Human beings are tribal. We are hard wired to identify with a limited group of people (who are ‘like us’) and against everyone else who is ‘different.’ The ‘different ones become the ‘other’ the ‘enemy who we must band together to fight. In his wonderful Ted Talk in November, Jonathan Haidt describes this tribalism as ‘Me against my brother. My brother and me against my cousin. And all three of us against the world.’ As this description suggests, tribalism is not a rational, analytic position, but a visceral and instinctual response to danger; real or imagined.
This basic human tendency to create a common identity in the face of external dangers could easily have given some early humans a survival advantage. ‘Us against the world.’ might have allowed small bands of people to act quickly and powerfully together to deal with real dangers to the group. Members of the tribe might be filled with strong emotions that gave them powers and the fearlessness to risk their lives for the sake of their tribe. Groups of humans that were more laid back and welcoming to the world may have lost the struggle to survive and did not pass their genes on to the next generation.
Throughout history, finding a (or creating) common enemy has always been a way of bringing people together. On a personal level, we do this when we gossip about one another. We bond together when we discuss the real or imagined faults of others. The ‘truth’ of what we are saying, the degree to which it corresponds to a verifiable reality, has no impact on the closeness we may experience in the activity itself.
This observation about humans tendency to organize around a common ‘other’ or common ‘enemy’ is readily apparent these days in the activities and spirit of the liberal part of our country. Many liberal commentators have called this activation of the left, the silver lining in Trump’s Electoral College victory. I myself have been uplifted by the Women’s March, the protests against the Immigration Executive Order, contributions to the ACLU. Suddenly people who share my worldview are caring enough to do more than talk.
Trump himself is a master at activating these tribal tendencies. He effortlessly and constantly speaks of ‘the others’ that we need to protect ourselves from. His focus on the wall he wants to build between the US and Mexico is a perfect illustration of this point, as is the Executive Order on immigration. The reason many Americans are feeling economically stressed and left behind is that there are too many people not like us in the country and coming into the country. We must unite against ‘those people’ who are taking away our security and prosperity.
When our anxiety is channeled against one person or one group, we actually feel some relief. We are no longer alone. The problem is not us, it is ‘those people.’ We turn shoulder to shoulder to join together to take action.
How do we use the energy of our tribal arousal to take action against Donald Trump’s very real threats to the democratic foundations of our country while not being carried away in the very thing we are fighting? (to be continued…)