consequences can be divorced from their intentions. But ultimately, harm done to someone else is still harm, no matter its origin. And we’re still responsible for that harm. Most car accidents are unintentional, but they still cause damage.
Problem 4: Justifications within “both sides” stories can present bias as zero-sum.
Sometimes, those accused of hurtful or harmful actions turn to previous instances in which they were the victims of bias or prejudice as justification. They might, for example, describe their own experience of overcoming classism or sexism as evidence that they can’t possibly be racist.
We can see this play out in the coverage of the confrontation in Washington, D.C. Because they were the targets of harassment from members of the Black Hebrew Israelites (designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center), some argue that the students could not also be perpetrators of harassment against Phillips and Native activists. But surviving hardship does not cancel out harmful behavior. Similarly, denouncing harmful actions (such as the students pushing back on the Black Hebrew Israelites’ hateful insults) doesn’t mean one won’t commit a harmful action.
How to address it: Encourage students to look to their own lives for evidence that bias is not zero-sum.
Once you address this directly, it is an idea that most students will grasp intuitively. Experiencing or surviving bias or oppression doesn’t mean that one cannot take biased or oppressive action. Ask students to think about times in their own lives when people have used their own victimization or virtue as evidence of no wrongdoing. Ask them to consider how such excuses might even cause additional harm by erasing people with intersectional identities.
The confrontation between the Covington Catholic students and Nathan Phillips will not be the last time a story goes viral as people debate “what happened.” Nor will it be the last time that someone feels harmed and someone else feels aggrieved by the accusation of doing harm.
Thinking critically about stories like this is a skill our students will need for the rest of their lives. Let’s help them develop it.
Collins is the senior writer for Teaching Tolerance.