On the Current Divisions in American Society — Are we Programmed to Implode?

There’s a quote attributed to Stanton Friedman explaining why we haven’t been contacted by extraterrestrials that goes, “Who wants to hang out with a bunch of apes, whose favorite pastime is tribal warfare?”

Tribalism is the latest buzz-word being thrown around to describe the divisiveness of American politics and the schisms plaguing American society. However when I hear people discuss it, it seems as if this is a new concept in American thought and people seem to wonder where it popped up and how it became so prevalent. I don’t believe this is a new phenomenon, and that we as a species are hard-wired toward Tribalism.

How Tribalism is Encouraged in American Society

Despite the angst often expressed about participation trophies and every Gen Z child being told he or she is special, our society is still essentially a Capitalist society where people and enterprises are free to compete for the spoils. Our businesses and industry are free to compete against each other in the freest market in the world. Our students are taught to compete in sports and academically. We’re brought up to believe that the world is a free arena of competition and if you best your rivals you’ll be the rich winner. When you join a group, be it a baseball team or a corporation, that group takes the place of the tribe and the competition is bloodless tribal warfare.

Almost everything we do can be in one way or another described in terms of tribal warfare. I like how Lena Felton defined tribalism in The Atlantic: At its most basic, tribalism describes the human instinct to want to belong to a group of people who are like you. Growing up the son of non-white immigrants in rural Indiana, I spent a lot of time trying to find my tribe(s). At one time I actually took stock of my “tribes.” My sports tribes included the Reds, Colts, Pacers, Hoosiers (basketball only), and Fighting Irish (football only). My junk food tribes were Coke and Mickey D’s over Pepsi and Burger King. Are my male high school mates talking cars? I have to have an opinion and pick a group: Chevy’s are better than Fords because the one dude I respect more likes Chevy’s and I’d rather be part of his tribe (I don’t know crap about engines). Are my college friends taking cars? Now I know something about cars so I’ll join the Ford tribe because Fords seems to actually throw some innovation and technology into their engines while Chevy just seems to opt for size (I already know I’ll never buy a Ford or a Chevy for myself, but I’ve got to pick my tribe!).

On and on it goes: Indiana vs. Purdue; Coke vs. Pepsi; Chevy vs. Ford; Whoever Tom Brady plays for vs. everyone else; New York vs. Chicago; country vs city. My team is better than your team; my school is better than your school; my company is better than your company. Tribalism is encouraged because it’s so tightly integrated with our American sense of competition. Defeating the other tribe is a core driver of everything we do — in American society we’re trained to compete to win (despite all the complaints about participants’ trophies, you know you want to win) because that’s what drives excellence, quality, and the Capitalist engine (sprinkle that last sentence with sarcasm to taste).

Cultural Legacies and Social Pressures

Here’s a snippet I found on Facebook about the “rivalry” between IU and UK basketball. It’s college basketball, which in the grand scheme of things is pretty much just a form of entertainment, but the original poster obviously cares deeply enough to be “troubled” and this resonated with enough other people to generate 38 comments.

Most of our “tribal” divisions seem trivial, but why do some people take them more seriously and why do some people go too far?

Throughout the 18th century, over 200,000 Scotch-Irish people migrated to the Americas. Their contributions to American society and to the American character are countless. Scotch-Irish folk music spawned Bluegrass, which begat Country Music, which then made babies with the Blues and called it Rock N’ Roll. The Scotch-Irish came to America and, finding the coastal areas settled, settled the western frontiers of Appalachia. They invented the pioneering spirit and founded the American image of the self-made man taming the wilderness. We owe much of our American character to the Scotch-Irish. The drivers of this sense of individuality and independence also motivate our divisions.

Chapter six of Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 best seller Outliers is titled Harlan, Kentucky — “Die Like a Man, Like your Brother Did!” This fascinating chapter opens with a recap of the origins of a family feud in Harlan County, Kentucky between the Howards and the Turners, then turns to the pattern of inter-familial violence that raged throughout Appalachia all the way to the 1930’s. Gladwell explains that the culture of Appalachia is a “Culture of Honor.” Appalachia was largely populated by immigrants of “Scotch-Irish” extraction. Think of the rugged lands in Northern England, lowland Scotland, and Northern Ireland where farming was too difficult so people herded sheep. Gladwell sums it up so eloquently:

Cultures of honor tend to take root in highlands and other marginally fertile areas . . . If you live on some rocky mountainside, the explanation goes, you can’t farm. You probably raise goats or sheep , and the kind of culture that grows up around being a herdsman is very different from the culture that grows up around growing crops. The survival of a farmer depends on the cooperation of others in the community. But a herdsman is off by himself. Farmers also don’t have to worry that their livelihood will be stolen in the night, because crops can’t easily be stolen unless, of course, a thief wants to go to the trouble of harvesting an entire field on his own. But a herdsman does have to worry. He’s under constant threat of ruin through the loss of his animals. So he has to be aggressive: he has to make it clear, through his words and deeds, that he is not weak. He has to be willing to fight in response to even the slightest challenge to his reputation — and that’s what a “culture of honor” means. It’s a world where a man’s reputation is at the center of his livelihood and self-worth.

