By Mark West; Author ran as the Libertarian candidate for Governor of Arkansas in 2018
I created a tidbit of embarrassment for myself last weekend. After watching several viral videos that were spread on social media, I made a snap judgment. Angered at what I perceived as disrespect, I shared the first meme I noticed concerning the issue on Facebook. I had to get a thought in on this controversy, right?
Of course, the narrative of the moment pitted the Covington Catholic High Schoolstudents, many of which were white, male, and sporting MAGA (Make America Great Again) hats, against a group of Native Americans. The two groups had been involved in separate rallies on the National Mall that day. The Covington Catholic students were leaving a March for Life rally while the Native Americans had just finished an Indigenous Peoples March.
Both were about to intersect in a manner that would spark an unintentional national controversy.
A scene culminating in a stand-off stare-down between Covington Catholic student Nick Sandmann and Native American activist Nathan Phillips immediately split the national audience into regiments. The still shots from the video cast Sandmann in a negative light, with a smug, disrespectful smile on his face.
We were incessantly informed by the breathless media that Phillips heroically confronted the students as they chanted “Build That Wall” at the Native American protestors. An image serving to reinforce the narrative that racial motivations and anger are driving white men to want a wall on the Mexican border.
Erroneously, I believed the reporting and shared the post, which I later deleted. I was dreadfully wrong. Fortunately, a close friend cared enough to hint that a full-version video was floating around the interwebs. I found it, watched it, and changed my mind.
The Hidden Story
Now, I’m not here to tell you what happened at the National Mall. I doubt any of you are here for my take anyway. Most of us have already decided our version of the timelines and our judgments of the intentions of the participants. You’re here for the mystery…the hidden story of the MAGA hat teen.
The hidden story of the MAGA hat teen is the tribalism that drives each of us to ignore context while making snap judgments that fit our own tribal narratives. I’ll pull a little gospel principle in by quoting D.A. Carson who said, “a text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.” In other words, if you ignore the context you will get the wrong message.
I got the wrong message, initially, because I was lacking the context to make sense of what was going on. The unfortunate thing for political conversation in our society is that we are using a lot of pretexts and proof texts to reinforce our tribal views.
Our failure to contextualize is contributing to the erosion of political debate. We search for the parts and pieces of truth that best support our case rather than examine the entire context of facts to get the whole picture of events. The stare-down at the National Mall brings a lot of tribal divisions to the forefront.
I’ve witnessed the anti-Trump crowd attacking Sandmann and his school over racism and doxxing he and his classmates while the MAGA crowd is attackingPhillips’ character and motives. The tribes are at war even though I’m not convinced that the principles themselves ever were. Meanwhile, all of this back-and-forth ignores and excuses the blatantly hostile demagoguery hurled by the Black Hebrew IsraelitesBlack Hebrew Israelites which served as the flashpoint that escalated the tense scenario.
My first exposure to the tribalism that dominates our political process came as I listened to President Obama’s supporters chanting, “Yes We Can”, at campaign rallies. I spent the next eight years trying to have reasonable policy conversations with people who were willing to excuse their guy regardless of the impact. They had their pretexts and ignored any contexts.
During the 2016 campaign, I saw a new emergence on the other side. Watching President Trump’s campaign rallies filled with chants of, “Build That Wall”, and “Lock Her Up”, I realized that I would spend President Trump’s tenure trying desperately to have the same conversations with folks who are out to get the Democrats back for President Obama’s term. They have their pretexts and ignore any contexts.
So, instead of discussing what really happened and using the lessons as instructive to the society around us, we’re instead hedging into our tribes. We are devoting our energy to insuring that we prop up those in our tribe while viscerally attacking those of the other. The tribalism is driving the context out of the conversation.
I’m Just As Guilty As You Are
Before you judge, I’m not speaking from an ivory tower. I’m not exempt in my own tendencies to fall into tribal politics as well, as noted earlier in this column. However, I’m going to commit to staying focused on facts in their appropriate context as best I can.
If we are going to secure a society of liberty for future generations to enjoy it is vital that we restore contextual facts to the political debate. Our tribes are not always right, and the other tribes are not always wrong. Our tribes haven’t cornered the market on patriotic fervor any more than the other tribes have un-American sentiment.
Now, tribalism itself isn’t the issue. Please don’t take that away from this article. The problem is when we ignore reality for the sake of protecting our tribe. Put more simply, our tribes become more important to us than our nation. When we allow our national fabric to be ripped apart for the sake of our tribe winning, in essence, we all lose.
We are all people who bring a variety of perspectives to the same set of facts, hence the necessity that we appropriately contextualize the facts at hand. Otherwise, we just continue the evisceration of political dialogue in our nation and become further polarized against our neighbors. If we don’t get better about talking through our differences, our differences will manifest into the very things that will threaten the future of liberty in our nation.