Teenagers: America’s Political Trojan Horse?

Why do we hide our political messages behind our children? Or attack teenagers for theirs?

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How do you say to your child in the night / Nothing is all black but then nothing is all white? / How do you say it will all be all right / When you know that it mightn't be true / What do you do? (With appreciation to Stephen Sondheim.)

In the age of Trump, the American teenager is the perfect Trojan horse for an increasingly bitter culture war. What better vessel to carry our disdain for our political opponents than those unwitting, youthful faces? While America has always had a sordid set of opinions on how appropriate it is for young people to engage in politics, the past few years have seen an increasingly intense focus on the actions and messages of those who are — and I mean no disrespect — just a few years past being children. Perhaps in another context or in a healthier time, getting young people involved in major societal debates would be a noble endeavor. In our undeniably toxic political climate, teenagers seem more and more to be the flashpoint for some of our nastiest fights.

The confrontation between Native American veteran Nathan Phillips and a group of teenage students from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky is the most recent example — as is the media obsession revolving around it. While the story has been subject to so many different viewpoints that it’s now more convoluted than a murder-mystery on a daytime soap opera, the gist of events are as follows:

On Jan. 18, MAGA-hat-wearing Catholic students attending the annual March for Life in Washington, DC, were harassed by the notoriously provocative Hebrew Israelites, who taunted them with racist, violent language. Phillips, who on the same day had attended the Indigenous Peoples March in DC, witnessed the confrontation and intervened, approaching the teens while chanting and beating a handheld drum. One teenager, Nick Sandmann, stood directly in front of Phillips and did not let him pass while a gaggle of fellow students, all teenage boys, chant and yelled. The students, at some point in the fracas, also broke into school-spirit chants. All of the groups eventually dispersed.

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When video footage of this incident hit the Web, it naturally fed into competing narratives, all dependent on how each audience wanted and chose to interpret it. To the left, Phillips was a peacekeeper being disrespected by a bigoted and sneering teen in a MAGA cap. To the right, Sandmann and his classmates were innocent children being taunted by bigoted and sneering adults. To the media, this was all just red meat to be ground up and fed to the public long before any of the context could be properly understood.

To be fair to both the teens and to Phillips, the look of the confrontation could change depending on which version of the video you watched. That’s part of the problem: the initial video looked so awful that everyone, from right-wing trolls to the school principal, condemned the boys. However, when a different cut emerged, this one showing Phillips approaching the boys, some people revised their opinions, including conservative media, which went into a gleeful about-face and condemned the rest of the media for attempting to destroy these boys’ lives. Soon, every opportunity was provided for Sandmann and his friends to provide a consultant-approved, whitewashed version of events to news outlets, with the conservative movement now exalting them as child-martyrs to the cause.

The incident encapsulates just how willing both major American cultural movements are to put teenagers in the crosshairs, deifying them when they vindicate one’s preferred beliefs, or shunning, trivializing and even attempting to criminalize children who oppose them. It’s unhealthy for a society to be so willing to throw young people collectively in the line of fire for our political messaging. It’s wrong to sacrifice their right to privacy and normalcy just to draw attention to, and to gain any advantage on, any certain issue.

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Make no mistake: objectively speaking, the teenagers were hardly the sweet angels that conservative media now makes them out to be. They chose to attend a religious event and they chose to wear, or were told to wear, those politically controversial MAGA caps. Even if the confrontation was not initially their fault, Sandmann did block the way of an elderly man; the rest of the teenagers did surround and taunt him. Yet worse were the adults who were responsible for the teenagers and their behavior; not only were they absent from much of the confrontation, they have since refused to compel any of the teenagers to apologize for any of their actions. Instead, they have wholeheartedly leaned into what can only be categorized as shameless white privilege, using politically friendly media to rewrite events and to pretend that the boys were merely “engaging in school spirit” by taunting Phillips and making “tomahawk-chop” gestures.

Critics of these teenagers need to realize that they’ve been behaving inappropriately as well. Yes, Sandmann grinned like a cruel bigot, and yes, the other teenagers were outright disrespectful of an adult and a veteran. But this is also why we, as a society, maintain a distinction between what is an adult and what is a child. We hope and we expect teenagers will know how to conduct themselves in a highly public confrontation, but we, as adults, should also know that teenagers can be easily manipulated or provoked into becoming disrespectful, angry and potentially even violent. To left-leaning trolls (they do exist), you’d think these kids were monsters with a lynching rope in hand. Rather, these boys reacted as you might expect from a teenager: rowdy, punkish, a little crass. It easily could have been worse. And yes, progressives were way too quick to condemn these teenagers before we knew exactly what we were watching.

So, I repeat: adults are a massive part of the problem. It’s not right to expect teenagers to fully understand all the ramifications of their actions, for they’re not adults — not yet. They deserve leeway and patience in addressing inappropriateness and wrongheadedness.

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Nor do conservatives get a free pass here. The people in conservative media who spent last week ardently defending the Covington teenagers because of their age are the very same commentators who absolutely lambasted the students of Stoneman Douglas High School who demanded better gun control after surviving a mass shooting. Conservative pundits who last week accused the media of hyped-up coverage of Sandmann are the very same ones who specifically and viciously taunted David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez for demanding better gun laws. The conservative political figures who (rightfully) argue that we can’t hold kids responsible for wearing MAGA caps are the very same ones who suggested (wrongly) that Trayvon Martin deserved to be shot because he should have known that wearing a hoodie in public makes you seem dangerous.

None of this should be taken as a blanket dismissal of teenagers having the right to a voice or, more importantly, to publicly defend themselves. It is truly heartening and encouraging that young people seem so willing to get involved in serious issues. I condemn adults for freely committing children to a cruel and unforgiving public spotlight. Our easy willingness to use their innocence, their naivete, to score political points is what makes instances like this feel grotesque and exhausting. Let’s stop hiding our politics behind our children.