We humans are a tribal bunch.
We seem to be designed that way (see here); and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. We are hard-wired to find community, common cause, and a measure of identity within particular groups. There are:
Evangelicals, atheists, vegans, hunters, gamers, naturopaths, NRA members, Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Socialists, teamsters, doulas, environmentalists, and perhaps most cult-like of all: CrossFitters.
But if you stay in your tribe long enough, one thing is certain: It’s going to be wrong. And not just on some minor point. Given the fallibility of humans and the tendency of groups toward corruption, chaos, and dogmatism, your tribe is going to err on something important, and in a relatively widespread fashion.
Which raises the question: What do you do then?
As far as I can tell, there are three common responses:
Perhaps the most frequent human tactic when facing embarrassing or threatening data is to simply deny it. “Smoking can’t cause cancer! My uncle Ernie’s 97 and he’s a human chimney!” “And No! My knee injuries are not because of Crossfit; they’re probably genetic; or the work of Russian trolls!” “#FakeNews.”
Similarly, the choice to just stay silent on one’s tribal errors can also be denial.
But if one does this long enough, the result can be devastating. Before long, you forfeit credibility with all but the most Kool-Aid swilling faithful of your tribal kin. And for Christians, that’s Kryptonite for Kingdom building.
Now for number two.
When denial proves impossible, one might simply leave.
In some cases, this is warranted. Some tribes are inherently toxic, while others start good but have their mission so perverted that one must either defect or be forever tainted.
But there are dangers here as well.
As the saying goes: It’s hard to reform organizations that you leave. And if the tribe holds certain true or noble values, then defection can be deleterious. It can simply cede the field to the worst elements within the remaining group.
Likewise, the desire for defection sometimes stems from vengeful and unhealthy motives. “I’ll show them! They just made the wrong kind of enemy!”
Given the human tendency for knee-jerk reactions, we often swing from one form of tribal dogmatism to another. In disgust, we embrace wholesale the opposition, while immediately denying the deep flaws and contradictions in this newfound tribal home. “Anything is better than where I came from,” we say.
In a final twist: some attempt a total defection from mission-driven tribal homes. “I’m just a member of the ‘human tribe’ these days.” Nonsense. If we are hard-wired for these tribal groups, we will either find them or die of loneliness.
When denial or defection are rejected, a final option when confronted with one’s tribal “wrongness” is simply to shift the focus to the flaws of rival tribes. “Yes, yes, we have our problems, but when you look at the alternative… .”
Of course, some tribes are worse than others. The cartel is not the rotary. But when this “Lesser of two evils” logic is used as a distractor from the obvious corruption or error within one’s own tribe, the result is much the same as with denial: The “distractor” loses credibility with all but the most loyal partisans. Again: Kingdom Kryptonite.
One doesn’t put out a fire in the attic by pointing to the smoking ruins of a neighbor’s house; or by simply moving to the basement.
Distraction is denial’s evil twin.
What then is the right response to tribal wrongness?
It depends, of course, on a variety of factors. It doesn’t always mean a snarky airing of one’s public grievances (see here).
But it should probably begin with (1) an acknowledgment of the problem, (2) an awareness of these three coping mechanisms (above), and (3) a refusal to go from “tribe” to “tribalism.”
Now to mix the Kool-Aid for my CrossFit pre-workout. It helps with my genetic knee pain.
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