Tribalism Won’t Save Us

Tribalism Won’t Save Us

Sometimes you have a conversation that sticks with you, uncomfortably. 

About a month ago, I was talking with a bright, animated young college student about what was going on in politics since his major was political science. He was volunteering for Bernie Sanders during his winter break from school, so I decided to press him a bit about why he thought Bernie was the best candidate for President. 

“At a time like this, when the country has been so divided, don’t you think we need someone who is more willing to compromise and work across the aisle?” I asked.

“No,” he shot back. “They don’t want to do that so why should we.”

We went on to debate other matters, but his words have stuck with me, and they make me more than sad. “They don’t want to do that so why should we” summarizes so many of the problems I see in our nation, our church and our world today. 

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

“They”–always a monolithic group, usually demonized or dehumanized in some way to represent a conglomerate Boogey Man to be feared and opposed. “They” are not individuals with differing perspectives and needs, human beings who have value and deserve to be listened to, reasoned with, worked with. In short, “they” are “The Other,” who can be dismissed.

“Don’t want to do that”–this assertion, like so many others, is stated as unarguable fact (a problem if “They” is not the monolithic group as previously discussed). It begs the questions, “Why? Says who? Forever or for a prescribed period of time? On everything? Have we really tried to work it out? Is there some common ground we could move to?” I could go on, but there is more to the statement.

“So why should we?”–since “we” includes me and you, I immediately wonder when I or anyone else was asked if “we” really felt that way. And I want to point out that if the first half of the sentence is meant to paint “The Other” in a terrible light, then why are “we” content to be painted with the same brush and color? Don’t “we” want to demonstrate leadership, model caring and compassionate behavior, “go high” when “they go low,” to quote a woman I greatly admire? Do “we” have to behave like recalcitrant children who just want to get even from some slight or injustice?

This is what many call tribalism, which Wikipedia defines as “a way of thinking or behaving in which people are loyal to their social group above all else, or, derogatorily, a type of discrimination based upon group differences.” And we see it in politics, in churches (in the Catholic Church, it’s the pro-Pope Francis group versus the anti-Francis), in organizations and families. 

And it gets us nowhere.

“They don’t want to do that so why should we” only sets us up for continued strife.  To illustrate, let me use the most ridiculous of examples, drawn from my daily life with a few too many cats. 


Until a year ago, my husband and I had two cats, Minerva and Bella. They get along well, play together, occasionally sleep together, all is fine.  Then my adult daughter moved home while she went to grad school, bringing her cat, Bono.  Now, Bono is a wonderful cat, on his own terms. He’s much older and has always lived as a solo cat.  When he’d visited us previously while our daughter was traveling, he was very frightened of Bella and Minerva (and in turn, he really frightened Minerva), but he had slowly warmed to me, so I had hope that all would be well after a brief period of transition.

Minerva adjusted quickly, much to our surprise.  But Bella, who had on previously visits actively tried to befriend and play with Bono, did not.  Apparently, Bella remembered being shunned and hissed at previously, and she has decided that Bono is public enemy number one. Nearly a year after moving in, Bono and Bella continue to fight almost daily.  Neither one will give an inch, despite everything (calming spray, joint play sessions, joint treat times, etc.) we’ve done. 

Now, I’m sure that no one wants to be compared to warring cats, but it’s not a stretch to see Trump versus Sanders, the Republicans versus the Democrats, the traditionalist Catholics versus the liberal Catholics as Bella versus Bono (or is it Bono versus Bella). They have the potential to get along and create great things together, but they’ve decided (I believe out of fear and hurt) to shun “The Other,” to attack “The Other”, to look for ways to make life miserable for “The Other.” And everyone around them suffers.

Such tribalism holds out promises that if we can just subdue, diminish or destroy “The Other,” then we can live a great life (again, some say).  But tribalism won’t save us.  Tribalism will only destroy us.

We’ve got to break this cycle before it is too late.

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