Our survival comes from our tribal instincts

Before the October 1st Oakland Raiders game, a wondrous unfolding took place at Mile High Stadium: A show of unity within Bronco Nation that had been buffeted by the White House madman’s lunatic ravings. How would they/we handle the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner, given it was the first home game since POTUS’s flag-wrapping assault on the First Amendment?

When time came for the national anthem, the PA announcer asked 76,000 fans to stand, remove caps, and sing. We did, accompanying a soloist’s bluesy sax rendition. Genius! For once, fans weren’t passive listeners, observers of the patriotic display unfolding before them. Time to stand, sing—off-key or on—and shut up about the rest. It was grand, players standing with locked arms and fans doing their Kate Smith-best to belt out their love of country. Bronco Tribe demonstrated its power and attachment over political tribes.

When one considers the word tribe, the rage of late in socio-political thinking, it generally connotes indigenous societies, not modern developed ones. But that’s an invalid assumption.

In “America Wasn’t Built for Humans,” New York Magazine essayist Andrew Sullivan writes, “Tribalism, it’s always worth remembering, is not one aspect of human experience. It’s the default human experience. It comes more naturally to us than any other way of life.” In short, our tribal instincts are part of our genetic makeup, a gift from our evolutionary past.

There are two broad tribal families: organic and eclectic with a bit of gray or flamboyant color, if you prefer, between. Organic tribalism arises from birth and upbringing. Birth or adoptive family, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation are aspects of it. Eclectic tribes are those we find, join, or become part of by happenstance: Elks, Chamber of Commerce, book discussion groups, political parties.

Religion resides in the flamboyant region between. Most hold to their faith simply because they were raised in it. If one’s born and raised in Provo, UT, it’s likely he/she will be Mormon as opposed to one born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Southern Baptists tend not to populate Boston, MA. One cannot change his/her DNA, but he/she can find other more satisfying ways to address his/her spirituality, e.g., Boston Catholics who abandon their faith of birth for another or none.

Likewise, for hometown identity, the reason a significant number of fans at a Bronco game cheer for teams from their birth places. Colorado’s population is largely if not majority immigrant. For some, root-tribal attachments are often too powerful to break. (For the record, I don’t suffer from that detachment disorder.)

Being part of an accepting and embracing tribe is fundamental to one’s wellbeing. It stems from the emotive power belonging to a tribe, whether family or high school, holds. Humans evolved as social beings, the reason libertarianism, the idolization of the individual, is an unnatural, debilitating philosophy. Homo sapiens evolved not as lone wolves, but, rather, tribal communitarians, their brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.

Organic tribalism holds more emotive power than eclectic, the difference between “it’s who I am” versus “it’s with whom I’ve chosen to associate.” It’he reason separation from one’s organic tribe can be traumatic for the individual. Thus, if one is rejected or ostracized by or doesn’t find acceptance or completeness within it, he/she might move on if he/she can, but often burdened with emotional scars and baggage.

The instinct for tribal attachment is so powerful that when one feels differentiated or incomplete within his/her tribe, he/she might also choose to separate. Sullivan references Stephen Junger and his work, “Tribe,” when he points out how it was not unusual for early Americans to take off and join a Native American tribe, but Indians did not in similar manner join European societies.

“‘Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become European,’ wrote one 18th-century Frenchman. ‘There must be in their social bond something singularly captivating and far superior to anything to be boasted of among us.’ That ‘something,’ Junger argues, was being a member of a tribe.”

We owe our survival to our tribal instincts, but they can also lead to our dissolution.

Next week: Tribalism’s destabilizing effect on our democracy

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