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The New West: The lost art of civil discourse in conflict. We can do better; indeed we must

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By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

CREDIT: David J Swift

By now you’ve surely heard about the brouhaha: the eruption created by varying pieces of videos—of a confrontation that played out last weekend in Washington, D.C. involving a group of kids from a private boys’ school in Kentucky, a Native American elder, and others identifying themselves as Black Israelites.

I was not immune from drawing an initial impression based upon the evidence as it first appeared.

On Saturday morning, I checked my social media inbox before heading out for the day and there, awaiting, was a story posted by editor Vincent Schilling, a longtime reporter for Indian Country Today. Schilling’s piece came with this headline: “Outrage as non-Native youth wearing #MAGA hats taunt and disrespect Native elder.”

Curious, I clicked on the link and read the piece. I follow Indian Country Today because it offers stories, penned from a native perspective, that often do not appear in what some derisively call “the mainstream media.”

Watching a video clip that came embedded in the story, I was stunned by the apparent treatment of a native elder. I then shared the story link at Mountain Journal.

Every day, Mountain Journal curates stories from all manner of media across the spectrum, sometimes with a comment added to highlight its relevance to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Just before sharing the piece using the exact words in the original headline, I tracked down Schilling, a man of Mohawk heritage, and had a thoughtful phone conversation with him.

He actually had seen the video at 3 a.m., several hours earlier. He took a look at it. What he saw, in terms of the confrontation, left him sleepless.

When morning came, he started making calls to verify that the confrontation happened. The abbreviated video he saw showed a teenager from Covington Catholic High School standing face to face with an elder who was drumming named Nathan Phillips, a member of the Omaha tribe. It turns out Schilling also knew Phillips.

Within an hour after Schilling posted his story, the video quickly joined a tidal wave of wider circulation. Comments flooded in at every Facebook, Twitter or other social media site where the story or video appeared, including Mountain Journal.

Several hundred comments at MoJo itself were deleted—they involved threats made against the students at Covington, racist claims made about Phillips and indigenous people in general, as well as venting reactions laced with unspeakable profanity, verbal bullying and worse.

Although events related to the confrontation were complicated and not as atrocious as they first appeared, none of the parties involved were innocent, least of not which the Black Israelites who stood near the Lincoln Memorial insulting everyone—including the Covington kids wearing red MAGA caps and those accompanying Phillips as part of the Indigenous Peoples March.

Think about this for a moment: how ironic was it that the clash happened on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. during a government shutdown and amid a weekend that featured two different marches involving Indigenous Peoples and Right to Life advocates; that it occurred hours before Dr. Martin Luther King Day, and not far from both The White House and the Lincoln Memorial?

Freedom to assemble, freedom to speak, freedom to debate and assert opinion was never intended to mean abandoning all manner of civility.

Many have said the incident should be “a teaching moment.” Besides the lesson that everyone needs to slow down, process and be more “respectful,” the imagery, in very visceral terms, is a vivid illustration of what we’ve lost in the digital media age.

Trolls—which is to say, social media troublemakers whose goal is only to stir divisiveness—are prolific and not held to account. We know from the emerging findings of law enforcement investigations that the Russians have been using it to perfection, planting people using false names to detonate verbal ruckuses.

Don’t believe for a second that those who self-identify as being from the so-called political left or right are more civil than the other.

We have more than our share of analogous examples happening daily on social media in Greater Yellowstone. Want four topics guaranteed to trigger a similar nuclear blast of vitriol and sometimes raw hate? Here they are: anything having to do with guns, wolves, hunting and grizzly bears.

Is it possible for those on the left to not label hunters “cold blooded killers” or suggest that they be shot, or not to malign people who raise cattle for a living as “welfare ranchers” or to claim coal miners are out to destroy the earth?

Is it possible to have an exchange with environmentalists and animal rights activists opposed to the sport hunting of grizzlies and running coyotes down with snowmobiles, without demeaning them personally, without resorting to sophomoric rhetoric such as “libtard” or “snowflake” or vowing them harm?

A few years ago, when former Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk decided to euthanize a grizzly bear mother that had killed a hiker, he and his staff received death threats.

Since it was launched in August 2017, Mountain Journal has permanently banned hundreds of Facebook commenters suspected of being trolls or persisting with nastiness after receiving warnings.

Whenever MoJo has attached requests for commenters to be civil and courteous with one another, we often are chastised.

Did it cross the minds of the Covington students that Mr. Phillips might be offended by being surrounded by kids singing and performing the tomahawk chop? Do they have any sympathy or knowledge about the plight of native people on this continent?

Did it occur to the Black Israelites that calling Catholic students promoters of pedophilia represents the deepest kind of insult? (Of course they did.)

Did it occur to those allied with Phillips that indeed they had a meaningful teaching moment to educate young people right within reach?

Finally, does our president have any inkling why using the word “Pocahontas” and other name calling is base behavior for a leader holding the highest elected office in the land?

I spoke with Indian Country Today reporter Schilling one more time. He is dedicated to the facts and he has continued to honestly present the story as it expanded. Read it here.

In the end, Mountain Journal took down links to the incident from its Facebook page because the banter proved civility was unachievable.

At some level, every single one of us is descended from natives and immigrants.

The labels “liberal” and “conservative,” “Republican and Democrat,” “red state” and “blue state” no longer work. Why? Because they ignore that people and issues are far more complicated.

This doesn’t mean we should retreat from divisive topics—that would be a mistake. If anything, they need to be confronted, discussed and debated. But there ought to be rules of engagement on social media and with our elected officials at all levels setting the example.

One simple rule might be that if we’re modeling a poor example for kids with our own behavior, then maybe we ought to stop.

Todd Wilkinson is founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal (mountainjournal.org) devoted to protecting the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and a correspondent for National Geographic. He also is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Jackson Hole grizzly bear 399 available only at mangelsen.com/grizzly.

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