Thursday, July 10, 2014

Eschew tribalism

I was asked yesterday by a friend whether I'd prefer for my son to grow up to be a fundamentalist Christian or a junkie. The answer was easy: a junkie. After all, there are programs for getting off of drugs.

Just kidding. I said "fundamentalist Christian" without any hesitation. Yeah, I don't want him to be that either, but his chances at happiness and good health are much better that way.

I then went on to explain that what I also wouldn't want is for him to grow up to repeat everything that I say. I'd rather that he disagrees with me on some things so long as he does it as a part of his own thought process. I struggled to think of an all-encompassing word for what I didn't want him to be, and then it finally dawned on me - I don't want him to be tribalistic.

This is a bit of a tall order, as we human beings tend to group ourselves into tribes out of pure instinct. Still, there are extremes, and when one's tribe becomes one's identity, then I think that you start to run into problems.

Before I go pointing my fingers at others, let me examine myself. I'm a comic book fan, an English teacher, an atheist, a skeptic, a father, and a whole lot of other things, some of them more likely to lead to tribalism than others. I don't think that I get too extreme with any of these though. For one, being a comic book fan doesn't really affect my day-to-day decisions outside of how I spend my money every Wednesday. I don't look down on people who don't read comic books, and it's never been a source of tension in my marriage that my wife doesn't read them. As for being an English teacher, I naturally relate to them more than people who teach other subjects, but I don't look down on other subjects. In all honesty, I think that I may be easily as big a fan of science and history, but I'm just not as good at teaching those.

Oooh...what about the atheist thing? I write a lot about it and often post about it on Facebook. I also eagerly get into conversations with people about it (although I rarely am the one to bring it up if I think that it will lead to an argument). I don't belong to any atheist groups, and I don't automatically assume that a person is somehow smart because he or she is an atheist. Some people are atheists for lousy (and sometimes lazy) reasons. Plus, there are plenty of atheists out there who believe in all sorts of things that I find to be nutty like ghosts and conspiracy "theories". I don't necessarily feel any deep kinship with somebody just because he or she happens to not believe in a thing in which I also don't believe.

I probably feel most tribal about my fellow skeptics, but again I don't belong to any groups nor do I even subscribe to any skeptic magazine. Plus, I think that there's something about the nature of skepticism that sends off alarm signals in our brains whenever we start to get dogmatic and tribal.

I could go on, but I don't think that anybody would make a case for me being tribalistic about taking my dog on walks, so I'll just move on.

From where I see it, tribalism tends to make us turn our brains off. It supersedes the desire to be rational and analytical in favor of being on the same side as our tribe. Religion, by its very nature, is tribal. Sure, some take it further than others when they think that they need to kill nonbelievers, but it still is something that actively separates one group of people from another. Not only that, but it gives them a sense of superiority for having some sort of truth that others are not privy to. (Don't skeptics feel the same way? Maybe. But I don't know of anybody who's ever been so confident in his skepticism that he's been willing to wage war, commit murder/suicide, disown family members, etc.)

What's potentially worse than religion is nationalism. I think it's worse because it overrides the tribalism of religions. After all, almost every church I've been in also has an American flag in it. Seems a little out of the spirit of giving unto Caesar, doesn't it? Plus, look at the two World Wars. Lots of Christians fighting their fellow Christians in that one because they put the arbitrary lines called borders as a priority.

Sports fans can sometimes be ridiculously tribalistic. While most likely a minority representation, you see people rioting and committing acts of violence in the name of their favorite sports team. Also, I think that perhaps some people get a wee bit too upset when their team loses. Disappointment is fine, but I've seen some emotions that were a bit over the top. If something that's supposed to be entertaining causes genuine emotional distress, then perhaps you're going a little too far with it.

Again, I don't think that it's possible to completely remove oneself from tribal instincts, but you can be aware of it and try to remove yourself from it as much as possible - no matter if it's sports, religion (or lack thereof), or patriotism.

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