Life in a Tribe

We all belong to tribes. In actual fact, we belong to multiple tribes; our country, continent, political party, football team, favourite TV programme, sexual orientation, and a lot more besides. We’re either proud of or embarrassed by our tribes – we may feel uncomfortable being called British, and prefer the label of European or English; we live or die by West Ham’s performance, but loathe Arsenal with a vengeance.

Tribes can be incredibly useful, enabling people to come together and feel part of a community (be that gay, black, female, or anywhere along a spectrum) where its members understand each other by experience and shared values. It validates that part of you and makes you feel a part of something bigger than yourself.

The downside to that is when you don’t fit into a tribe. That happens more than we’d care to admit, deep down; we sometimes feel odd and out of place, like we’re missing out on the unspoken rules in a group. There are always three answers to this; either we accept it and move on, try to fit in, or fight it and set up a tribe of your own.

Tribes are always in flux, changing according to memberships, new information, and ideals. The core values we carry with us into the tribe are often constant and hardened over time; it can take a lot to shift them in any direction, as that often shifts us away from our security blankets.

At the outer edge of your tribe are the people who share hobbies and interests with you; they will interact with you on a fairly regular basis, but on a low level. The middle layer are the ones who work alongside you, but don’t necessarily share all your visions. They’re with you because your interests overlap for the time being but, once that time’s passed, they’ll move on. Finally, there are the people who are totally engaged with your own beliefs; they aren’t always people you grew up with; they could well have come from somewhere completely different. These are the people we seek out and want to spend the most time with.

Tribal connections are all social, of course; that’s the nature of the beast. We’re all social creatures to a lesser or greater degree, and so we seek out people who are similar to us. We want validation for our own opinions and to feel that our views are “right”. We’re not always right of course, as much as we’d like to be, and so there are occasions when spending time in our tribes can be unhealthy. We need to be challenged, and to accept when we are; it keeps our thinking fresh and our ideas current – and maybe even introduces a new way of thinking into the conversation.

But how do we decide what’s important to us? How do we prioritise one thing over another – education over housing, for example, or science over dance? Why are we interested in the things we’re interested in, and why are each of those things different to each of us?

This is important, as it involves us agreeing on common values, both within our own tribes and as part of society. Margaret Thatcher famously said that, “There’s no such thing as society.” Maybe there isn’t; maybe there’s just a collection of communities which come together for a collective purpose. Or maybe British society changes over time, as does our membership of tribes.

Christopher Hitchens, for example – before his untimely death in 2011 of cancer – belonged to the socialist left, and there he was proud to stand … except when it came to his support of the second Iraq War, which pushed him to the “tribe” of the right-wing neo-cons. Had he completely switched his allegiance? Hitchens himself didn’t think so, although he had moved away from defining himself as a pure socialist; he still saw himself as left-wing, but it was just that he disagreed with a lot of his tribe on the war. To his credit, he arguedthat it was important to stand up for what he believed in, even if that distanced himself from his fellow tribe members.

We obsess so much over labels, but we forget that they are often comparatively new; calling yourself either right wing or left wing before the late 1700s would have earned you quizzical looks, and being labelled as homosexual was unknown until the 1860s. That’s not to say that those political or sexual liaisons didn’t exist; people have always been politically, sexually, and culturally diverse, and used a variety of different titles depending on the issue they supported or voted against.

We expect a lot from people within specific labels; we’re expected to be adherents of that group, irrespective of anything else they might say or do, and we’re almost surprised when people step outside their box in order to explore the world around them.

How do we find people like ourselves? In a variety of ways, but the internet is certainly a great leveller. It allows us the opportunity to find other people who agree with us on issues, from across the political divide.

Socialists hate Tories, or so the stereotype goes; there are just two genders, and sexuality is a binary state like the two sides of a coin. All of those things are true because they have always been true. That is a nonsensical statement, of course; if we can agree on any of them, then can’t we agree on the fact that we can move beyond simple labels to agree with someone?

Can’t we agree on certain things? Wouldn’t both left and right both agree in the principle of freedom of choice for our children to follow whatever career they’re passionate about, for example? Shouldn’t we have a robust debate on how children should best be enabled to achieve their full potential, not if they should be allowed to achieve it? It’s about considering the language we use to challenge views of the world.

So how do we break out of this mentality and work on issues irrespective of tribe loyalty? Wanting to improve society is a better use of our time than tribally associating ourselves with one point of view and agreeing with everything espoused by it, irrespective of our own, independent thoughts.

We each need to be challenged, as often as possible, and consider different views. We need to stop refusing to consider a point of view because it’s coming from our hated enemy – the Tories, the Communists, gay people, white men, whatever – but whether or not it’s a good thing to implement in a fair and just society.

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