Tribalism – Worlds within Worlds

In many of my posts I have often mentioned “worlds within worlds” or people “living in their bubbles”. This is not meant in a negative way and actually is not all that uncommon based on social anthropology. It is known as “tribalism“.  The Merriam Webster dictionary defines tribalism as “loyalty to a tribe or other social group especially when combined with strong negative feelings for people outside the group“.  Like the “fight or flight” reaction that goes back to the days of the cavemen, tribalism is a genetic left over from a previous time.  It is ingrained in our psyche.  A strong tribalism reaction can ignite our fight or flight mechanism.

I first became aware of this term and its affect on society when I was reading “No Small Change” by Dian Cohen.  That was in the 90’s and the global economy was just beginning to be fully recognized.  Dian Cohen is well respected Canadian economists.  She was joined by the likes of Nuala Beck and Jennifer James.  In fact Jennifer James’s book “Thinking in the Future Tense” became a major tool and background document for me.

Dian Cohen spoke of tribalism from her own perspective and its effect on the economy.  She acknowledged and promoted the need for change in tribal thinking needed in the labour movement and the corporate boardroom.  I prefer to look at tribalism and its affect on social justice issues.  Different segments of our community (tribes) have different concepts of social justice and it is often based on the social strata they live in.  Acknowledging tribalism in any adversarial situation is a good risk mitigation tool and one every advocate should be aware of.

I have dealt with too many people and lost a number of valuable friends due to my insistence on social justice.  It is not that these friends are oppositional to social justice.  On the contrary they tend to be very supportive of it.  However they look at it from their own “tribes” perspective and I failed to acknowledge their tribal views.  Most of these people have spend the majority of the last forty years with the same tribe in Calgary.

Over the past forty years I have lived in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Victoria as well as Calgary.  With almost every move I have also changed (I prefer the idea of built on) careers.  Some of my careers have been as a business analyst for Dunn and Bradstreet in Toronto, a hospital mental health therapist in Calgary and a policy analyst for the government in BC.  My careers have been diverse and my social circles have continually changed.  I have socialized with many tribes but never really put roots in any of them.  With that said I have maintained numerous friendships with people from my past in Calgary.

Many of those relationships in Calgary are well entrenched in their own tribal beliefs.  The longer one is with their “tribe” the more complacent they can become.  You trust your tribe which is normal but you should never trust your tribe blindly.  Every now and then you have to review what is going on in your life to see if your tribe still meets your needs and expectations.  That whole process is almost alien to anyone approaching retirement age except to review their financial situation.

Hell they have planned and worked hard to get to get to this point.  Most people work towards retirement with the idea that it will be comfortable and enjoyable.  Being comfortable is not about focusing on all of the downside of our communities.  There is no enjoyment in focusing on the negative side of our community.  However being ignorant of the issues or outright denial of the issues is not the responsible things to do and that same sense of responsibility is what contributed to attaining that positive retirement plan.

My lack of deep attachment to any one tribe is now taking its toll.  There really is no retirement when a big part of your life has been about social activism.  It is difficult to go from having spend the day with a family teetering on the brink of their own sanity due to the continual fight to obtain treatment for their self-abusive child with autism to having a nice supper with an early retirement couple planning their next vacation to Europe.  There is a huge incongruity in those two tribes even though both tribes have their own merit.  Meanwhile I too often find myself stuck in the middle attempting to balance the two styles in my mind.

This has been a very brief overview of the “tribalism” concept.  I am raising it now because I believe what we are witnessing in Ottawa between the Senators and the politicians is tribalism at its height.  If you look at the definition again you will notice the last part of that definition is “strong negative feelings for people outside the group“.  Not just negative feelings but “strong” negative feelings.  The kind of negative feelings that will lead to a tribe circling the wagons in resistance to any tribal status change when it would be much more constructive to sit down and talk about compromise.

Activists and advocates are really out on their own.  I am seeing that now.  Some of my peers from the 80’s who fought for certain rights and conditions stopped fighting once they had accomplished their goal or satisfied their personal agenda.  Traditionally an activist is someone who is pushing for tribal change which is a continual challenge.  The challenge is continual for numerous reasons but can be compared to aging.  We progress and make changes based on the needs of the time.

We battle for change based on issues like technological change, societal thinking, economic issues, political beliefs, etc but we should never accept change that moves us backwards.  I am now watching battles being fought that I thought had been settled years ago.  People become so comfortable with their tribe that they begin to accept the packaged messages of the tribe as unquestionable reality.  And as we reached that hard worked for retirement we don’t want things that may make our lives uncomfortable.  To me in many cases that is just complacency and that is one tribe I will never join.

So to my advocate friends make your self aware of tribalism.  And to my friends who use wheelchairs, never park in a designated disabled spot is a way that your wheelchair could role away in mid-shift.  In other words have your car door between you and the bottom of the hill.  It’s been my experience, repeatedly, that disabled parking spots tend to be located on the side with the hill.

Just one man’s opinion!

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