April 27, 2018

Dear drama observers,

My wife and I graduated from rival SEC schools which clash on the gridiron every year at the end of November. Both schools have had seasons of brilliance but, far too often, the winner of our post-Thanksgiving rivalry occupies the division’s second-to-last place while the loser brings up the rear.

But we love the pomp and pageantry of SEC football. It’s always been interesting to me that a football game is one of the few places in life where it’s socially acceptable to cuss at people and tell them where to go—you know, like to regions of outer darkness where there’s wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Those who are uncomfortable giving directions regarding eternal perdition usually prefer more genteel-sounding cheers like,

Ra Ra Ree

Kick him in the knee

Ra Ra Ras

Kick him in the other knee

But what happens at these gladiatorial facsimiles is all in good fun. No one takes it seriously—in the life or death sense—except for a few crazies here and there. The objective is to beat your opponent and cheer when you do. And the more thorough the drubbing, the louder the cheers.

I bring all this up because I was thinking recently about the current societal phenomena called “tribalism.” Just this week, Ed Stetzer explained tribalism this way:

Like the little league teams from our childhood, adulthood is full of team spirit. Be these groups political, social, or religious, each is intended to bring like-minded folks into conversation and community with one another.

But the thing is, these teams have a tendency to cultivate unflinching devotion to achievement of some end goal. The game can quickly become zero-sum. In order for us to win, they need to lose.

The purpose of the team is then seen on binary all or nothing terms which are then used to frame those outside their clan as opponents to compete against—those who don’t see the world as we do and might differ from us on religious or political lines.

This—the notion of the “other” as enemy—is tribalism. It feeds the age of outrage in which we live; a world where opinions and ideas that contradict our own are not to be respected or even remotely entertained.

Anyone who has scrolled through social media recently knows all too well the vitriolic nature of 21st-century public discourse. Tribalism tells us to dislike, unfollow, and comment away in an attempt to show non-members of our ideological team just how misguided they are. Simply put, we’re on a self-assigned mission to criticize and condemn anyone who stands in opposition to our team and its ideals.

Tribalism at football games is fun and appropriate. Tribalism in personal relationships is sad and destructive. It divides people who would normally get along into factions of nitro and glycerin.

One of many problems I have with tribalism is the damage it does to the process of persuasion. Indeed, tribal devotees rarely try to persuade others with the strength of their ideas. They attempt, instead, to shame others who hold differing ideas. They’re more interested in scoring points than making points. “Persuasion matters,” wrote Jonah Goldberg, “though you wouldn’t know it from the last few years in American life. On the right and the left, persuading your opponents is out of fashion, replaced by the mandate to rile up your supporters.”

Tribalism quenches persuasion because if your ideological opponent is a lost cause, why waste time trying to win him over? Better to insult him which would thereby boost your level of tribe approval. Insults win applause; persuasion wins influence. Insulters win enemies; persuaders win converts. Insults harden the ground in which unconsidered ideas can be planted; persuasion tills the soil.

So, what do we do about this? It’s a problem that has many moving parts and there are no easy, quick-fix solutions. The list is long to be sure. But if I were a high school principal in charge of a tribe-divided school, I might give the following short list of instructions. (I put it in those terms because tribal relationships are essentially un-adult-like).

First, search for a middle ground that allows for an examination of ideas. If you’re in Tribe A and I’m in Tribe B, we’re likely to see each other as wrongheaded. That’s a given. But if we only insult each other, no ideas ever get examined and, thus, no persuasion ever occurs. Finding common ground doesn’t mean you go spongy on your ideas to meet somewhere in the mushy middle. It means you’re willing to enter a space where opposing views can be considered. You may end up rejecting the view, but you’ve been secure enough to give it some thought.

Second, separate ideas from the person. Tribal loyalists operate according the assumption: “The people in that other tribe don’t just have bad ideas; they’re bad people.” And if that’s your starting point, why would you waste time on persuasion? Better to assume: “That’s a good person with, in my opinion, bad ideas. I’ll see if I can persuade him or her to reconsider.”

Third, listen so you can understand. As Steven Covey once famously wrote, “Seek first to understand.” “When I’m getting ready to reason with a man,” said Abraham Lincoln, “I spend one third of my time thinking about myself and what I’m going to say, and two thirds of my time thinking about him and what he is going to say.” If you talk more than you listen, the ideas that are important to you will never be heard.

Fourth, don’t make assumptions about your opponent’s motives. Nothing elicits defensiveness more than the assertion, “Oh, I know why you see it that way. It’s because (fill-in-the-blank).” And the fill-in-the-blank is wrong. Asking for clarity about motives is productive. Assuming understanding of motives without asking is counter-productive.

Fifth, be kind about it. Testiness never gets you anywhere. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, the saying goes. (Thought: I’ve always wondered why the originator of that phrase wanted to catch flies, but that’s not important right now.) Kindness increases a person’s openness but testiness shuts him down. Or as Ben Franklin once said, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” No one ever changes opinions at the point of a gun.

Finally, learn to agree to disagree—agreeably. Getting along with someone who shares your opinions turns no heads. But getting along when you share deeply-held differences is noteworthy. And rare these days.

Seek to be rare.

6 replies
  1. Adele
    Adele says:

    I love your ideas about tribalism in today’s world. It seems as if it is getting worse. I have only a few friends who I can express myself to / discuss viewpoints with, (plus can do w family).

  2. Elaine
    Elaine says:

    Excellent and most helpful for today’s world. Hope to use these points. I enjoy your drama reviews.

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