Humans have been clustering around fire, water, earth and the sky from the beginning. And our observations, not only of those shared universal elements, but also of ourselves, have contributed to mountains of theories, speculations, religious ideas and practices, as well as social and familial traditions and the moral and ethical cornerstones on which each “tribe’s” values rest.
Languages that emulate the sounds of nature, as “we” heard them, as well as hunting and gathering strategies and tactics “indigenous” to specific surroundings, have become rooted not only in the history of each tribe, but have been conveyed to the “outside” world, often researched and written by outsiders, with barely a glimpse of the fullness of the reality of their subjects. Cultural anthropology, as one pillar of how people come to behave, to think, to pray/prey, and to relate competes with, among others, academic theories of sociobiology, advocated by the renown biologist Edmund Wilson. Nature versus nurture debates have abounded for generations in the halls of academe.
Abstractions, however, readily file themselves into rather ‘neat and tidy’ pictures, graphs, theories, theses and lectures, not to mention books and documentaries. The Samoan culture, for which Margaret Mead’s early picture as a romantic, loving and peaceful tribe has served as an early window on a western perception of an indigenous tribe. Her intellectual opponent, Freeman of Australia, refuted her view, after allegedly interviewing Samoan men as well as Samoan women, and depicted Samoan culture as much less idyllic, romantic and peaceful and Mead’s earlier portrait. It is now conceivable that neither name, Mead or Freeman, is even mentioned in contemporary anthropology classes in western academic centres, in a denigration (denial? or avoidance?) similar to the one imposed on Carl Jung by many academic institutions.
So any venture through the doors of academic research into the values and troubles of tribes, as is the approach to so many disciplines, needs a disciplined openness, scepticism and receptivity to doubt, to further digging, and to enhanced integration, not rejection, of opposing perspectives. Given that “cultural” studies is among the latest vogue in “interdisciplinary” studies at modern universities, one wonders about the “tilt” in academic faculties’ balancing of opposing, yet vigorously and reliably reasoned and argued, views.
Here, from a more detached perch, the question of the relative importance of “tribe” and belonging to a tribe over one’s global citizenship is at issue. We have all personal history, stories, events, doctors, teachers, mentors, perhaps clergy and peers from our respective tribal roots. Not only have the individual people shaped us, but so too has the compendium of each of their attitudes, values, beliefs, and notions of what constitutes the way one “ought” to live. Integrated deeply and inextricable into the minds and hearts of each of our personal totems (mentors, teachers and role models) are the institutions whose larger life spans more of the history of each respective “tribe” and culture than those individuals.
Laws, rules, social expectations, based on some a priori “insemination” of ideas, beliefs, practices and collective “consciousness” and “unconsciousness” (tipping our hat to Jung) have been passed along, across the kitchen tables, across the space between pulpit and pew, over the desk in the doctor’s office, and through our willing and eager attendance at movies, entertainment and athletic events and visits to our local libraries and museums. The question of whether our “education” is more a “conservation” of the stabilizing forces/factors of our tribe, or a “revolution” to those forces/factors is another of the dynamics to which we have been exposed. In ‘conservative’ tribes, for example, banning Margaret Laurence’s novels, because they contained scenes of human sexuality, generated street protests by those whose social, political and religious views were more open, receptive and encouraging of ‘exposing’ adolescents to reality.
Similarly, in today’s river of news, public friction has arisen in some tribes (towns, cities, newspapers, board rooms and lawyers’ offices) over the question of whether palliative care institutions such as hospices advocate for, support and counsel their patients on the nuances of assisted dying. Naturally, those communities in which the Roman Catholic church has a substantial base, oppose any support for the new laws. Known in Ontario as (MAiD), Medical Assistance in Dying. In one Ontario town (the diminutive as opposed to city), North Bay, the fact that fund raising has occurred based on a public assumption that MAiD would be supported, advocated and enshrined in the Serenity Hospice, and the board of that hospice has voted to reject MAiD and all it stands for, has generated considerable public debate. Some are asking that their funding donations be returned, generating the spectre that the hospice might close for lack of funding.
Religious convictions regularly conflict with what others consider the larger public good, given that a principle of perfection (opposition to all forms of human induced death like abortion, assisted dying) takes precedence over the question of what is appropriate, and thereby considered ethical and moral, in the life of a specific, unique, and autonomous human being. Voicing those religious convictions, by parish clergy, their presiding bishops, and eventually the Pontiff himself, provides a microphone for the institution behind which there are multiple human faces, giving voice to what the institution considers the ‘voice and will of God’ on this issue. Such religious (and they are understood to be holy, ethical, moral and spiritual) views, comprise the identifying glue, and the rallying totem around which adherents to that institution/view can and do rally. The Right to Life movement is alive and well in most if not all towns and cities in Ontario and while a woman’s right to choose has become an integral part of Canadian law, as well as in the United States, (Roe v. Wade) there are growing voices raising dollars, and appointing judges (especially in the U.S.) dedicated to removing a woman’s right to choose from the tribe’s culture.
From the beginning, questions around human sexuality have been the vortex of debate, laws, expectations and definitions of what comprises human morality, in the tribe. And a woman’s reputation for centuries has been intimately linked to her “virginity” (or its disappearance), given the long-standing view that the highest “example” of human morality was a woman’s virginity, while at the same time, a man’s ‘conquest’ was considered a sign of his maturation. At the convergence of the masculine and the feminine, not only in procreation, but in the rhythms and drives of nature, tribes have struggled with how to “tame the wildness” of human sexuality. And religious institutions have been no more successful in their attempts to dominate and control its expression than have “tribes” of monks, nuns, ascetics, philosophers and prophets.
