21 Questions for 2020: #2

  1. How can we draw on the positive aspects of the human propensity to tribalism?

In these early years of the 21st century, we are talking a lot about how our sense of community has become fractured, or even “polarized,” meaning that people have retreated into opposing ideological camps that are pitted against each other for dominance, influence and power. 

Looking into history we can see that this is a common pattern for humans; we seem to gravitate towards social relationships based on in-groups that depend on out-groups for their social cohesion. This was as true among the pre-colonial indigenous tribes of the Americas and Africa as it was for the warlords of early modern Europe. 

Within the in-groups, in the past we seemed to have naturally formed clans based on family ties, with careful rules governing marriages that prevented too much inbreeding. In patriarchal societies, girls and women became property to be bartered and sold in marriage. Boys were trained as the heirs. 

Today, in the United States at least, we live with an uncomfortable mixture of these ancient social practices and the new nuclear family anomie. We still have in-groups and out-groups, but in our widely diverse society they are based on differences like race, ethnicity and religion, as well as class and social customs. 

Women may no longer be bartered and sold in marriage, but we still wield less social power and command less respect than men. There is a lot of physical and sexual abuse of women and children going on today, the isolation of the nuclear family leaving women and children without ancient sources of clan and tribal support. 

In an every-person- (or at least every-small-family) for-themselves world, we face a crisis of isolation that manifests in: 

  • the turn to intoxication (the opioid crisis); 
  • the rise of online groups demanding ideological allegiance (the far-right white supremacists); 
  • the acting out of blind rage at a hostile world (the mass shooting epidemic); 
  • the self-destructive turning inward of rage and frustration (the anxiety/depression/eating disorder/cutting/suicide crisis); 
  • and people constantly crashing through the frayed social safety net, leading to the ever-growing legions of homeless encampments and prisons.

In short, we live in a grim world. 

Is it worse than in the past? All of the elements I’ve mentioned above have always been present, at least in the recent history of the dominant western culture that has given rise to the present-day USA. Scrooge’s famous 19thcentury line when confronted with poverty, “Are there no workhouses?” could be said irascibly by any number of wealthy social conservatives today, starting with the tycoon currently in the White House. 

What those tycoons would prefer that we don’t realize a rather simple truth: that today in America, there is enough wealth to feed, clothe and house every citizen. There is enough money to create new eco-friendly housing, agricultural and transportation systems. There is plenty of wealth to rethink and renew our educational systems, adapting to the current reality of the 21st century. 

The wealth is there. The problem is that it’s being hoarded by a few individuals and their families; and what’s left in the public treasury is being disproportionately funneled into the military industrial complex, which increases the wealth of these few individuals and families, who control the industries. 

That’s capitalism at work in a society governed by fear, greed and corruption.

I am well aware that there was never a rosy golden age of humanity, when we all sang songs together around the campfire and made love, not war. I know that there are bonafide evil types out there against whom defenses must be erected. 

However, in this day and age, the evil is erupting within our own borders. We have a president who calls white supremacist thugs “very fine people” and thinks nothing of tearing babies from their parents’ arms and putting them in cages. This is happening now, in our America. 

And there is much more cruelty going on, less visibly: the dismantling of the food security system for the poor; the debt bondage of college and graduate students; the radical, perpetual insecurity of the gig economy; the outrageous over-pricing of the health care system, sending sick people into bankruptcy. Not to mention the rampant destruction of the natural world. 

Those who want to succeed in this society—‘success’ measured as earning enough money to keep your own family secure—must turn a blind eye to the suffering of others. A hardening of the heart is necessary, simply in order to function in this cold, cut-throat society. 

It is very possible that everything I’ve described above is only going to get worse as the 21st century progresses. The squeeze on individuals will produce more outward- and inward-facing anger and despair, leading to more violence and suicides; there will be more repression in the form of “workhouses”: prisons and detention camps, and schools that resemble these more and more. It’s possible that the natural world will continue to be trashed, leading to the massive destabilization of the climate that will bring us all down.

But I want to give myself permission to dream of a different future, building on the positive aspects of our propensity to tribalism. 

Let us imagine a world where the wealth that is provided for us by our Mother Earth is fairly divided among all her children, including the more-than-human world who have just as much right as humans to live a good life. 

Let us imagine a world where the weak are cared for by the strong. Where laws fairly protect everyone, including Gaia herself. Where nurturing is valued as highly as warring, and children are raised to be responsible stewards of the world around them, instead of takers and destroyers. 

I imagine that people will continue to gravitate together based on family clans, geographic and cultural bonds, and/or ideological affinity, just as we have in the past. There is nothing wrong with this, as long as we can overcome repressive customs, such as the subordination of women, along with the tendency to enrich ourselves at the expense of others. 

The Earth and the Sun freely offer enough energy and material resources to support all of us. What’s needed is a new social system for equitable distribution and protection of those who are currently being left out in the cold and abused, including our four-legged, winged and finned relations. 

Can we imagine a new tribalism for the 21st century, with a tent and a net big enough to support us all? 

And can we move swiftly from imagining it to making it happen, at least in our own corners of the world? 

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4 Comments

    • Jennifer Browdy, Ph.D.

       /  January 19, 2020

      Me too, Diane! Amplifying the general distress is not helping. Of course, once in a while I can’t resist a lament or a wail of outrage…but like you, I’m trying to focus on the good I can do and be, and trust that the ripples will go out….

      Reply
  1. Love this question, Jennifer – I think it has to do with moving past our fears and comfort zones. There are many local groups working on this like The People’s Supper – where we deliberately invite those who are not ‘like us’ to sit down, break bread, and learn to speak with one another in kindness. It’s a bigger stretch for adults who’ve been raised in a world where our circles get smaller and smaller. Deni Elliot (practical ethics) talks about our moral community where we decide who is/isn’t worthy of our compassion. Our work is to expand our moral community to – eventually – include all beings. In the meantime, we need to teach our children well, by our examples and not our words.

    Reply
    • Jennifer Browdy, Ph.D.

       /  January 19, 2020

      Yes, this idea of breaking bread with people with whom we may disagree is so important. Kindness and respect, across all kinds of differences, are our only sane way forward as a species. Will we learn this crucial lesson in time?

      Reply

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