In a world filled with a seemingly endless supply of complex issues and challenges which only appear to grow more and more complicated with each passing day nothing could be more alluring than the idea of simple answers, or at the very least simple questions.
Dividing things into two categories, and two categories only, can make any concept feel simple and easy to decide. A or B, tall or short, young or old, rich or poor, queer or straight, pro-pineapple-pizza or anti-pineapple-pizza, the list could go on forever. While there certainly are issues of opinion which can fit into a two camp model the tribal mentality is the ‘either-or’ approach taken to its most dangerous and destructive extreme. And the truly important questions and challenges in our lives are never that simple.
Oversimplifying an idea down to an ‘A or B’ framework can severely limit our ability to thoroughly examine it. Comparisons can be helpful as long as it remains an ‘or’ approach which allows room for discourse and exchange. The danger begins when we let that ‘or’ cease to be a mere category separator and allow it to take on an underlying ‘with me or against me’ stance.
When we start to let our feelings compel us towards confrontation instead of comparison we can end up replacing ‘or’ with ‘vs’.
Conflict is not automatically an evil, in fact it is often necessary. It is a catalyst for change and a crucial part of trouble-shooting ideas and concepts to ensure only the strongest and most viable ones emerge. But conflict and confrontation are not the same things. Conflict is a manifestation of disagreement, confrontation is a manifestation of aggression and attack.
Confrontation is both a key component and primary method of the tribal mentality. The ‘us vs them’ paradigm in overdrive wherein there is no room for examination, compromise, understanding, or even discourse. Only attack , defense, victory, and defeat.
While confrontation can also at times be necessary it is a blunt instrument the sole purpose of which is to stop something from occurring. The ‘sledge hammer’ can stop a problem from getting worse but if we try to use it as an ongoing problem solving tool we end up destructively creating more problems instead.
To use a simple example preference of pizza toppings is a characteristic, a behavior, a dietary preference. If my thinking about it becomes tribal the first thing to happen is it ceases to be simply a preference but becomes ‘the right way’ to eat pizza. Opinion becomes judgement.
Next all those who agree with me are granted membership in my tribe and an ‘us’ is formed providing solidarity, reinforcement, and affirmation. Then all those who disagree no longer have ‘differing opinions’ they are ‘wrong’. If we’re feeling generous or forgiving we might view them as ‘misguided’ or ‘uninformed’ but that will disappear the instant they refuse to show any willingness to see the error of their ways.
Finally the ‘with us or against us’ principle brings the ‘vs’ into the mix and the other tribe is no longer simply wrong, they become the enemy. And this is where the truly destructive danger of the tribal mentality lies.
Firstly it reduces a person’s sense of identity down to being fully defined by a singular characteristic or opinion, one of the most grievous oversimplifications there is.
Not only does this create impossibly tunneled vision but it also exponentially explodes the stakes with regards to that singular, and now defining, trait.
We’re not just talking about my preference of pizza toppings we’re talking about my entire sense of self-worth, my place in this world, the purpose and meaning of my life. There can be no room for questioning or compromise. Even the slightest change would be a threat to the nature of my existence so I am no longer able to examine or discuss it, I must defend my very soul.
Secondly, and most toxic, once the other tribe has become the enemy we start to paint ‘us’ as the heroes and ‘them’ as the villains. Our tribe becomes the embodiment of all that is right, just, virtuous, and true.
The other tribe becomes everything wrong, evil, and corrupt.
The moment we begin to dehumanize those who don’t agree with us, the moment they cease to be different or wrong but become lesser, we give the worst parts of our nature tacit permission to treat ‘them’ as horrendously as our artificially ramped up existential fear feels driven to.
Our eyes, ears, and minds slam shut and we start to view ‘them’ as being beneath even basic respect or consideration.
We humans are capable of the most incredible genius and grace but our history is also replete with examples of the horrendous atrocities we can be capable of when we allow ourselves to view others as lesser. A list, sadly, we are still adding to.
Lastly, and most tragically, with everything so emotionally over-charged and existentially threatened membership and survival of the tribe eventually becomes paramount and all consuming. The original idea or concept which formed the tribes in the first place ends up long forgotten.
Tribal identity leaves little to no room for any actual ideology, and definitely no discussion or examination of such. All that matters is the defense and victory of ‘us’ and the defeat of ‘them’.
A Hatfield encountering a McCoy will shoot to kill on sight simply because they’re a McCoy and vice versa, no other reason is needed.
Fearing what we don’t understand is a natural reaction. The only way to conquer that fear is to learn and understand. The tribal mindset not only removes all space for such learning to occur it also exaggerates the fear to seemingly life and death proportions forcing us deeper and deeper into the tribe to retreat from the threat.
The tragic irony of the tribal mindset is that in a reflexive desire to escape from fear we retreat into a perspective which seems to offer strength but in fact blinds and limits us while exacerbating the fear forcing us to retreat even further.
So how do we avoid the trap?
We constantly check ourselves. We make sure we are actually listening and not simply dismissing. We give ourselves, and each other, permission to feel fear over things we don’t understand but we push ourselves to learn and understand more. We keep the conversations about the actual issues and ideas at hand and skip the blame game portion of the tribal stand-off rhetoric staying focused on the actual problem itself.
And most importantly we refuse to let anyone seduce us into joining an ‘us’ only to be ramped up and marched against a ‘them’. Those who seek to abuse their positions of power are more than happy to keep us divided, distracted, and embroiled in blindly blaming one another. But those ‘vs’ mongers can only infect us if we let them, so let’s just not.