Tribalism: Where Does It Lead?

By Frank Blechman

I have a former colleague, a professor at George Mason University, who has been writing recently about neo-tribalism. He describes this as the way groups of people bond together over common values, experiences (including vicarious ones, such as enjoying the same entertainment), and come to view themselves as a nation. In this clump, those who are part of the nation are family–honest, caring, and trustworthy. Those not in the nation are, by definition, not trustworthy, caring, or honest. As these boundaries harden, what were once just differences of preference or opinion become existential threats to the nation’s and thence the member’s very existence.

I have been writing him saying there doesn’t seem to be anything “neo” about this. It seems pretty traditional tribalism; roles formerly held by ethnicity, race, class, and religion. The only difference is that tribes today often live in cyberspace instead of physical space. That makes it easier for individuals to join, but not necessarily easier to leave.

How do we actually create cross-cutting ties that will soften the distrust and fear characterizing our political rhetoric today?

Both of us have begun pondering what remedies might ease some of these hard lines, reducing the possibility that tribal identities will lead to social violence. While we both appreciate President-Elect Joe Biden’s rhetoric about the need to unify around a common American identity, neither of us yet has a solid vision of what that identity is supposed to be. Clearly, we can all be for “the Constitution” without agreeing what that means. We can pledge allegiance to a piece of paper (the Constitution) or a piece of cloth (a flag) without feeling related to the person next to us doing the same. Policies to fight disease, educate our children, and slow global climate change might be beneficial for many people, but I don’t think they’ll break down the hard walls we see today.

How do we actually create cross-cutting ties that will soften the distrust and fear characterizing our political rhetoric today?

From ancient times to the 20th century, colonialists facing traditional tribes used a carrot-and-stick approach. Simultaneously, they crushed traditional indigenous tribal leadership (social, political, religious), and at the same time tried to show that the colonial way offered better real rewards than the old way. “Want health welfare prosperity and power (kid)? Come with us. We deliver.”

That approach wasn’t as successful as colonialists hoped. It turned out “civilization” and “modernity” weren’t more satisfying than the old ways. The new connected way was just as brutal, oppressive, and repetitive as the isolated tribal lifestyle. For folks who valued closeness to their people and their gods, it offered no substitute at all. 

I don’t think we can lure or force current tribalists (QAnon believers, libertarian survivalists, globalists, or isolationists) to leave the comfort of their cocoons with bribes or threats. My own experience is that we have to build bridges from where people are. . . . As you came through the door to my office, you would see a large sign on the wall directly opposite, behind my desk. It said, “I MIGHT BE WRONG.” . . . . [And there was a] sign over the door you might see if you turned around to leave. It said, “I MIGHT BE RIGHT.”

Based on that experience, I don’t think we can lure or force current tribalists (QAnon believers, libertarian survivalists, globalists, or isolationists) to leave the comfort of their cocoons with bribes or threats. My own experience is that we have to build bridges from where people are. In a column here several months ago, I told a story I want to repeat now. When I taught at George Mason, I had an office where I met with students and clients for whom I consulted. As you came through the door to my office, you would see a large sign on the wall directly opposite, behind my desk. It said, “I MIGHT BE WRONG.” Some people told me that if I wanted to make money as a consultant or a teacher, that wasn’t a great opening line. I’d concede that their advice was good, but would then point to a sign over the door you might see if you turned around to leave. It said, “I MIGHT BE RIGHT.” I was always willing to acknowledge the first if the visitor would accept the second. With that principle established, I always found there was plenty to talk about, and enough work to do.

I believe that we have to start any conversation with another tribe by asserting the first, rather than fighting it. Trumpistas, supremacists, even neo-Nazis will never be persuaded by my arguments about why I am right and they are wrong. Threats or bribes will get me nowhere. Just last week in this space, I wrote about how we have to accept that they might know something we need to hear (hard as that might be to imagine). Openness and listening might be the key.

It won’t be quick. It has taken us two generations, at least 40 years (and 40 nights) to create these tribal enclaves. It will surely take either an extraordinary event or a lot of time to create a new national unity. Since that extraordinary event might be an existential threat to all of us, I’ll suggest we try the slow, patient, respectful approach first.

 

 



Categories: Issues

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