by Ruby Liles
Photo by Eesha Gudiseva
Tribalism: once you understand it, you won’t be able to stop noticing it.
Remember the other week when Rev. Bush talked in chapel about the Baader Meinhof Phenomenon? Given both that half the school wasn’t there that day and that the number of people who can actually recall its content is getting smaller and smaller, here’s a refresher. Stanford professor Arnold Zwicky put into words this weird experience we all seem to have every once in a while “in which a concept or thing you just found out about suddenly seems to crop up everywhere.”
For Rev. Bush, it was trees. She read a book about trees and suddenly that became all she could notice. The thing that’s been dominating my consciousness as of late is a little less concrete and will take a little more explaining: tribalism.
This all started when I read an article appropriately titled “Tribalism: The Rising Phenomenon You Can’t Unsee.” The author recounts an experience she had at a “cool bar” buzzing with minimalist chit chat and the “Drive” soundtrack playing in the background. As a newcomer to town, her friend had invited her to get drinks with some other locals. Even though a bar experience is probably not super relatable to the majority of us, we’ve all experienced this in some form — like getting coffee. Maybe you, a Germantown or East Memphis-er, are invited to get coffee with your friend and her “cool” Midtown posse. Already the outsider, you’re feeling nervous and vulnerable. After some small talk and hipster rhetoric, they start warming up to you — but that all goes south when the barista brings your table the drinks. Cold brew after matcha tea after French roast drip, their hipster drinks hit the table until the pretentious succession is interrupted by your venti frappalappadingdong with low-fat whip making its way from the server’s self-righteous hands to your spot at the table. It, and subsequently you, are met with the beady eyes of judgement. This drink, despite being both fun, delicious, and not an immediate threat to anyone at the table, isn’t “cool” enough for this clique. But more importantly, the person attached to this trivial object — in this case, you — isn’t “cool” enough for this clique. This is tribalism.
Maybe you’ve been the outsider before in a circumstance like this, but you’ve probably also been the tribe. No matter your role in this phenomenon, the fact that we can all recall a memory in which a situation like this has played out reveals a general truth about humanity that translates to every sector of our lives: humans feel more comfortable placing artificial values around specific preferences. Being open to, much less welcoming, other ideas is, to say the least, uncomfortable.
The minute I finished reading this article, I jumped down to the comments section. Not to my surprise, an internet war had already broken out, with harsh and belittling judgements fired at every opposing viewpoint in sight. The irony here is pertinent: if we can deny our tribalist tendencies not even in the comments section of an article calling them out, can we ever overcome them?
Day after day, I started noticing the pervasive trend of tribalism everywhere in my life. In my summer reading, practiced demon Screwtape writes an entire letter to his nephew Wormwood on the value of the human belief that their views are the only ones, and that everyone else cannot be fully trusted. In his words, “Suspicion often creates what it suspects.”
On the first day of school, we juniors all read David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water,” which warns against operating on the “default setting” that deters us from “consider[ing] possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable.” That inclines us to believe that we, and correspondingly our tribe, are “the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.”
Then in my AP Government class, James Madison in “Federalist Paper 10” had a bone to pick with factions: the inclination to dissent “sown in the nature of man” has “divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for their common good. The most frivolous and fanciful distinctions” — a coffee order, for instance — “have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.”
Just last week as Americans everywhere were reeling from the death of John McCain, I stumbled upon a farewell letter he wrote advising how to endure ‘these challenging times.’ Even this senator whose views have never lined up perfectly with mine had some wisdom to offer about what we do with our disagreements. He wrote, “We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.”
I’ve been Baader Meinhof-ing all over the place for the past few weeks, and as I’ve detailed so far, tribalism has been revealing itself to me in pretty grandly articulated ways. But more importantly, it shows up again and again, every day of my life. Aloud at the lunch table when we teenage girls can’t help but be cliquey, when I take a break from the conversation to look at my phone buzzing with news of the most recent petty internet feud, when I come home and read the news, when I go to a football game on Friday night, and then still at dinner afterwards, and so on and so on until tribalism becomes so benign in its frequency that we either stop noticing or stop caring.
My personal encounters with cliquish and tribalist attitudes have been, for the most part, pretty inconsequential. But there’s a whole other end of the spectrum that sets the stage for seriously consequential ends. A particularly relevant example of tribalism right now is the separation crisis at the border — arbitrary markers and distinctions like party affiliation have taken precedence over even the most basic and universal moral code: do not hurt kids.
I’ve spent the entirety of this article pointing out the flaws with the tribalist culture we operate in, but I truly do believe in the importance of strong communities. They can provide support in hard times and do make the individuals that comprise them the best versions of themselves. But there’s a trick to finding a balance between the parts of communities that bring us closer and those that beget and dispose othering.
Because in all honesty, where is the value in othering? What deep-seeded value do cold brew and matcha hold that are so absent from their uncivilized cousin, the frappuccino? Isn’t it ridiculously naive to blindly support any and all of your party policy only because it is the policy of your party? There is none, there is none, and yes.