MAGA Kids v. a Native American

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(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The national story of the MAGA kids versus a Native American gives us a powerful lesson in psychology — specifically, the psychology that drives radicalization. 

A Quick Summary

On Friday, January 18th, 2019, a short video that went viral caught what appeared to be a confrontation between Covington high schooler Nick Sandmann and Native American veteran Nathan Phillips. The teenager faced the veteran smiling, which some described as a smirk. The veteran was inches away from the teenager’s face, beating a drum and singing a Native American chant.

Some saw the veteran’s approach as a pacifist gesture, coming with the gift of song that eased rising tensions between the high schoolers and a third group of Black Hebrew Israelites (a black supremacist organization). Others viewed the gesture as an unnecessary approach, perhaps even in instigation, into the space the teenagers were occupying. 

The Broader Picture 

National reaction to the photo and video of the moment of meeting between Sandmann and Phillips provoked a flood of intense reactions. The broader scene grew only more complex with the presence of the third group, which one of the boys’ mothers accused of being “black Muslims.” In fact, this group was the Black Hebrew Israelites, a small group of grown men flinging obscenities at the kids and trying to provoke the high schoolers into a confrontation. 

In the periphery, other Covington high schoolers were mocking Phillips’ Native American heritage. Some, who also appear to be part of the group of boys, were harassing young women by cat calling and making horrific misogynistic remarks inches away from a group of girls.

Additional video footage also surfaced showing Nathan Phillips going out of his away to approach the boys voluntarily. Early on, the boys seemed to be chanting along with him. 


Why This Picture Confuses the Brain 

Even as the picture widened, the focus was still on the MAGA kid and the Native American. What we see are oppositional identities in a scene that doesn’t offer any immediate conclusions. Any instant reaction is one that is likely colored in by our own experience, our own perspective.Their body language tells our minds it may be a stand off, and yet there is no other clear antagonistic non-verbal clues:

One person is smiling, while the other person is singing.
They’re both aware, yet also unaware, of each other.
Both show clear identity markers: the red MAGA hat and the Native American chant.

The scene is a scrambled signal to the brain.


An Incubation for Radicalization 

Most of the facts in the “MAGA kids of Covington High School” story boiled down to what seemed, could be and was felt. So, the story soon became a matter of  the political perspectives (depending on whom was reporting it). 

Yet, isolated perspectives paired with intense emotion and strong rigid markers are fodder for radicalization. 

Dr. Tawfik Hamid, a Muslim reformer and one of the foremost leaders in innovative cognitive psychology models, finds the issue of perspectives not only key in understanding a situation but also in developing dialogue to lead us through the crippling absolutism that arises in these situations. 

As part of a curriculum to counter radicalization, Dr. Tawfik Hamid presents one photo with two perspectives. Both perspectives are correct. Which perspective a person sees depends entirely on where they’re placed, but it’s the same picture.

What you see simply changes depending on where you’re sitting. There is even no “upside down” for example, because even that would imply a “perspective bias” based on your own position in relation to the picture. 

The same can be said for the Covington High School story and the many perspectives surrounding the “stand off” between MAGA kids and Nathan Phillips. The same can be said for issues across other spheres of radicalization, including the grievances of all parties across a spectrum — from the folks who think every Muslim is lying to the jihadi who feels drawn to fight against an empire. Everyone has a perspective. 

Along with his peers, Dr. Tawfik Hamid believes that the radical has a fixed way of thinking. A radical, by definition is one who

  1. Believes in a fixed way of thinking (which alone is typically defined as a fundamentalist), and
  2. Is willing to practice violence against an opposing view. 

A radical will think, “Not only do I disagree with you, but my view is right and your view is wrong. Your view is so wrong that it justifies my violence against you.” That is a radical. The more we fixate on our own points of view, the more we become radicalized.


Activating Radicalization

Across nearly every major national story that walks across a political tightrope, we’re seeing increased “radicalization.” Contrary to the popular opinion that only uneducated Third World drifters are capable of succumbing to radicalization, here we see some of America’s cream of the crop thinkers, educators and creative minds actively radicalizing. For example:

Disney film producer Jack Morrissey tweeted a grizzly tweet against the boys: “MAGAkids go screaming, hats first, into the woodchipper,” paired with a bloody illustration:


Kathy Griffin called for naming and shaming the boys:

Shooting and bombing threats have also been made against the boys, their families and their schools — so much so that school had to be cancelled.

Covington High School, whatever its perceived shortcomings are, does not deserve violent threats against it or its students. Neither do the boys nor their families. 

What we deserve is bringing our perspectives together to share what we see and being respectful toward the past traumas that have shaped our perspectives. 



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Shireen Qudosi

Shireen Qudosi is Clarion Project's National Correspondent.

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