Confessions Of An Unrepentant Tribalist

I am a tribalist – full stop.  I admit it, I am proud of it, and I invite others to appreciate the wisdom of that approach even as tribalism often gets a bad rap in more “enlightened” circles.  I will nuance what that means, and certainly appreciate that commitment to tribalism, like any commitment, however elevated or base it may be, can be taken to dangerous extremes.  That said, the human value and importance of tribalism becomes increasingly clear to me, and the fact that it can go terribly wrong does not mean that we can afford to turn our backs on its many gifts and benefits.

Ignoring the positive value, or even necessity of tribal connection because it can be gotten wrong, would be like choosing to live in unheated homes, eating raw food, because fire can burn down the house.  Talk about things going to extremes and letting the perfect be the enemy of the good!  And now there is even a cool new book by bestselling author, Sebastian Junger (War, The Perfect Storm, Fire), that takes up the wisdom of tribalism, for all of you who doubt me.

Junger’s new book, Tribe, examines the importance of tribal connection and all that is lost when we lose that connection.  He has his own definition, and you can decide for yourself if you like it or not, but for me, it all comes down to two words: unconditional love, or at the very least, unconditional belonging, which is really big. 

A tribe offers the experience of being loved and cared for not because of what you do, but simply because you are who you are.  Once you are in the tribe (not what I would call a condition because it is typically a matter of birth, although converting in is also an option for some tribes), you are in no matter what. 

It is that sense no matter how much we screw up, no matter how wrong we may be, there is always a place for us.  Once conferred, that place need never be re-earned.  It may not always be a comfortable place, but it remains yours, no matter what.

You may be more or less popular with some members of the tribe, you may achieve greater or lesser influence or leadership, and you may contribute more or less to the tribe as a whole – but once you are part of the tribe, you are always a part of the tribe.  However much people may grouse about it, they will be there for you because you are a part of the tribe, and you damn well better do the same for them.  But even if you don’t, you are still part of the tribe.  Think of it as un-divorceable family on steroids, if you like.  We all need that, and the only question is where and how we are going to get it.

Now I get the fact that the rule that you are loved and embraced simply because you are what you are, divorced from any standard regarding what you do, is not only the basis of tribalism, but also of racism.  So yeah, we need to be careful about how to live our tribalism.  But give up unconditional love because it shares elements with unconditional hate?  Never!  I prefer to think of the former as the necessary corrective on the latter. 

Living into that claim is what distinguishes healthy tribalism from sick racism, and I think it is informed by two important principles.  The first principle is that when one is clearer about what’s wrong with other tribes than they are about what’s right with their own, they are almost certainly walking down the racist path.  The second principle has to do with good times and bad times.  When tribal feeling is only evoked by suffering and hardship, and not by some deep desire to be in relationship during good times as well, you probably have a problem. 

While no tribe always gets it right, if they manage to mostly get those two principles right, then they have a real shot at offering the unconditional belonging and love to which all people are entitled, and which everyone from ancient theologians to contemporary psychologists tell us, all people need. 

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