Love, the highest of human aspirations, is also at the centre of all ‘visions’ of sexuality, regardless of the specific sexual preference of any individual. Family, too, is another of the highly respected and valued totems in most tribes. So individual humans grow up in a petrie dish of family values, encompassed by those proximate influences of local institutions and rituals. Slowly, yet relentlessly, we all encounter people from cultures, tribes, religions and political ideologies that differ from our own, with each of these tribes also supported by the forces that have birthed and nurtured each of these tribes.
Books, classroom practices, movies, newspapers, television and radio dissemination inculcate the tribe’s ethos, values and principles. Teachers, lawyers, doctors, accountants and social workers all work to embody and to fit into the parameters of the tribe, most of them basing their existence on the support, both financial and moral they derive from their tribe. One personal anecdote from a well-known tribal social worker when I had contravened a tribal expectation: “Why were you so stupid as to cross that line here?” His critique was more about my stupidity than my infraction, disclosing his contempt for the moral boundary and his willing, yet very private and previously undisclosed, counsel for my innocent “stupidity.” One can assume that crossing a line, for him, was acceptable so long as one was not “found out” by the tribe.
And, to his credit, the tribal “lines” and expectations are rigid and rigidly enforced, not merely by the “justice” system, in the literal. The parenting structures, obligations and practices in any community are enacted by the authority “symbols” regardless of their specific titles and contractual obligations. So, one’s safety and security, one presumes in early life, is “protected” by the tribe, so long as one adheres to the strict dictates of the tribe.
Ironically and paradoxically, those tribal “expectations” are also constricting, limiting, and reductionistic, given the propensity for the tribe’s hubris to impose what amount to character assassination to the “outsider” who refuses to conform. Protection always comes at a cost, and the cost can be extremely high. Whether one refuses to conform to the tribe of the church, or the corporation, or the team, or the regiment/battalion, or even the family (literally, or metaphorically) one can expect reprisals far in excess of the deviance.
It is the tribe, certainly in my experience, that turns on its “outsider” even if that outsider is desperately in need of support, especially if and when that outsider needs support. The man in rags in the church pew can count on contemptuous, if clandestine, looks from many of the eyes in the sanctuary. The young woman who is struggling with a pregnancy, or who is struggling with her biological identity knows better than to seek support and wise counsel, including an appreciation of the range of options, from a religious authority in the tribe, whether Roman Catholic or evangelical. (Members of Jewish or Muslim faiths will know better about their tribes’ effective access to rabbi or imam.)
And so, as men inculcated in a tribe’s values, principles, institutions and practices, we know deeply how we are expected to perform. Earn a good income from work with dignity, marry a wonderful young woman, have a stable family of responsible children, protect and respect our parents and grandparents, and “colour inside the lines” in everything we do….these are just some of the guidelines. Of course, we can and are encouraged to be competitive, rising to the highest echelons of accomplishment and respect of our peers, enjoying global vacations and adventures, associating with the elites in our profession/community/tribe…as a way of not merely vetting the values of the tribe, but as a way of preserving and enhancing its future.
And so, the life of the tribe, as far as it is incorporated into our personal lives, is a high value in our life. Not only that, adherence to its people, principles, values and education of our children in its values consumes most of our energy. What is good for our tribe (family within the tribe, school, competitions inside the tribe, and success in engagements with other tribes) is highly valued.
And then there is the overarching cloud on the horizon, wondering more vehemently and loudly every hour:
How does my tribe integrate into the wider world of multiple tribes, multiple faiths, multiple ethnicities, and multiple histories…especially when each of those tribes need the same air, water, land, food, and opportunity as my family and tribe need?
Aphorisms like the one propagated not that long ago, “Think globally, act locally” attempt to bridge the gap between the tribe and the planet. Are they effective? One has to judge minimally. Travel, and Babbel, as well as digital technology have opened doors and windows into the lives of people everywhere in real time, and in real distress.
So overwhelmed are we with the tidal wave of information, most of it curated in the same cultural, social and racial and religious vessels and programming packages in which we (and the reporters, talking heads, and even film makers) were raised, that we are really been fed a diet and menu of repeated archetypes, that do not even attempt to scratch the surface of the totems of tribes who could open our eyes to new perspectives, new options and new ways of co-habiting.
We have become so ensconced in our “colonial” mindset, without even peering out of the rabbit holes in which we seek comfort and refuge, that we face the quite legitimate prospect that our tribe’s future no longer depends on the “protection” we thought it offered.
In fact, our tribe’s survival depends on the survival of every other tribe on the planet and our predisposition to rape and pillage the natural resources of those locations where tribes still living outside the “western” consciousness, without their consent, threatens not only the very existence of those tribes, but in the longer run, the survival of our own tribe.
Making peace is not a slogan for the signboard in front of a public school reading: Kindness always. Making peace stretches far beyond that. It involves telling ourselves those truths to which we have become blind, and to which we give unquestioned loyalty, adherence and even worship, without recognizing their short-term, minimal and unsustainable impact. Tribalism easily morphs into nationalism, without a fist or a shout raised in protest. And underlying those control motives of the tribal “elders” who imposed their will on the sons and daughters of their tribe, as demonstrated in many local churches, local pubs and local hospitals and court rooms was a profound and under-recognized fear of loss of that control.
And our penchant for complying with the elders’s espousal of excessive mechanisms of control, as our default position that offers “a good-guy” reputation, and a potential promotion, risks our capacity to stretch our imaginations into the potential of collaborative, collegial and even planetary processes, structures, relationships and strategies that are dedicated to the healthy survival of multiple generations of our children and grandchildren.
As men, we have a lot of learning, adopting and revising our perceptions of our important place and effective roles in playing a significant part in the evolution of our human drama, so that it continues to evolve from tribalism and the concomitant narcissism and selfishness, to a more sustainable empathy, altruism and sacrifice of our highly inflated “power” dependence.