Dave’s Desk@Ditch: Tribalism & Surviving Our Own Humanity

As many of us have witnessed these past several years, a polarization of sorts has permeated not only our country, but much of the global population. At the moment, this doesn’t appear to ebbing anytime soon. I think it’s safe to say that the root cause of this phenomena can primarily be traced to a handful of mitigating factors, not limited to the ascension of one socio-political faction or another. 

No matter what the motives might be behind this trajectory, they fail to take into consideration one critical component — the survival of our own humanity.

Some might say that’s a bit hyperbolic, but I beg to differ. Through industrialization and the advancement of various technologies, our species is quite capable of destroying itself many times over, and I’m not just referring to nuclear means, though that may be the most obvious. 

Globally, with dictatorships and similar power brokers on the rise, how much validity we should give to the decades-old theory of Mutually Assured Destruction (a military concept that armament would serve as a deterrent for the use of nuclear weapons)? I’m sorry to say this is rather appropriate at this point in time.

Much of a democratic society’s success is often predicated on some basic understanding and respect for opposing viewpoints. Where democracy often goes off the rails is when those foundations are completely ignored, leading to a detachment or severance of simple processes such as communication with one another. 

Unfortunately, this is where we find ourselves today, or as Gordon Heltzel and Kristen Laurin summarize in a recent piece posted in the Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences: “The rise of polarization over the past 25 years has many Americans worried about the state of politics. This worry is understandable; up to a point, polarization can help democracies, but when it becomes so vast, such that entire swaths of the population refuse to consider each other’s views, this thwarts democratic methods for solving societal problems.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in U.S. politics, where tribalism and demagoguery have become de rigueur. There’s a zero-sum game being played out among high-level political office-holders that has trickled down to large segments of the population, where it manifests in all types of behaviors. When this game is taken to its extreme, competing groups find themselves fighting an all-out war against one another, and compromise or possible negotiation are looked upon as betrayal.

George Packer, staff writer at The New Yorker magazine puts it this way: “We live in a time of tribes. Not of ideologies, parties, groups, or beliefs — these don’t convey the same impregnability of political fortifications, or the yawning chasms between them. American politics today requires a word as primal as “tribe” to get at the blind allegiances and huge passions of partisan affiliation. Tribes demand loyalty, and in return they confer the security of belonging.” 

Just how far are we as a country willing to accept the current paradigm of abject tribalism? Only time will tell. History has proven that there will be no shortage of power brokers with unlimited financial backing, ready to jump in as crises, man-made or otherwise, unfold. Such critical issues include global warming, immigration, racial injustice and financial inequity, to name but a few.

In a piece written for the online site The Conversation, Arash Javanbakht, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Wayne State University says: “Tribalism is the biological loophole that many politicians have banked on for a long time; tapping into our fears and tribal instincts. When building tribal boundaries between “us” and “them,” some politicians have managed very well to create virtual groups of people that do not communicate, and hate without even knowing each other.”

By reducing our political affiliation to absolutisms, we miss out on the opportunity to promote healthy amounts of free thought and debate that are inherently infused within our vibrant communities. At the tribal level, folks become highly emotional and less logical, with fear-based motives often being propagated by those seeking or retaining power. Subsequently, a ridiculous amount of time, energy and money is then spent on sustaining this unified front, with non-stop media pundits all-too-willing to exploit and perpetuate this narrative. 

Or as Packer concluded in his piece for The New Yorker on the topic of tribes: “They’re badges of identity, not of thought. In a way, they make thinking unnecessary, because they do it for you, and may punish you if you try to do it yourself.” 

Call me an outlier, but that’s not how I envision our humanity surviving.

Dave Davis

Dave Davis teaches preschool for the Head Start program at the Children’s Museum of the East End in Bridgehampton. Two of his pieces, “Always Be the Water” and “All Things Considered,” appear in the 2016 anthology “On Montauk: A Literary Celebration.”

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