From where did the latest spate of tribalism erupt? Like a new volcano, from a previously silent, (hidden from consciousness) mountain, this new ‘hot lava’ has already swept across the political landscape, destroying careers, principles, institutions, alliances, and even a modest respect for an agreed body of facts, as the starting place for an ideological or policy discourse.
This ‘lava’ easily ‘took out’ some dozen-plus moderate, reasonable, and proven Republican candidates from the presidential primary in 2016. It then, fused to other equally if not even more toxic ‘lava’ (read Russia, Wikileaks, Stone, et al) from outside the continental U.S., swept the Democratic candidate off the political stage, leaving only the primary energy source of this lava, a kind of magnetic, enmeshing and volatile cloud of energy that can only be tentatively described as seductive and repulsive at the same time. Powerful magnets, too, depending on their position in relation to the “same pole” or the “opposite pole” will repel or attract.
One of the problems with this “magnetic lava” entry into our political petry dish is that our culture’s preponderant approach to any new influence is to categorize it as a single “entity” and not as a combination or confluence of more than one component. We have adopted a mechanistic, single-cause-effect equation which permits a kind of illusion of control. This “bug” or that “tumor” or this “tendon” or that “eye” is causing the symptom….and if and when we address/remove/ameliorate/medicate/destroy the immediate “cause” of the presenting symptom, we will have done whatever is possible. This approach pertains to our medical theatre; it also applies to our legal system; to a large extent, it has taken root in our education system. And, to a significant degree it is also prevalent as a dominant structure in most of our “real” theatre…protagonist/antagonist conflict impelling the narrative of most of our novels, plays, films and journalism reports.
Only recently, in the west, has there begun to be a consciousness of something complementary to the mechanistic, single-cause-effect equation, at least in some circles of health care in North America….and that is a consciousness, born-out by empirical evidence, of an energy field that attends each human person. Contributing either to the healing process, or conversely, the illness “process”, depending on whether it is in balance, is flowing, is blocked, is too much or too little, this energy field is garnering a growing number of research projects, as well as a growing number of health teams comprising medical practitioners, as well as spiritual healers. We all recognize, accept and even celebrate the basic truth that no presenting “issue” has a single cause, whether that truth pertains to the human body or psyche, or to the broader cultural and political landscape.
Although “energy fields” are finding resonance among the health care profession, the rest of the culture is a long way off from accepting them as an influential component of the initiating causes of political symptoms. Political pundits, historians and political actors continue to seek out and concentrate on the tried and true “single cause” explanation for any situation. More easily managed, “message controlled” (and manipulated), and more readily assimilated by the masses in an age of waves of more information than anyone can either assimilate or digest and comprehend.
Deep thinkers tell us that when we, personally or as a culture, are experiencing anxiety, fear, discombobulation and disorientation, we revert to our default position, whatever may have taken over in what we might call the more primitive period of our lives. Simplify, simplify, simplify….in order to regain a sense of balance and perspective. Anything that appears too complex, too ambiguous and/or too threatening is “parced” into its miniscule components. And, from both the educational founts and the media factories, this kind of reduction prevails.
There are numerous signs of both anxiety and reductions flying around us, many more in the last sixteen or seventeen months. Linked to the simplify obsession is the preference to see our political “leaders” as cardboard cut-outs, mere stereotypes of stick men and women, easily drawn and easily dismissed.
Tribalism, too, needs simple, easily accessed and assimilated messages in order to sustain its power to unite, to bond, and to protect those within its boundaries.
Most of us can likely concur that complexity, that escapes glib explanation and intellectual comprehension, because it resists simplistic reductions, seems to have evaporated from our political discourse. Social media, too, depends on the minimalist ‘tweet’ that cannot and will not capture the nuances or the multiple factors that comprise the history of any public issue. In fact, the ‘tweet’ practitioners are little more than what formerly were headline writers, interested in the maximum punch to arrest the reader, and thereby to magnetize his/her attention to read the following 500+ words of copy.
If there is a surfeit of information, issuing from a plethora of mouths, magnified by a million devices, being “served” to an audience who is disoriented, disjointed, disillusioned, and increasingly desperate, there is little chance that an “informed” and critically-thinking audience will be the result of the dispersion of that motherlode of data. What previously were the macro-world problems were neither anatomized nor shared to the degree both are currently. So, the wave of existential threats, linked to succeeding tsunamis of words, pictures, tweets and choruses of cheerleaders, colliding with socio-economic forces that inordinately favour the rich over the middle and the lower income demographics make a dangerous threatening cloud in addition to the global warming, political chicanery and the institutional erosion that already face each of us.
