Many people speak of a “tribalism” that seems to be on the rise in America and in our communities these days. By this they appear to mean, for the most part, a bipolar set of group identities, locked in conflict with one another and whose boundaries are based in large part on antipathy toward the other. In other words, two “tribes” each internally united by their hatred of the other.
I thought I would examine the apparent mindsets of these two groups. (I recognize there are not only two such groups but I am responding to the dominant narrative.) My circle of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances spans both groups both in terms of social media exposure but also, more important, personal face-to-face interactions. I wanted to get a sense of the internal story of a generic member of each. It is relatively easy to articulate, from each perspective, the case against the other (indeed Axios reports on a study from Survey Monkey that indicates each group sees the other as primarily “ignorant” and “spiteful”). But I wanted to get a sense of the best positive case each group might make to itself about itself, and how that would then interface with the story they might tell about the other.
Collective security drives the story this group tells about itself. The world is dangerous and we must band together in order to survive.
In a world where our survival depends upon cohesion, what is our strongest imperative? Maintain order. We value order above all, and shun disorder. There have to be rules, they must be followed, internal enemies must be overcome.
This organizing concept of order can be seen in the story this group tells about its rivals. They are a “mob.”
This organizing concept can also be seen in the virtue signals that group members use to reinforce their group membership. In everyday interactions, it is easy to see exaggerated displays of deference to protocol, reinforcement of hierarchy, expressions of opposition to protest, and statements of loyalty to authority which often serve as evidence of piety.
This group’s story rests on being treated fairly. In a dangerous world in which we must work together in order to survive, I must know I am not being taken advantage of by those with more power in the group.
How does this translate into a driving value that we share and propagate? Demonstrate compassion. We show compassion above all, and shun meanness. People must be treated fairly, that means especially the vulnerable. Inequitable outcomes must be corrected.
The story this group tells about their enemy group: they are “hateful” people.
The virtue signals people in this group deploy are similarly easy to see: exaggerated displays of intra-group empathy, expressions of guilt about one’s privilege, expressions of opposition to “hate,” and displays of anger at perceived injustice towards other marginalized subgroups.
Most of my professional work is aimed at undermining this polarized way of looking at what is a much more nuanced landscape. For instance, it is simplistic to think there are only two such “tribes” and to treat them as monolithic. Note, too, that the fundamental drivers of each group’s story are universal: all human beings want to be treated fairly, and all human beings need collective security. So it is not strictly correct to say that there are “order” people and “compassion” people. These are constructed identity groups.
However, I still feel it can be useful conceptually to examine the two competing self-mythologies. They are, after all, the stories we tell ourselves. I need to understand and empathize with people’s starting points before I can see them as whole beings.