Humans tend to form tribes because they make us, generally, feel safe. There is nothing wrong with being part of a tribe, which is only a large and probably more rambunctious, potentially more supportive, family.
The question is, why do we objectify, hate and attempt to destroy other tribes? Is it, ‘get them before they get us’? Is it because, ‘they’re standing in the way of what we want’? Is it because they threaten us first, which sets off the amygdala, often described as the part of the brain whose
primary purpose is to govern the emotion of fear,
but whose function may well be
to evaluate the relevance of stimuli, and then to tune the individual’s overall cognitive and emotional response (emphasis added)?
There is nothing wrong with feeling fear, just as there is nothing wrong with feeling proud of and loyal to our tribe and slightly suspicious of other tribes. They are, after all, an unknown quantity. But what about the reasonably well established idea that every human on the planet, regardless of the tribe they belong to, all want the same thing: to feel safe and warm; to be well fed; to watch their children grow to secure adulthood; and, if those things are satisfied, explore the world through travel and communication with others, often through the medium of art and crafts?
If this is true, when different tribes fall into conflict it is not because they want different things; they want the same thing but they have different methods to achieve those things, and herein lies the problem.
The other significant thing about tribes is they usually include a leader.
It’s a truism that the quality of the tribe (by which I mean, what they want, why they want it, and what they are prepared to do to get it), determines the quality of the leader. By extension, the quality of the leader will have a similar impact on the quality of the tribe.
Good leaders listen to every member of their tribe (and good members of the tribe make it their business to share their ideas with their leader, and listen carefully to that leader). A leader’s job is also, given members of a tribe rarely agree, to make wise, considered choices about which parts of a tribe’s agenda are sound and which need more work. Only then can the leader proceed to implement the tribe’s goals and needs.
What does this have to do with disliking an opposing tribe? If our methods for meeting our needs don’t get in the way of an opposing tribe, and vice versa, why do we get involved in a wasteful conflict with other tribes?
Is it because leaders coerce, convince and cajole their members (who have morphed into ‘followers’, which is quite a different thing), into hating the opposing tribe? If this is true, being tribal is not the problem; the problem may well be our leaders. If we believe the amygdala regulates ‘the emotion of fear’ we are easily seduced into believing, for example, that ‘racial hatred is biologically ingrained and therefore beyond individual control’. When our leaders say other tribes laugh and sneer at us, hate our food, the way we talk, who we sleep with, how we spend our down time, they are manipulating our fears. How do leaders do this? In the way they speak to us. There are three basic ways a leader can talk to us: they can use reason, emotion or focus on character and a sense of belonging.
Let’s look at reason first. This is where a leader logically makes his or her case, provides evidence to back up that case and offers conclusions based on that evidence (a good leader will also listen to conclusions other members of the tribe might have made based on the evidence). In terms of character, a leader might focus on their own standing within the tribe, how their membership of that tribe brings status and honour to the tribe. And then there is the appeal to emotion. Of all the ways a leader can describe the tribe to itself, describe him or herself as a leader, and describe the other tribe and their leader, emotion is the most powerful and the most divisive. There is no logic and no evidence provided, there is no talk of upright moral behaviour, there is just the rawness of feelings. Two year olds are masters at expressing their emotions; they believe in them because they feel them then and there; emotions feel real, they feel reasonable, they are all encompassing. And then they are gone, ‘oh, look, a butterfly …’
How can a tribe distinguish between logic, character and emotions (also known as, since the Greeks first thought democracy might be a good way to get tribes to think about their place in the world, as Logos, Ethos and Pathos)? The answer is to listen carefully to the words the leader uses. Logos is not about saying, ‘I have empirical evidence’ it’s about outlining and explaining the evidence and analysing it. A leader who does this might use words like, ‘research, exploration, data, measurements, comparison, contrast, examination’. In an appeal to Ethos the key words are usually ‘I, me, we, us, them, they, our community, society, ethnic, class, clan, family, tribe, good character, poor character, proper, right, moral, correct, wrong, deviant, evil and not like us’. Some of these words may also be used when the leader employs Pathos, along with other words such as ‘threat, danger, safety, force, take, give, leave, lose, anger, love, cry, hate’.
What can the assembled tribe do as they listen to their leaders trying to convince them that their way of seeing the world, and getting what they want, is the right and proper way?
A friend of mine, an American I deeply respect has, over the years, shared two significant insights with me. The first was, ‘Janet, who is speaking, for whom, and on whose authority?’ I didn’t initially understand her meaning. In the context of today’s post, however, the first part of her question could relate to Ethos; ‘Who is doing the talking, what do they believe, why are they the leader, what do they know, where did they get their information? What are their biases, their prejudices?’ The second is simply a way of remembering they are talking to us: thinking beings with our own ideas, thoughts, experiences and feelings. We need to ask ourselves if the leader is truly reflecting our experiences, or merely acting as if they care about our lives and what we want.
And the final part? The word ‘authority’ is tricky here and I wish I could find a better one, but look at it this way; authority can mean giving orders and making decisions (in which case we go back to ‘who gave this person the right to speak?’). Another meaning of the word is an expert who therefore knows what they are talking about. One final meaning: freedom from doubt, assurance, self-confidence, which is not the same thing as speaking from an expert base or in a logical and sensible way but could be interpreted as ‘speaking for themselves’.
And the second thing my American friend said? It was a decade or two later, when I was struggling with my PhD. I was stuck and I didn’t know what to do with the information I’d uncovered, what it meant and how to structure it. She listened politely as I rambled on and when I took a breath she said, ‘Janet, think harder.’
Tribes will always complain about other tribes. We humans love a good rumble. But as I used to say to my three children when they play-wrestled together on the family room floor, ‘It’s always good fun until someone gets hurt.’
When the rumble is serious, when a leader, two leaders, emerge who think they can speak for us, on their own authority, and tell us the other tribe hate us and want us to disappear off the planet, they are ‘evaluating the relevance of stimuli’, for us. They are manipulating how we ‘tune’ into our ‘overall cognitive and emotional responses’.
How do we stop them from manipulating us? We need to listen carefully, note the words they use, the emphasis they place on those words and how those words are arranged. We need to sit down and think about our tribe, our leader and how he or she wields their authority. And then we need to think harder. We need to consider the other tribe, that weird bunch across the river who, after all, want the same things as we want.