Perhaps what we need now is a recognition similar to Marshall McLuhan’s observation decades ago that “the medium is the message:” that in matters of contemporary social organization, a tribe is often its own purpose.
The often striking differences in modern tribes’ ideologies, agendas, and adherents can distract us from recognizing basic similarities in what they offer people and how they come to prominence.
In an ever-increasing number of ways, we are committing ourselves to tribes that embody our personal sense of being put-upon and insufficiently respected, but are then able to say in a way that finally gets the world's attention that this state of affairs will no longer be tolerated. On an emotional level, this experience can be deeply satisfying, even cathartic.
On a practical level, however, neo-tribalism rarely solves or even identifies our underlying functional problems. More commonly, it merely creates an ever-expanding cast of enemies--shifting over time, depending on the predilections of your “home tribe,” among Jews, Communists, Western Imperialists, the Military-Industrial Complex, The Establishment, Liberal Elites (in Academia, Government, and the Arts), Corporate Fat Cats, Islamic Terrorists, The Infidel Great Satan America, Neo-Conservatives, Fox News, and perhaps even Barney and his cohorts on public television.
In today's neo-tribalist environment, when we hear a social or political policy proposed, our first reaction is all too commonly just to categorize it according to who supports it. Depending on our own tribal affiliations, if we can pigeonhole it as, say, pro-Big Government or pro-Big Business, we can dismiss it as just another attempted incursion by the hated Other Tribe. Then we're off to slather on more war paint and raise our tomahawks once again.
What makes this development especially troubling is that we are faced today with any number of excruciatingly complex and difficult problems, all of which are likely to require an extraordinary amount of fresh, out-of-the-box thinking to solve.
On the economic front, we have already gone through a significant disruption from the dot-com boom/bust cycle, followed by a nearly catastrophic one from the implosion of the housing and housing-related financial sectors. I’ve even seen it plausibly argued that bubbles have become the prime engine of the U.S. economy--that without their churn, we would find ourselves almost completely stalled and directionless. Finding our way out of a situation like this will require no small amount of astute and original thought.
Tribalistic ways of thinking are not only inadequate for a challenge of this magnitude, they are to no small degree what has caused our recent parade of economic problems in the first place (i.e., it was a tribal consensus that informed us it was sensible to invest in freshly minted dot-com startups, mortgage-backed securites, etc.).
Things don’t get any simpler on the scientific or geopolitical fronts. To give just a few examples, we need to find ways to avert climatological disaster without pushing our economy off a cliff, at the same time that we try to deal with a global jihadist threat without transforming ourselves into a paranoid autocracy more along the lines of North Korea than anything envisioned by our founding fathers.
It is also not just our leaders who need to rise to these challenges. In business no less than in government, our decision makers ultimately derive their power from their ability to tune into what all the rest of us want. This means that as ordinary citizens, consumers, and investors (even if this is only though our pension plans), we need to think through today’s issues with a great deal of care.
Yet instead of carefully re-examining our premises to find places where we may have missed something that might contain the seeds of a conceptual breakthrough, we tend to barely even look at the facts--preferring instead to treat them as little more than launching points for another round of emotionally satisfying tribal bashing.
Given the seriousness and urgency of many of the issues confronting us, this ultimately makes about as much sense as starting a knife fight in a rubber lifeboat.