Lemons into Lemonade: Turning the Covington Catholic/Nathan Phillips Encounter to Good


The events surrounding and following the altercation between the high school boys attending Covington Catholic High School & Nathan Phillips, a Native American man are truly regrettable.


In today’s highly-polarized political environment, the altercation became an explosive tinder box for pent-up anger from virtually every side of the political/religious/ideological/racial fence.


From my perspective, nothing about this is edifying (so far). But I do believe something of value can come from it that is more ennobling than, “Check your facts before railing about how horrible someone is.”


The initial media coverage elicited a social media maelstrom against the boys. The rhetoric was full of shaming. Shaming, of course, can at times changes behavior; it rarely changes hearts or minds, however.


While it is true that the boys heralded from a Catholic high school, this fact was played over-and-over again and it’s hard to not see the same kind of anti-Catholic prejudice here that has been creeping up in other contexts, as if the fact of these boys religious affiliation could somehow        explain their behavior.


As new video of the event emerged, an alternate version of events seemed to form. Because the poison was already in the air, those on the other side of the culture wars used these videos and testimonies from some of the boys themselves as a call-to-arms for the “fake news” and anti-media lobby.


Some who were quick-to-condemn on their various social media sites are now trying to decide whether to apologize, back-pedal, or double-down on their original statements. For those who were slow to issue an immediate statement after the events, they are looking good. It’s been a long time since taking a few moments to respond after an event has been viewed as virtue.


News organizations, it seems, are expending huge resources to find other videos, identify more eyewitnesses, and dig deeper into the history of the individuals and organizations involved, all in an effort to get at “the truth.”


The entire scene makes me sad.


As a conflict-resolution scholar and practitioner, I feel reasonably confident that, in a situation like this, getting at ‘the truth’ – even if it were possible – wouldn’t be so helpful.


At this point, people are hunkered down. They are going to overplay the information that supports their viewpoint and dismiss the alternate data. This isn’t because they are bad people (although some of those doing this may have bad motives); it’s because they are human and human beings suffer from self-serving biases that cause us to over-value data that supports our viewpoint and to dismiss, ignore, or downplay data that does not.


What might be helpful now? 


From my perspective, this tragic situation could be used for a bit of good – a national example of how we might act as Americans when we find ourselves in a conflict situation and have a moment to take a deep breath and reflect instead of issuing a call-to-arms.


Imagine bringing together the boys, Nathan Phillips, and, if possible, a few of the Black Hebrew Israelites into a room with two or three trained facilitators and actually having a conversation together. Not a conversation for a media photo-op (though if a few pictures were released, that would be fine); not for the purpose of defending one’s view; but  rather a conversation marked by genuine listening, vulnerability, and curiosity; a conversation where all parties engaged believing both that they had their own valuable perspective AND that others might have other perspectives that differed from their own; a conversation where all parties agreed that they had something to learn from each other and something to offer each other, both in the form of apology and in the form of forgiveness and, maybe, just maybe, in the form of reconciliation and personal transformation.


Is this idea naïve? Impossible? I don’t think so.


A decade ago, a similar incident involving race, privilege, and police happened between Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and a Cambridge, MA police officer. Then-President Barack Obama invited both to meet him and the Vice President for a conversation at the White House in what has come to be known as The Beer Summit. Some saw the meeting as empty rhetoric and a media ploy. I don’t know whether profound transformation emerged from the meeting, but I do know that leadership that strives to bring people together, that holds open the possibility of reconciliation and the possibility that one’s view of the situation might be wrong or, at least not the Complete Truth, is desperately needed right now.


There is a real opportunity to find some redemption in the horrible events of the past few days. If the parties are interested in stepping back from the mayhem and turning lemons into lemonade, they can be a real example to the nation. Perhaps, President Obama can offer his services again. If not, I hope that there will be leaders who might consider this option and reach out to trained facilitators or other trusted persons who might make such a meeting happen.