Let me share a little bit of who I am. I believe that people have the right to believe in what they choose to. A nation should support all of its citizens and should not only be a vehicle to make the rich richer. I think healthcare is a right, not a privilege. I understand that gender and sexual orientation are two different things. Neither is a marker for one’s value or morality. Everyone has the right to their religious or non-religious beliefs. I accept that I am no better or worse than any other person on this planet. I am driven by facts more than ideology. I see no value difference between different races. I know that both men and women are equally capable.
This is a small snapshot of my identity, but why am I sharing it with you? I’m doing this to elicit a reaction in you. Are you nodding your head in agreement, or are you becoming angry? Do you like me more, or do you feel that I’m misguided? Are you in my tribe, or are you in an opposing tribe?
Tribes have always been a way for individuals to band together—to increase their strength and, in turn, their survival. In prehistoric times, this could mean the acquisition of food and shelter or the ability to reproduce. We say we are social beings, but that is another way of saying that many of us are more comfortable belonging to a tribe. A desire so intrinsic to our being that it permeates every aspect of us.
What is your religious tribe? What is your political tribe? What is your socioeconomic tribe? What is your racial tribe? What is your sexual orientation tribe? What is your gender tribe? What is your sports team tribe? And so it goes.
The tribe that you belong to quickly identifies you to others as a friend or foe. The need to be in a tribe is so strong that it can make illogical claims turn into facts, cause families to split apart, and even make wars erupt.
Even in recent times, tribes have a survival benefit. The citizens of the United States tribe fought fascism during WW2. The tribe of immunologists developed vaccines that have saved millions of lives. The union tribes fought for workers’ rights and improved their lives. Tribes allow people to use their combined resources to solve problems and elicit change.
Tribe structure typically follows rules. There is a leader, an ideology, and a set of norms that members must follow. Leaders sometimes use their power for their personal benefits, and tribes can sometimes establish rules of absolute belief for their members. You can see this in religious and political tribes, but it is apparent in many other tribes as well. If a member questions a leader or belief, they can be banished from the tribe. That rejection can be anything from social removal to eternal damnation. Both options can be crushing for the individual.
This hazard has always existed but can be tempered by tolerance.
Growing up, I can remember negative stereotypes of other tribes. Racial tribes, ethnic tribes, and even gender tribes. Daming views of others could be telegraphed in many ways. The tool of fear was common, but other tactics, like “dark humor,” could also be employed. If you grew up in the 1960s, you may recall dumb blond jokes or Polack jokes. How can you make a blond go up on a roof? Tell her the drinks are on the house. How many Polacks does it take to change a light bulb? Three, one to hold the lightbulb and two to turn the ladder. Innocent jokes? Hardly.
Almost everyone in my neighborhood was Catholic, and I was so brainwashed that I would pray for the Protestant family across the street as I was terrified that they would go to hell. The first Jew that I met was when I was in high school. The first blacks that I met were on the battlefield of that same high school that was going through a racial change. The first gay person that I knew of was so reviled that he was known only as “Ralph, the queer.”
What kept me in my bubble? What kept me under control? Mostly fear. Fear that those other groups would somehow try to corrupt me, control me, destroy me. Irrational fears were promoted by the group that I belonged to. Rules that said anyone outside of my tribe was dangerous.
Tribe leaders can find natural or imaginary examples of how these “other” tribes were evil. How they were hellbent on taking away MY rights, destroying MY world, and corrupting MY values. The world as I knew it could explode into chaos if I allowed other tribes to have a voice. I had to protect MY way of life because the other tribes wanted to destroy it.
Such lunacy can be easily accomplished as long as tribe members are isolated in one fashion or another from alternate experiences or ways of thinking. This can be done by establishing a “trust no one else” rule or by citing examples that somehow verify a belief. The examples don’t have to be balanced or accurate. Shoplifting can be higher in some predominantly black neighborhoods, so blacks are morally corrupt! Let’s not talk about poverty, lack of options, and other factors that have nothing to do with race. If you can’t find an example, then make something up. I was once told by a educated protestant man (a fellow medical student) that Catholics had secret stores of weapons in their basements and were going to rise up and take over the government. Or how about the “gay agenda,” where gays are secretly plotting to convert innocent children to a gay lifestyle? These crazy thoughts were believed and fueled by fear, and although they caused hate towards the opposing tribe, their real purpose was to bind the individual to their tribe. To make it impossible to leave, to listen, or to learn.
It should be evident from my opening paragraph that I’m not the same person I was when I was 10. I have abandoned that tribe. So how did that happen? Some of the process was intellectual. Categorizing others based on limited arbitrary criteria makes no sense to a thinking person. However, a lot of my change happened by experience.
I trained in Evanston and lived in Skokie, a high Jewish enclave. I have worked with many Muslims. I have known many people with varied sexual and gender orientations; I know many individuals of different ethnic and racial types. Time again, I have reached the same conclusion. There are assholes everywhere, but most people are intrinsically good and want to live their lives to the best of their ability and without the prejudice of others. Why can’t we let that happen?
How ridiculous it is to think that I’m better than someone else because I have less pigment in my skin. How pompous of me to believe that my religion is the one true religion and those who believe in other religions are heretics? How shameful of me to think that I have the right to control the private consensual sexual lives of others. We live in a society where it is OK to hate others, but it is not OK to love who you choose. Think about that.
I understand that tribes are necessary, but it concerns me that they have become rigid and intolerant as of late. Our country was based on liberty for all, but that “all” didn’t include enslaved people, Jews, gays, and a host of others. The cultural revolution of the 1970s emphasized humanity and acceptance, and rejected established rules of discrimination. This helped spawn a period of tolerance of other tribes. However, the last decade has reversed many of those gains. Tribal leaders can deny the truth, and their lies are accepted by their “faithful.” The need to belong is so great that it is OK to vilify others and even inflict violence on them.
I understand that this hate movement is temporary, like all movements are. However, I have to ponder if there is any way to break this cycle or if it will repeat at infinitum.
At the start of this post, I disclosed a little about myself. Did you judge me? Did you accept or reject me based on those statements? I hope not, as I’m more complex than a few identifiers. Judge me for who I am, not who you think I am, based on labels. I will do the same for you.