Tribal Thoughts

Archeologists have discovered how ancient Mesoamericans treated the bodies of the dead. A recently published abstract from “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” states:

“The research pair looked at bones from the site dating back to 500–900 C.E. and discovered the remains of those who had died or were killed were treated very differently depending on whether they were from their own people or were those of enemies. Bones found inside the compound, they noted, showed signs of being treated with respect, whereas those outside were not only abused, but showed evidence of cannibalism.”

No surprise here, right? Except maybe the cannibalism. But of course it makes perfect sense to us that the bodies of members of one’s own tribe would be treated with reverence, while bodies of enemies – well, anything goes.

Recently I was driving behind a man who could not make up his mind where he wanted to go. Time and time again he slowed, paused, started to switch lanes then changed his mind and switched back. In my usual, mild version of road rage, I thought “what an idiot; what a terrible driver.” Then it occurred to me: what if I suddenly found out that this confused driver was one of my sons, or my father? My feelings of annoyance would vanish instantly and be replaced by a barrage of excuses for the behavior: he’s so young, he’s so old, people need to be more patient with confused drivers, etc., etc.  Now, why was this? Two completely different feelings about the exact same behavior, based on who did it?

But I’m sure my reaction doesn’t surprise anyone, either. We all do it. Because we are the same as those ancient Mesoamericans. It makes all the difference in the world to us if someone is a member of our own tribe or not. In cases like the driving example, tribal affiliation can easily override reason. It shouldn’t make any difference; the driving was equally bad and annoying no matter who was doing it. But it does make a difference.

When a character in the television show “Outlander,” which takes place in Scotland in the mid-1700’s, is distressed by the insular views and behavior of villagers, another character points out that those villagers have never travelled farther than a day away from their village in their lives. Those villagers form a very unified tribe, similar virtually to the last person in their outlooks, beliefs, and superstitions. In 21st century America, things are not so simple. Very few of us these days have one unified tribe. We might have a family tribe, and a tribe of friends (what Bridget Jones calls her “urban family” in the movie “Bridget Jones’s Diary”). Or more than one tribe of friends, within each of which we act somewhat differently. We might have a religious/belief tribe, and a political tribe. Any group you identify with and feel solidarity with is one of your tribes. In my world of animal training, we have the “positive reinforcement training” tribe, the “balanced training” tribe, the “force-based training” tribe, and more. Notice that our names for other tribes often reflect our own tribal affiliation: I doubt that trainers who use shock collars and choke chains call themselves “force-based trainers,” but from my own position in the “positive reinforcement tribe,” that is how they appear.

The issue that interests me is why it is so difficult to change people’s minds when there is solid research or overwhelming factual support for something other than what they believe. And here is my answer, from the article “Beyond Belief” in New Scientist magazine:

“Our social nature means that we adopt beliefs as badges of cultural identity. This is often seen with hot-potato issues, where belonging to the right tribe can be more important than being on the right side of the evidence.”

Light bulb moment: Where belonging to the right tribe can be more important than being on the right side of the evidence.

No wonder we see, again and again, members of Congress voting straight down party lines. To vote otherwise would be to step outside the tribe, and even worse, to affiliate with the opposing tribe. While presenting more and more evidence for, say, climate change will eventually sway a few dissenters, there is a reason why it will take a true catastrophe to convince the rest: there will be no global change until the evidence is so threatening that it is no longer a matter of defecting from your tribe to the other, but of the two tribes coming together against a common enemy.

This is also why tribal outliers, regardless of their character or behavior, are viewed with such suspicion by the vast majority of the population: single adults (no family tribe); atheists (no religious tribe); independents (no political tribe). The societal pressure against being without a tribe is tremendous. The tribeless often end up forming or joining groups, clubs, or organizations composed of similar outliers to themselves, thereby becoming tribal again. The internet has made it much easier for outliers to connect with each other. Anyone can set up a Facebook page and enjoy the satisfaction of posting articles that are guaranteed to be ‘liked’ by likeminded FB friends.

Those of us who are actually inclined to listen to all new information and attempt to assess its value for ourselves, rather than through the tribal glass, are doomed to cynicism and frustration, because that is not how most of the world works. It’s helpful, as always, for us to understand, even if we can’t bring ourselves to be tribal enough to truly be comfortable and happy in a tribal society.


One comment

  1. mcfwriter · June 1, 2015

    Love these tribal thoughts! Being an outlier by nature, I’ve struggled to find a tribe at times, and yes, experienced frustration at the willingness people have to follow the crowd-thought and not think for themselves (probably been guilty there a few times as well). There’s safety in numbers, sure, but at what cost?


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