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The Evolution of Tribalism

Tribes, groups of people, used to be simple. You were born into a group – which may identify by culture or language, geographical origin or status of some kind. You belonged to that tribe by virtue of birth, and you never had to do much beyond avoid outright acts of betrayal. Tribes were comfortable: they were a guarantee of a place in the world, of a support network.

Then, over time, things changed. We did not get rid of tribes: instead, we gradually replaced ancestral tribal affiliations with ideological tribes, tribes that could be joined if you showed the proper zeal for the cause. Once upon a time those tribes were connected to formal religious or national allegiances: rival Protestant movements in Reformation Europe, or Jacobite Scotsmen. These were able to organize bloody conflicts, because they each believed that there could only be one set of Truths. And so they set out to Make Things Right, to prove that everyone else must be wrong.

Out of that contentious cauldron came the idea of freedom and tolerance. Your neighbor who worships another deity might be both stupid and evil, but it is no longer necessary – or even considered polite – to kill him for it. This idea first budded in places like Amsterdam, but its full flowering was in the United States. The Founders tried to do away with the deeply insecure intolerance which treats every “other” person with self-righteous hatred. Make no mistake: being religiously tolerant is in direct contrast with virtually all of human history, and could even be described as deeply unnatural. People fear insecurity, and they do not trust outsiders; they never have. We are told by G-d to “love the stranger,” but few of us ever truly manage it, and none of us manage it consistently.

The road to tolerant tribalism has not been an easy one. Think of classic Irish vs Italian gangs in New York, the distrust between Hispanics and Blacks, atheists and religionists. Witch trials in the 17th century translating into #metoo hatred of men or today’s woke mob unleashed on “white privilege.” Rival tribes resist dissolving into the melting pot, rejecting the fundament of tolerance that built America into the least-ancestrally-tribal land in the history of the world. Though while ancestral tribes can cheerfully hate other groups (without trying to exterminate them), ideological tribes are far more vicious. Like Communists under Stalin or Mao, or those who check for purity of thought among the LGBTQ+, adherents always have to keep proving themselves, and no past performance, no matter how gallant or demonstrative, guarantees a safe position in the future of the movement.

Having lost the underlying core of the American ideology, that each person is endowed with their creator with a soul that is in the image of G-d and thus each person – even our enemy – always has some intrinsic value, we have simultaneously lost the ability to accept that the fact of the existence of other tribes does not threaten who we are, or what we believe. Few people who lack G-d in their lives try – or even feel any moral obligation – to love the stranger. Instead, “Smear the queer” is the order of the day, in every online forum ranging from breastfeeding mothers to climate science. The breakdown of our shared religious underpinnings has led to the breakdown of the tolerance that built America.

Indeed, we have even lost the ability to communicate with people with whom we disagree. Language, an incredible tool for connecting minds separated by culture, space, and time, has become so abused that most people do not even try to understand how other people think. It is so much easier to write off those who disagree with us as being stupid, wrong, or even plainly unacceptable. The last fortress, that of “free speech” is being overrun as I write this, with the term being overwritten to mean precisely the opposite of the sum of its words.

The problem with an ideological tribalism that is no longer moored to Judeo-Christian principles is that it is capable of going in just about any direction, with all aboard the train being carried along for the ride. Thus, we have heard in mainstream media the suggestion that the NRA convention should be bombed, that those who disagree with the climate ideology of the day should be put in concentration camps. And our public schools have become havens for narcissistic hedonists to groom small children by educating them to fixate on every manner of self-obsessive sexual variance. It is not enough that I believe something: I must convince or even coerce everyone else to reaffirm my decisions by joining my tribe and abusing all others.

Among the right, we have seen similar things happen. NeverTrumpers in the main probably never set out to betray the core principles of conservatism. But when they joined/formed the NeverTrump Tribe, Jennifer Rubin, David French and Jonah Goldberg simply lost the plot. Their desperation to be right at any cost has cost them whatever shreds of decency and respect they once possessed. Unmoored ideological tribalism does that to you: you abandon even foundational principles for the sake of remaining within your tribe.

I cannot stand the idea of living in a place and time where everyone who belongs to a different tribe is discounted out of hand. In part this is for purely selfish reasons: I am not ideologically flexible enough to be welcome within any given tribe for very long. But there are more profound reasons: I deeply believe that each person should seek their own relationships and always try to grow. Tribes help inasmuch as they provide a support structure. But tribalism also gets in the way, because it leads people toward compromising what they believe in order to remain accepted within the group.

We have to also acknowledge that the breakdown or corruption of traditional tribes – churches and fraternal organizations, boy scouts and chambers of commerce – has created a vacuum wherein people are truly adrift, desperate to cling to anything that might float past. This is where the transgender trend has been born: unhappy anti-religious narcissists who are desperate to find a sense of belonging that still reaffirms some kind of unique individual value without going so far as to suggest – gasp – that each person has a soul which entails finding value in people whom you know to be bad. The need to belong to a tribe remains, but since all the traditional options have been corrupted or otherwise shown to be morally unacceptable because of “privilege,” the options available are odd indeed – from “cake gender” to tribes based purely on skin color. Sports teams may be the only form of tribal identity that are still considered broadly acceptable, though affiliation with a sports team has no overarching moral benefit.

The dynamic tension between individual, tribe and nation is itself not a bad thing. But as we have seen, tribes are now defined by peculiarly self-centered forms of shared libertinism. The nation and its founding principles are rapidly being discarded. And woe betides any person who seeks a meaningful existence driven by classic notions of good and evil.

[an @iwe and @susanquinn work]

Comments are welcome!

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