Small towns, where the issues were common and discussed hourly in local coffee shops and pubs, were once a kind of quiet retreat from the “world” of geopolitics, globalization, global warming and public malfeasance. And small towns are the original tent for tribalism. Tribalism, the linking together of people around a few select myths, traditions, beliefs, buildings, local public figures whose lives were generally modest, and modestly conveyed among the tribe, and even local school teachers and clergy, all of whose indiosyncracies were well preserved by local oral history and lore, took root in those small towns, was the menu that raised most of us North Americans.
None of us felt anxious in our small towns, unless and until something like a major fire tore up the main street, or a plant closed, or a prominent person took his (almost always his) own life. Nothing earth-shattering ever seemed to happen, and we did not really expect it to. Of course, we ventured into the big cities, for glimpses of the larger world. Imaginative and courageous teachers even took small groups on “school trips” as part of our development. However, we always returned to that small town, where the most complex question was, “Who is the new pharmacist on Main Street?”
There were no tablets, cell phones, or wall-to-wall news outlets, spanning the globe. There were no televisions even, when some of us were in high school. Radio was dominated by “high-brow” CBC or commercial top-ten tunes. Movies depicted the proverbial and dependable love triangle, or the western with its bad guys being chased and caught by the good guys. We never thought of ourselves as inhabiting a particulate “tribe” although, to every other small town in the area, we likely had distinctive traits as a tribe.
International influences, like multiple ethnicities, multiple languages, multiple faiths, and of course, highly distinct and varied cultural norms and diets were almost excluded from our tribe. Occasionally a “Chinese restaurant” would open with a hearty invitation to savour a new menu. Occasionally, too, a professional music soloist or small ensemble would come to town, opening the doors of our hearts and minds to a new talent and a new artistic experience.
However, the tribal norms, including the service clubs, the golf and country club, the local arena and the attendant minor and occasional provincial Juvenile or Junior team. Churches were generally filled on Sundays, and prominent local figures adopted one of the half-dozen Christian models of worship.
The few city-natives, in the form of doctors, dentists, a lawyer or two and the few teachers who ventured out of their home turf added much needed cultural salsa to what was essentially a bland diet, an extremely bland (literally silent) political debate, and an occasional glimmer of industrial expansion to supplement the government jobs and the summer tourism.
And while our “tribe” was our birthplace and birthright, it also limited our range of what we would consider acceptable behaviour, thought, faith options and political philosophy. Small town tribes incubated thousands of neophyte conservatives, because conservatism was the dominant perspective, whether that applied to politics, business, leisure or religion.
There is, without doubt, no returning to such tribalism, regardless of the energy field that seems to hanker and long for its return. While we came from a tribe, and while that tribe helped to nurture us in adolescence, we are now, willingly or not, citizens of the world, bombarded by messages from all world capitals, from all refugee boats that either capsize or receive warm welcome (as in Spain last week), from all political ideologies and from all religious points of view.
Our openness, readiness, and mature assimilation of these many influences, through a discerning, and balanced filter that combines history, culture, and identity with an authentic welcome of the new and the different, from enriched imaginations that will challenge our comfort zones could be legitimately considered as the sine qua non of our shared survival.
Dividing into our respective tribes, and retaining our respective taboos, limiting our horizons by a prescription of static clinging to our respective tribal pasts, as the current lava threatens to compel us to revert to, (and the current American propaganda demands) would only erode our capacity to envision and to seek collaborative solutions to our shared exigencies.
Regression, reversion, bending into the tiny, brittle pretzels that we each were in our original tribes will serve the insatiable appetites for power and tyranny of those who have the current levers of power in several nation states. If Malala can withstand her brutal and lethal bullet, undergo transformative surgery, continue her own education and the advocacy for millions of girls who are denied access to education, and then be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, and if the surviving students of Parkland Florida can launch a movement to achieve gun control, and if the children currently separated from their parents, and the children left as lifeless bodies on Mediterranean beaches attempting to escape the ravages of war, disease and famine….then these lights in the darkest night of the world’s soul have to have meaning in all of our lives.
The little children can and will lead us, if we will only accept their invitation! We might together learn how to accommodate the inevitable lava floes, the political chicanery and the childish regressions if we were to catch the light and the torch from the battalions of young people who are becoming our most enlightened mentors and leaders.