Tribalistic Responses

Another common reaction to feeling overlooked and insignificant, in our increasingly mega-scaled world, is participation in a contemporary form of tribalism.  This behavioral pattern tends to develop roughly as follows:

If I sense that I don’t matter, the perception is painful to me.  But if there’s some group that’s gotten the same message, and I can see myself in it and identify with it (particularly its grievances), then whenever that group forces the world to sit up and take notice, I don’t have to feel so quite inconsequential or invisible. 

If the group also asks me to participate in some way in its program or activities—say, wearing a distinctive color or clothing item, or showing up somewhere to enhance its physical presence—then I can feel I’ve personally succeeded whenever the tribe does. 

And if the activities I participate in involve conflict or strife with other groups, my possibilities for gratification grow exponentially.  Since mastodons roamed the earth, human tribal groups have fought with outsiders, and heaped honor on the warriors who have advanced their cause.  Standing shoulder to shoulder in actual or symbolic combat also tends to promote intense, deep feelings of brotherhood. 

All in all, the opportunities a tribe offers for a sense of connection and significance can be a potent brew.  And it’s important to note that the rewards of tribal membership tend to be similar no matter whether I join a street gang, a jihadist sect, or the radicalized wing of an American political party.

Often, neo-tribalist groups view breaking away from larger entities as their best route to restoring their diminished sense of significance.   Fragmentation is thus the order of the day, with separatist movements sprouting up around the globe—from Quebecois, Basque, and Catalan to Eritrean, Armenian, Kurdish, Chechen, Tamil, and Moro (not to mention Brexit, and our very own American break-away movements in Alaska and Texas).

Elsewhere, political neo-tribalism adopts more of a tear-it-all-down agenda.  This approach can be especially addictive, because it so effectively channels humiliation-based rage into smashing and laying low the very things and people who are believed to be responsible for all the perceived affronts and indignities, while at the same time, rarely interrupting the enjoyment of these activities with the tedious exercise of formulating viable plans for something to replace what’s pulled down.

It doesn't doesn’t require much effort to recognize this latter variety of neo-tribalism as a major force in powering Donald Trump to the White House in 2016.

What may require a bit more reflection to apprehend is that a Democratic victory in 2020 won’t make it go away.  If we don’t start dealing with it soon, a triumph this year is likely to prove short-lived.

But how and where to start?