When Tribes Go Bad

Trump Rally Protesters

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I spend my life and energy extolling the beauty and benefits of tribes. I use the word “tribe” as a hybrid between a literal and metaphorical idea that describes our participation with certain kinds of groups. When we find other people with whom we share space, desire, and a willingness to work for shared outcomes, we experience energy, meaning and potential. I call that kind of group a tribe. Tribes that ingeniously take what they have and turn it into progressive and positive change, create alchemy in the world. This is a delight to observe, and even more delightful to experience.  Tribes change the world for good everyday in so many varied ways.

There is, however, a danger that always lurks near any tribe. Subtle at first, and outright destructive if left unchecked, this danger feeds off of two ideas: Idea Number One: Our tribe is special beyond all other tribes and therefore superior to all other tribes. Idea Number Two: All other tribes that don’t align with the first idea are at the very least wrong, and at the very worst, our enemy.

In a word, tribes go bad when they embrace any form of fundamentalism.

For tribes that want to avoid such potential fundamentalism and danger, they must consistently ask an important question:

Is there anything in our current behavior that reveals–subtle though it may be–the seeds of superiority over other tribes or denigration of other tribes?

There are places everywhere in the world where we see full blown fundamentalism and its destructive path. Yet, what might be harder to see are the early signs that our tribe is headed down the destructive road. Those early signs of destructive fundamentalism include a subtle, and growing not-so-subtle, sense of superiority (over others)  and denigration (of others).

When a tribe displays the early signs of fundamentalism it is often in reaction to the  fundamentalism of another tribe. Americans see the destructive power of a radicalized group like ISIS and it shocks us. And it should. But how we respond to Muslims will determine whether we become the very thing we abhor. How we respond to a woman who wears a shirt that says, “I come in peace,” and quietly stands to protest fundamentalism, will show us if we are headed down the destructive path ourselves.

Ironically, the tribe that believes it is protecting itself from another destructive tribe often uses similar destructive (yet more subtle) tactics in their defense. In this way, they try to fight fire with fire. This surely can only lead to more trouble because then multiple tribes all have fundamentalist-oriented sub-tribes that flaunt superiority and spread denigration.

In order to evaluate if a tribe is edging toward superiority and denigration, they might ask,  “If we continue with our current behavior, and in fact if we intensify our current behavior, where might it lead us and others?” Or they could ask, “What has happened to the world when other tribes before us consistently displayed the behavior we are now displaying?” Of course, and this is the bad news, it is hard for sub-tribes to answer these questions due to well, superiority and denigration.

I recognize that the issues in today’s world are complex and there is much at stake. I recognize there are real threats in the world, threats that mean to destroy and kill. I recognize that compassion must be integrated with wisdom, appropriate caution and due diligence. But I also recognize that when the seeds of fundamentalism–superiority and denigration–make inroads into a tribe, there is as much of a danger within that tribe as there is without.

Finally, I still believe in the beauty and benefits of tribes.

2016-01-09T14:54:03-04:00

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Written by Dave Fleming