Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Downside of Tribes

Seth Godin's book Tribes is one of my favorites, I've referenced it previously here >  "How was your day?" > He's basically making the point that because of technology and globalization, rather than waiting for someone to pick you to lead, now you can pick yourself.  You can start a blog, post on message boards, do kickstarter campaigns, etc. to rally like minded folks and get to work.  It's an empowering message and points to an essential confidence necessary for success in this dynamic global economy.

I would argue that one of the things that makes this possible is our own tribal nature...  we want to be in groups, to identify with others who we think are like us, or who we want to be like.  Some are easy to reflect on - in high school were you a jock or a stoner, a preppy or a metal head, a redneck or a hippy? Who's your favorite team?  Cowboy's or Redskin's?  Hokie or Wahoo? Rebel or Bulldog?  (We used to call them cliques, which frankly I'm more comfortable with as Native Americans, I would argue, have a right to the word tribes and I'm not sure we should be obfuscating with it.)  

Religion is another easy one to reflect on - you're a Christian, they're Muslims, and even further you're a Baptist, they're Methodist, and you give certain values to each.  We take children from a very young age and initiate them into our religions, the rights of passage, the traditions, the songs... we ingrain it by meeting with other members regularly, we practice it daily, we make proclamations about what will happen to us versus them in the afterlife.  And we try to convert others, absolutely convinced that our tribe is correct.

Our clique, we think, says something about who we are... "our" people are hardworking, our people are industrious, our people are talented, flashy, cool, smart, etc.  

It used to be all cliques were localized, yet you could via the radio, or books, etc., aspire to, and learn from other  members/leaders... Country music, for example, was tribal music... Hank Williams Jr. sang:
"We can skin a buck, we can run a trout line, a country boy can survive..."  "I had a good friend in New York City, never called me by my name, just hillbilly... he was killed by a man with a switchblade knife, for $43 my friend lost his life, I'd like to spit some beechnut in that dudes eye, and shoot him with my ole' 45, a country boy can survive..."
Now, however, you can join/lead cliques instantly from all over the world... if there isn't a group of chess loving, classical music aficionado's in your town, there's one somewhere to be found online.

Today's technology offers both the access to recruit or join cliques and, like religion, the ability to engage much more frequently with that clique. Today if you want to engage with other Tennessee Vol fans you can do it 24/7 in online message boards, etc.  Religion is often our strongest clique, and the repetition and constant emersion was one of the reasons, now that emersion is available in many other areas, are we becoming more tribal?  More convinced in our tribes superiority?

Politics today would make it seem so.  Conservatives can listen to Rush Limbaugh, watch Fox News, chat with Tea Party members online, and immerse themselves in "facts" they find on "their" people's websites 24/7.  Then they rally, push, and evangelize and hold politicians accountable for their view of the world.  And we end up with dysfunctional politics at all levels.

Another example I've been intrigued with of late is lifestyle cliques... more specifically diet cliques.  Are you a Vegan?  Vegetarian? Paleo?  Pick any major publication and search for stories on any of those diets and in the comments section you'll see war of words reminiscent of an 8th grader walking through the halls of their rural high school wearing an Izod shirt and penny loafers.  There are documentaries (HERE, HERE as examples), thousands of devoted websites, hundreds of books, all touting the benefits of one diet over the other.  And those who convert become instant evangelicals and, following the model I've suggested, flock to websites, newstories, etc. that confirm their view of the world and then to social media to evangelize.  And for every piece of "research" one group finds about the supremacy of their diet, a group can find others who look at the same research and draw completely different conclusions (see The China Study and the comments below the piece as an example) and the flame wars continue.

There has always been tribalism and wars have been fought amongst tribes for centuries.  But, in many cases, they could also put aside their differences for the common cause (See Braveheart).    Now we see our cliques encroaching on every aspect of our lives, we enter no new venture with what Buddhist would call "Beginner's Mind", we enter with our tribes influence.  We're becoming incapable of discerning the ordinary from the extraordinary and the fact with the bias. When we identify others with a certain clique we dismiss them and their guidance, wisdom, thoughts, and opinions on all other matters.   We're losing the wisdom of the  parable below and hunkering down in our cliques, unable to help our neighbor, convinced of our own self-righteousness -

"Your corn is ripe today; mine will be so tomorrow. 'Tis profitable for us both, that I should labour with you today, and that you should aid me tomorrow. I have no kindness for you, and know you have as little for me. I will not, therefore, take any pains upon your account; and should I labour with you upon my own account, in expectation of a return, I know I should be disappointed, and that I should in vain depend upon your gratitude. Here then I leave you to labour alone; You treat me in the same manner. The seasons change; and both of us lose our harvests for want of mutual confidence and security."--David Hume