On Friday, at the National Mall in Washington, DC, there occurred A Tale of Two Rallies: two rallies that clashed in a way that says everything about where America as a country stands in 2019.
As the Indigenous Peoples Rights demonstration was winding down, the March for Life anti-abortion rally was just starting. A large group of boys from Kentucky’s Covington Catholic High School were attending the March for Life.
An indigenous elder and Vietnam veteran named Nathan Phillips was standing alone on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, singing a native American protest song as he banged a small handheld leather drum. As he sang and kept rhythm with his drum, a large group of teenage boys from Covington began to surround him and taunt him, cruelly imitating his singing, dancing to the music in a mocking way, and shouting “Build that wall!” Many of the boys wore red MAGA hats — a clothing item that is already becoming associated with hatred and racism, much as the swastika or brown shirts of WWII Germany eventually became associated with the Nazis and the Holocaust.
One boy in particular stood out, and the video of his silent and seemingly hostile standoff with the Indian elder has gone viral. I won’t name the boy, because I have no desire to ruin his life. Although the teen’s behavior toward the elder was deplorable and cruel (involving a form of bullying known as physical intimidation — invading someone’s personal space), I blame the environment he was raised in, particularly the environment of Covington Catholic, which has developed a reputation of fostering a culture of racism, sexism, and white supremacy in its all-male student body (though both the school and the diocese have apologized for the students’ behavior at the rally).
I do not think the boy in the video is necessarily a sociopath or a narcissist, although his behavior toward the elder certainly makes it appear that way. There are reasons to think this boy is a normal kid who may have been doing this on a dare or to appear “cool” among his peers, and may also be being indoctrinated by his school and his classmates to harshly judge and intimidate people who are different than he is.
Jack Brown, MD, is an expert on facial and body language, and he writes fascinating Twitter threads and articles analyzing the facial and body language of celebrities, politicians, and sometimes, everyday people like this high school boy, whose facial expressions during the exchange with the elder proved to be far more complex than they at first seemed.
So I have taken the liberty of reposting Dr. Brown’s fascinating thread, which goes into great detail about the boy’s subtle facial cues, which while on the surface seemed threatening and bullying, showed fleeting glimpses of shame, anger, sadness, and even empathy.
First, here is the video of the incident. You can use this to reference the incidents described in Dr. Brown’s tweets.
1/ On Friday 18 January 2019, in Washington DC, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, a confrontation occurred between some students of Covington Catholic HS (a private, all-boys school in Park Hills, KY) & members of the Indigenous Peoples March – most notably, Nathan Phillips.
2/ The students were in DC to participate in a March for Life event. Many of the boys in the crowd were wearing MAGA hats as well as clothing with Covington Catholic High School insignia.
3/ Mr. Phillips is a veteran of the Vietnam War and Native American elder of the Omaha tribe. What follows is a partial nonverbal analysis of this event.
4/ At 0:06, we see this student display what is known as a Loose Tongue Jut. A loose tongue jut is a microexpression/near-micro expression signifying the thought-emotions of:
• I’ve been caught
• I’ve been bad
• I’ve done a stupid thing
5/ During 0:07 – 0:08, we see a second student exhibit this identical behavior.
6/ During 0:23, one student pushes another student toward Mr. Phillips in an effort to further encroach into Nathan Phillips’ personal space (intimate space).
7/ A third student displays another Loose Tongue Jut during 0:34
8/ During 0:43, we see the student who, in the remainder of this video, is the primary confrontational individual (here referred to as John Doe). He is shown here, in near profile, in order to demonstrate his normal chin contour.
9/ This image (0:48) is captured shortly after John Doe and Nathan Phillips encroach into each others’ personal space. The expression on Doe’s face is a partial, sincere smile (Duchenne Smile).
10/ Entering into another person’s interpersonal space (personal space and even intimate space) – is a body language behavior which very often provokes violence.
11/ While this is true for all genders, it’s particularly incendiary when two men are Whole Body Pointing toward each other (eyes, head, shoulders, torso, hips, and feet). Simply by turning 20º – 30º to one side will de-escalate the potential for physical confrontation.
12/ During 0:53, Doe adopts a significant component of Disgust – and his smile ceases to be sincere – ergo this is a Disgust-Pseudosmile.
13/ During 0:55, John Doe begins to display a Jaw Jut – a forward displacement of his mandible – and here, indicative of an Adrenaline Surge. He is also suppressing laughter.
14/ During 0:56, we begin to see a fascinating dynamic – the first signals of a tremendous example of Emotional Dissonance.
15/ Although John Doe is primarily being governed by peer pressure – and mob mentality (aka herd mentality, pack mentality, gang mentality) – his individual personality is breaking through in his moment.
16/ Indeed, Doe is suppressing his empathy – specifically his feelings of sadness for indigenous peoples and/or Mr. Phillips specifically. Note his mid-facial tension.
17/ Although contraction of the “mustache area” and flaring of his nostrils are also associated with disgust – it’s also a dynamic associated with the suppression of crying. For a couple seconds, Doe is on the verge of tears.
18/ Please watch this video first at normal speed, then at 0.5 and then again at full speed – particularly this crucial portion. The details will then be more discernible.
