Commentary

Anger has spread across Montana like a disease

January 5, 2022 5:14 am

Anger emoji (Photo illustration via Pixabay | Public domain).

At a city commission meeting, a citizen approached the podium. In remarks dripping with vitriol and peppered with profanity, he impugned the characters of two city staff members, disparaged the lengthy service of one city commissioner, and bemoaned the fate of his fellow citizens, whom he dismissed as “dumb bastards” getting taken by “The Man.”

This was not a one-off event. The speaker is a serial “spiller,” drawn to the podium every two weeks perhaps by the 3-minute cameo on public television it provides him. Frequently, his remarks are out of order: either not on a topic under the commission’s purview or so uncivil in delivery and content that he would be thrown out of any legislative or judicial chamber in the state. But at the city level, removing him would require police action, extending the cameo into a drama that would no doubt become a series. So the commission braces itself for the three minutes of abuse and then moves on.

There was something unusual about this particular night, however. In the audience behind the speaker was a young girl. Three minutes is not a long time, but it’s a long time to watch a little girl cower and cringe as she searches the room to see if some grown-up is going to do something about behavior that even a 10-year-old knows is beyond the pale.

That was two years ago in Great Falls, Montana, but such incivility in public venues is not confined to that time or space. It is widespread and escalating. At a meeting in Whitefish a few months ago, a citizen called the school board “bullies and narcissists” because their views on requiring masks in schools differed from his own. Another activist published the addresses of all trustees so that the intimidation could also occur at their homes.

In Bozeman recently, when the school board entertained public comment via Zoom on a proposed equity policy, one or more hackers injected racial slurs and profanity into the discussion. Ironically, the policy under consideration had been modified in the hope of “reducing polarization.” How? By removing the word “equity” from the policy. This act of self-censorship only emboldened the already over-bold.

Nor are crude intimidation efforts confined to public meetings. In Billings last summer, the school superintendent was hounded at his health club by a stranger who jammed a cell phone in his face, pressed “video,” and interrogated him on exactly why he was not wearing a mask at the health club when schoolchildren would soon be required to. The private calculation of a fully vaccinated man about how to balance his health needs has nothing to do with the public risks he is required to weigh as a public official to protect the community he serves and the complex variety of children in his care. But no matter.

At a recent gathering in Missoula, a featured attorney was asked what school board members should do if a superintendent doesn’t meet their wishes.

“Shoot him,” the attorney said.

The comment was made – and received – in jest, the attorney later disclaimed, a pun spun from his earlier advice to fire insubordinate superintendents.  

So now “equity” is offensive and the advice to shoot a man holding a position you’ve just spent an entire meeting denigrating is witty? Lord, give me strength.

Last summer children joined their parents in the slot designated for local Democrats in Great Falls’ Independence Day parade. Proudly waving their American flags, they began to walk down the main street of their community, handing out candy to other children along the way. But before long, they were greeted by grown men lunging out of the crowd to jeer and shake their fists at them.

“Losers!” the men shouted, “Get out of our town!” 

This treatment continued at various points along the parade route. Shaken, tearful, the children clutched their flags to their chests and walked the rest of the route like zombies, their smiles gone, their eyes downcast.

It was Desmond Tutu’s passing that compelled me to put these observations in writing. Last week I listened to an interview with him before apartheid ended, when he felt there was no hope of equity in South Africa without international pressure. The interviewer asked him why the tactics used so successfully to raise awareness of racial injustice in the United States would not work in his country.

“You need a minimum level of morality” in order for eyes and hearts to be opened, Tutu responded. “When Americans saw the police with clubs and firehoses, the dogs snarling at children, they reacted strongly because they had that level of morality. We don’t have it in South Africa.”

It took centuries for this nation to reach that fundamental level of morality. But unlike wisdom or age, it is not a destination that, once reached, remains securely under our feet. It can be eroded little by little through small acts or altered significantly by large ones. Jan. 6, 2021, was a large one. That day was made possible by many, many small acts that preceded it and continue to occur today.

Maintaining our foothold on morality begins and ends with insisting on a certain level of decency.   If you’re in doubt about where that bar is set, ask a 10-year-old.

“Our students are watching,” the school superintendent in Bozeman said at the end of a meeting over which the hackers’ vile comments hung like a pall. “One of the many things that keeps me up at night is the heavy toll it is taking on our students to grow up in a world full of anger and angst.”

Me too, sir. Me too.

Mary Sheehy Moe is a former state senator, school board member, and city commissioner. She now lives in Missoula.

 

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