Gladwell later describes a study conducted at the University of Michigan in the 1990s. Both the control and variable groups filled out a questionnaire, but the members of the variable group were then verbally accosted on their way out (a surprise experimenter blocked their way with a filing cabinet, then called them “Asshole” when they tried to go around). The finding of the study was that people from areas with a culture of honor got a lot angrier than those from elsewhere. Most of the non-southern participants laughed off the incident. Gladwell says, “But the southerners? Oh, my. They were angry.”

Gladwell goes on to point out that we are all products of our cultural legacies, and even if you’re removed hundreds of years from those legacies, your behavior is still influenced by them. One of the cultural legacies we bear from our Scotch-Irish ancestors is the independent spirit to make it on our own and be free men. Another cultural legacy we bear is to retaliate when we feel we’ve been wronged and to be wary — perhaps too wary — of outsiders (those not of our tribe).

I would hypothesize that if you did a study of people who believed Kathleen Blasey Ford versus those who were swayed by Brett Kavanaugh’s testimony, you’d find that those in the latter camp come from backgrounds influenced by a culture of honor. The manly-man voicing his outrage is a descendant of the shepherd defending his flock and his honor, and this display of emotion stirs respect in some circles. If you want to convince someone from a culture of honor that they’re wrong, more often than not, they’re going to dig in their heels in because admitting you’re wrong is a sign of weakness and the last thing a lone shepherd will do is betray any sign of weakness.

Antagonism

“There are many divides in the world right now. But there’s one divide, deeply embedded into the core of human nature, that helps explain many other divides. What I’m referring to is a source of human personality variation that is built right into our DNA: antagonism.” — Scott Barry Kaufman, Scientific American

Merriam Webster defines antagonism as ”actively expressed opposition or hostility.” Antagonism is the personality trait that drives our tribes apart. Antagonism is what happens when tribes go to war. Antagonism is also a core personality trait of every human. While it sounds initially negative, even terrible, antagonism is a useful trait. It’s what motivates you to fight back when you’re threatened or oppressed. It’s a trait that promotes you and your tribe’s survival in the right circumstances. Of course, like all things, taken too far it can lead to disaster.

People who are not antagonistic tend to have a high sense of fairness and/or a high degree of compassion. Kaufman writes in Scientific American that antagonistic people are less concerned with social norms (what others think of them) and are less empathetic. Group together a lot of antagonistic people, and you’ll end up with an aggressive tribe that won’t mind exploiting other tribes. He goes on to state that “In the general population, antagonistic people are more likely to distrust politics in general, to believe in conspiracy theories, and to support secessionist movements.” Ironically, antagonistic politicians tend to perform better than non-antagonistic ones.

Antagonists also tend to be loud. Fox News was the first mainstream outlet to let openly antagonistic personalities voice their opinions. The Internet and social media democratized mass communication and the antagonists were the loudest voices on these new formats. The loudest can easily influence. Since being part of a tribe means gravitating towards those with similar tendencies, some tribes become more antagonistic. And even if you want to go against what you think is wrong, social pressures prevent you from doing that. Jacques Barzun summarizes De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America saying, “The great danger was the tyranny of the majority. No protection against it was provided — or could be, given the principle of one man, one vote. And that tyranny was not legal only but social also — pressure from neighbors tacit or expressed.” Few want to be the one stirring the pot.

Schismogenesis

Graeber and Wengro’s book The Dawn of Everything introduced me to Gregory Bateson’s concept of schismogenesis. If you look up the strict anthropological definition, it’s a little confusing, but Graber and Wengro sum it nicely as the term, “ . . . to describe people’s tendency to define themselves against one another.” Their example examines how two people starting a civil debate become more and more polarized into their own positions and eventually start to define themselves in terms of the opposite of their companion. In other words, one side starts to hate anything that defines the “other” and further dives into whatever the opposite of the “other” is. This might explain why so many people won’t do something sensible like get vaccinated because only “libs” get vaccinated, but they know they’ve got to do something about the virus so they take unproven remedies because the “libs” deride those remedies.

Conclusion

There’s a cliche in business that’s often shared on LinkedIn about how what got you here won’t get you there. The methods that helped you succeed in the past won’t help you succeed in the next challenges. America as a whole seems to have reached a similar point.

America is a diverse place because we are a nation of immigrants. Our complex American character was built by contributions from all over the world. Some of the factors that have driven America’s success include our pioneering spirit and independence. Americans have always had individuals who have come forth to lead change when they didn’t like what they saw. This spirit comes from immigrants who learned from their cultures to be independent and self-sufficient. The flip-side of the rugged individualist doing what he thinks is right is the rugged individualist doing what he wants because he can. Using our past successes to justify selfish behavior is only destructive. Our drive to compete and win has led us to be the richest nation on Earth, but that drive to compete comes with a need to compare our groups to others and has only fed our tendency toward tribalism. It’s easy to forget the other tribes are also part of our bigger American tribe. Further exacerbating that sense of division or tribalism is our very American tendency to defend our honor, even if we’re in the wrong. By diving further into our own tribes and not being able to even accept a good idea from another group, we’re driving ourselves to self-destruction.

If we want to save this nation, we need to stop worshipping our rugged individualist past and embrace the fact that as a nation of 300 million we need to start cooperating more and understanding the value of community and hearing each other out. Only when we stop escaping to our echo chambers and our tribes can we start to re-learn what makes us similar and how we all really need to depend on each other.

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Vincent O. Valenzuela

Vincent O. Valenzuela

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