This month’s theme from our statement of purpose is ‘community.’ What motivated me to write these opening words in the first place was the fact that here in the U.S. we live in social worlds that are marinated in a culture of extreme individualism that makes building and belonging to real, enduring communities difficult or nearly impossible.
A couple of years ago I heard an interview on the radio about a new book called Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. The author, Sebastian Junger, had spent several months living in a remote area of Afghanistan with an army special forces unit that was actively engaged in combat against Taliban forces. These soldiers had bonded into a tightly knit community, or tribe, and they experienced their return to the U.S. as a painful loss. Instead of a tribe of closely connected men, these returning veterans found themselves immersed in a sprawling and anonymous mess where people can (and do) get away with incredible levels of dishonesty without getting caught. Astronomically high rates of PTSD and suicide among vets reflect this unbridgeable divide between tribal community and contemporary U.S. society.
Junger’s argument struck a chord deep in my soul, not because I have served in the military in combat situations but on account of my experiences as a cultural anthropologist who lived intermittently during the 1980s and ‘90s in a tribal community of indigenous Amazonian peoples in Venezuela and Colombia. Many times I have experienced a ‘reverse culture shock’ upon returning from this tribal community in the Amazon to the hyper-individualism of the U.S.
I find it highly inaccurate, even offensive, to hear the words ‘tribal’ or ‘tribalism’ used to describe the hyper-partisanship that has afflicted our political system in recent decades. In fact, it is not tribalism that causes political polarization but self-interested office holders whose sole purposes are to stay in power at all costs and to raise as much money for themselves as possible. Such self-aggrandizement and enrichment at the expense of communal well-being would be severely punished in a tribal community. Are we the people really divided into warring ‘tribes’, red versus blue, straight versus gay, rural versus urban, and so forth? On the contrary, statistical studies show that there are important social issues that unite the vast majority of Americans. More than 97% of Americans, for example, believe we need to pass an effective federal background check for individuals buying firearms, yet we have no such federal protection even after an epidemic of mass murders that have one common denominator: firearms. Last April an ex-marine was acting violently and irrationally at his family home in southern California, and neither law enforcement nor mental health experts made any effort to deprive him of his firearms. Protection of his individual right of gun ownership set the stage for last week’s mass murder in Thousand Oaks. Can we even have viable religious, educational, or other communities when our collective right to public safety is so blatantly, frequently, repeatedly, and massively disregarded?
So please remember the next time you hear politicians or pundits blame our political dysfunctionality on ‘tribalism,’ they should really be pointing a finger at the broader culture of narcissistic individualism that is eroding our communal well-being, that has resulted in a narcissist-in-chief as leader of the ‘free world,’ and that has brought us to the brink of a constitutional crisis that makes Watergate look like a playground dispute among children.
NOTE: The ideas and opinions in this post do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.