I do not like the term ‘tribalism’ and I do not subscribe to the concept that people gravitate by nature toward others who match their skin colour, religious preferences, gender identity, etc, to the exclusion of all others. This nation has been a salad bowl of different nationalities, religions and ethnicities for centuries now and any notion of ‘tribe’ has surely been diluted to the point of extinction by now. That said, I know that some strongly believe in tribalism and live their lives accordingly … denigrating others who do not look and think exactly as they do. And in truth, it seems that calling it tribalism is simply an excuse for bigotry in all its forms … racism, homophobia, misogyny, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and more. It seems to me that as long as people consider themselves a part of a ‘tribe’ and adhere to the rites and rituals of that ‘tribe’, there is no hope for bringing all people together, for President Biden’s dream of unification.
Along these lines, New York Times’ Op-Ed columnist Frank Bruni had an interesting and thought-provoking newsletter yesterday. Take a look and let me know what you think …
Our Tribalism Will Be the Death of Us
One of the most consistently intelligent and unbiased sources of news about Covid has been The Times’s newsletter The Morning, anchored by David Leonhardt, who fully respects science while being cleareyed about what it hasn’t figured out yet, opts for data over diatribes and tends toward understatement in an age of hyperbole. So when I see that his focus on a given day is the pandemic, I perk up and pay special heed.
That was the case with his analysis earlier this week of the first pandemic-related poll that The Morning commissioned. Its big takeaway, more confirmation than revelation, was distilled in its headline: “Two Covid Americas.” The paragraphs following that demonstrated anew that while a virus isn’t partisan, many Americans’ responses to this one have been emphatically so.
“Millions of Republican voters have decided that downplaying Covid is core to their identity as conservatives,” David wrote, elaborating on what the poll showed. “Millions of Democrats have decided that organizing their lives around Covid is core to their identity as progressives.” And so, he explained, all of those Americans filter information selectively through their political affiliations, which also determine their triage of concerns.
He wasn’t equating a Covid denier or vaccine paranoiac with someone whose mask is more badge than barrier. Nor am I. He was making a wider point about passions and prejudices. He was drawing necessary attention to the intense tribalism of American life now.
The pandemic, which could and should have brought us together, has instead driven us further apart, exacerbating our tribalism, which is an enemy of real progress but a friend to all sorts of dysfunction, all manner of meanness. The irrational obstructionism in Congress and lawmakers’ taste for vitriol and vengeance are tribalism run amok. Cancel culture, be it on the left or right, is a tribal impulse, not merely abetted but amplified by the technology of our time.
We humans are inherently tribal creatures. I get that. I’ve read and remember enough history and headlines not to be surprised. But the work of civilization — the advance of it — involves containing that tribalism, controlling it, moderating it with grander and more unifying ideals.
That work in America is currently in a state of crisis. You saw that at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. You see it in public opinion surveys that document how darkly Democrats and Republicans regard each other. You see it almost hourly on Fox News, which casts Joe Biden not as a flawed president but as a doddering autocrat or socialist puppet turning the United States into a crime-besieged hellscape. You see it every minute — no, every second — on social media.
I’m obviously talking in particular about political tribalism, which, fascinatingly, is growing just as Americans’ attachment to organized religion is waning. Political observers have noted that and mulled the consequences. One of this tribalism’s obvious drivers is many Americans’ substitution of investment and involvement in physical communities with investment and involvement in online ones that more efficiently sort them into cliques of the rigidly like-minded. Another is many people’s use of the internet not to check or challenge their thinking but to validate it.
I also sense that many Americans, overwhelmed by the volume of competing information that comes at them and the furious pace of its delivery, outsource their judgment to a tribe and its leaders. Those leaders give them certainty in place of ambiguity, definitive answers in lieu of smarter questions. They’re liberated from genuine inquiry and freed from doubt.
In the short term, that’s a simpler, easier way to live. And in the long term?
I fear that we’re in the process of finding out.