Innovations in Tribalism
In the midst of disasters, we often see an increase in helping, sacrifice, and camaraderie as the everyday distinctions in position and social difference evaporate to reveal our common humanity and connectedness.
In his recent book Tribe, Sebastian Junger tells the story of the kind of intense social solidarity that made many European settlers who ended up in American Indian societies prefer the egalitarian closeness of tribal life to the greater material wealth and social hierarchy of colonial life.
He conveys the innate yearning we have for intimate connectedness to others that allowed our species to evolve in cooperative communities. Through a series of stories of human happiness in extreme circumstances, he illustrates the self-fulfillment and sense of honor that comes from making meaningful sacrifices for others.
Conversely, the pathologies associated with modern life, like suicide and depression, decrease during war. Junger recalls graffiti on a wall in Sarajevo that said “It was better when it was really bad” -- the war in Bosnia was over and the loss of social solidarity left many longing for the closeness and shared sacrifice that was their life during the ordeal.
In times of extreme danger, like disasters and wars, we seem to recover some of the flavor of our natural condition, and find a depth of satisfaction in sacrificing for our tribe. It is a deeply felt sense of being alive and valuable that is difficult to recreate in the many pleasures and comforts that are afforded by the impersonal wonders of civilization.
As something that leads to happiness and enables us to overcome adversity, tribalism merits more of our attention and engagement. Of course, we are not talking about an all-consuming tribal life that does not allow for alternatives to enter from the outside or for challenges and learning to take place. That is the pejorative sense of tribal life as a pre-historical mode of human existence that would not be relevant as a complete way of life in contemporary circumstances. But we have tribal moments and tribal arrangements in the midst of our modern condition.
If we understand the need for tribalism better we can deploy it both to create more happiness and to solve social problems, many of which seem to arise because we have such weak positive tribal connections in our everyday world.
Of course, tribalism can be used in a negative sense as demagogues do, to invent or exaggerate threats from the outside in order to bolster their authority and the internal cohesion of a tribe. That is why we have gangs, cults, terrorist groups, and malicious forms of nationalism. These negative manifestations of tribalism are all the more reason to understand our need for tribal connections and to work to nurture their more benevolent forms.
We already have innovators in tribalism, though that’s not what they call themselves.
Many of our philanthropic leaders are working to recreate tribal ties in fragile and at-risk communities. For example, we have seen efforts to reconnect the communities of Detroit through shared sacrifice. And in the everyday work of our sector we can see donor cultivation efforts and alumni outreach as efforts to create a tribal feel around a particular cause. And most organizations in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors work to nurture cultures of meaningful affiliation among their employees that goes beyond the paycheck in question.
Fifteen years ago our professor Les Lenkowsky wrote an inspirational speech just days after 9/11. He reminded us that moments of great distress have ways of bringing out the best in us and that these heroic qualities can be a product of upbringing and education. He hoped we would not be too quick to return to “normalcy” as the response to the terrorist attacks created a tribal moment of shared sacrifice. He also held up the promise of learning from this experience in a way that goes beyond emergency preparedness.
Our tribal needs are not something we have overcome through civilization, and they do not only appear when civilization frays. They are a constant part of what we yearn for and what makes us effective and engaged in the world.
Too often we leave the initiative in tribalism to those who appeal to its basest elements, as if the onward march of civilization, the economy, and more formal interventions will minimize the space in which tribalism operates. If indeed the tribal condition is part of who we are and if it has a positive role to play in fostering meaningful human connections, we should foster more innovators in tribalism.
Eugene R. Tempel Dean