19/ During 0:57, Doe’s jaw juts out further. He begins what is called a Hard Swallow (note his Adam’s apple moving up and down – indicating a dry throat and elevated anxiety).
20/ Although we can’t them directly, Doe’s repositioning of his hands begins in this moment – most probably into his pockets. This is akin to a turtle retreating into his shell – he very much wants to leave, but peer pressure is preventing him)
21/ At 0:58, he tilts his head and neck backward and thrusts his chin forward – signifying strong feelings of Defiance. Here he finishes his hard swallow and the repositioning of his hands.
22/ During 1:04 there is a resurgence of empathy-sadness (although some disgust as well).
23/ At 1:05, John Doe Breaks his Eye Contact (he’s looking just past Mr. Phillips or perhaps at Phillips’ right ear).
24/ We often break eye contact in such scenarios in order to suppress strong emotions. In this second, it allows Doe to once again break this cycle of empathy-sadness.
25/ This lack of eye contact enables John Doe to, once again, break into a sincere smile and a moment of suppressing laughter (1:11).
26/ During 1:29, we see another example of emotional dissonance – a combination of disgust and tear suppression.
27/ During 1:30, he breaks eye contact in another manner by looking down and to HIS right. Although this is obviously in the direction of Nathan Phillips’ drum, it’s also the quadrant to which most people look during strong feelings of shame, guilt, and moments of sadness.
28/ Here, during 1:41, Doe is once again looking past Phillips.
29/ And in the other direction (1:43) – disengaging himself from the intensity of this confrontation.
30/ At 1:53, after Doe re-establishes eye contact, he re-escalates his emotions, becoming angry.
31/ At 1:54, Doe looks away again – and immediately his anger is erased and we see the beginnings of a smile (with a hint of disgust).
32/ During 2:23, we see a stronger example of Disgust. His partial eyelid closure, while not a requirement of disgust, acts as an amplifier.
33/ During 3:21, another student, who is probably a friend or possibly a family member, begins to give John Doe a Shoulder Rub.
34/ This is an example of emotional support and affection – but it’s also another signal of emotional dissonance. It’s as if the student in the blue jacket is trying to say, “You did good bro – but time to disengage”.
35/ He stops his shoulder rub at 3:22, yells/howls repeatedly – and displays multiple pseudo-chest/abdomen beating gestures. He exhibits a Loose Tongue Jut during 3:28 – as his psyche declares a mea culpa – calling himself out for his mocking of indigenous peoples.
36/ He turns to walk away – retreating to the back of the crowd – but not before he displays yet another loose tongue-jut (3:30).
37/ SUMMARY: Many students of Covington Catholic High School, along with some others who were in this crowd, displayed blatant racism toward indigenous peoples in Washington DC on 18 January 2019.
38/ One individual in particular deliberately maintained his position in Nathan Phillips’ personal space. Mr. Phillips was, of course, vastly outnumbered and elderly – however, in many (most) similar scenarios, this student’s act would have provoked violence.
39/ The display of disgust in this situation is profoundly noteworthy. Outside of the context of true self-defense, in order to for the psyche to inflict harm on another person or group, it must view them as less than human.
40/ Those who commit such acts need to see their victims – as “others” – beneath them. Disgust is the emotion which encapsulates this feeling. Indeed, disgust is the most common emotion displayed by people committing hate-crimes and acts of mass violence.
41/ This phenomenon was well-documented during the Holocaust.
42/ While this incident in front of the Lincoln Memorial was certainly an example of peer pressure and mob mentality, it also exemplified cognitive and emotional dissonance.
43/ The primary confronting student’s emotions oscillated from disgust, anger, and even taking joy in his deliberate intimidation – but also to sadness, empathy, guilt, shame – and several times he was even near-tears.
44/ In the near future, this student will very likely appear in a public setting/television interview, where he will apologize. A written statement (usually prepared by an attorney) is nowhere close to a sincere or meaningful apology.
45/ In giving a public apology, with high probability, he will break down in tears – and it will become, for him, a fundamental life inflection point. It will be healing. Such a public apology will permanently up-regulate his empathy.
46/ Alternatively, if he neglects to undertake this difficult, but emotionally intelligent act – he will most probably spend the rest of his life digging in his heels and rationalizing his bad behavior.
— Dr. Jack Brown, MD
My takeaway is similar to Dr. Brown’s conclusion: this incident will be a pivotal event in this boy’s life. If he takes the high road and chooses to acknowledge his barely suppressed empathy and shame, and publicly (or even privately) apologizes, he will feel painful emotions but will be able to redeem himself. He will have learned a valuable life lesson and his empathy will henceforth no longer be so hidden. He will grow up into a man who can truly care about others.
But, coming from a school environment having a reputation for racism and “othering” people who are different, combined with peer pressure from classmates who may be more sociopathic than he is, he may choose not to acknowledge his feelings of cognitive dissonance, and not apologize, which will make it easier for him to suppress his empathy and shame in the future. As Dr. Brown pointed out, should he choose that road, his personality, still malleable due to his youth, could turn sociopathic or narcissistic.
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