In 2002, I was working with a Fraternity at USF at Ray Jay stadium, manning a booth trying to raise funds for something or other (can’t remember what, exactly). The Buc’s were playing the 49ers I believe, and apparently it was a really big deal. Divisional Playoffs or something. To be honest, I don’t remember that much about the game… what I remember was after the game was over and the Buc’s won, the mentality of the people as we were leaving the stadium.
It was absolute mayhem. Cars were in gridlock and horns were honking everywhere. Dudes wearing jersey’s with other dudes names on the back were hugging random dudes in the parking lot. I remember some toothless guy who looked homeless running up to my car and pounding on the window and grinning like an idiot. I rolled the window down and he stuck his head in the car, kissed me on the cheek, and yelled “WE DID IT MUTHERF@#$%ER!” before running off. I couldn’t help but laugh at this guy (as I wiped my face off, yuck). Everyone wearing red were friends that evening, even if they had never met before in their lives.
The same type of feeling happened after 9/11, but in a different way. We were all American’s in the weeks after that day. Even in 2015, 14 years later, on 9/11 the mood changes. People stop and think. They are a bit nicer to each other.
These types of things happen because human beings, by nature, are tribal creatures. We needed to be, because in the early days of our history our ancestors had to be in order to survive.
Today, we are Americans or Russians or Frenchmen or a hundred other things. We are Buc’s or 49ers fans. We are Christians, Muslims, atheists. We are Republicans or Democrats. We identify with our race, with our vocations, with our religion, with our countrymen and our geography.
But in doing so, we do NOT identify with the opposite of whatever “tribe” we are in.
Driving out of the parking lot that evening in 2002, I remember seeing a group of three or four 49ers fans huddled together away from the cheering and back slapping. This mini-tribe had sought one another out, and they were trying to stay as out-of-sight as possible. They were outnumbered in a frenzied crowd, and they knew it.
It was hard not to know it… some less mature Buc’s fans (usually in packs) would drive by them and taunt them (usually with obscene language), and then laugh. But they were wearing 49ers jerseys and were part of the other tribe. They deserved it. Right?
Sport’s aren’t a bad thing, don’t get me wrong. I am not picking on football. In fact, I have seen people do a lot of great things through sports, and become better people for it. This isn’t about sports, it’s about a mindset. What did any of those people in the parking lot have in common besides being Buc’s fans? How did they really identify with the guys whose names were on the back of their really expensive jerseys? When that homeless looking dude ran up to my car and yelled “WE DID IT”, what exactly did “we” do? Many of the guys… in fact, MOST of the guys on those teams we just watched playing one another weren’t even from Tampa or San Francisco. In fact, if you think about it, the NFL is really just a huge organization that has identified and capitalized on people’s need to belong. It makes up a bunch of tribes based on geography and then invites people to be a part of one. As long as you enjoy the sport (any maybe not even then), you can be part of any tribe you want to be and get that feeling of belonging. You have your own uniform and colors and history. And you can hate any tribe you want to as well.
“You’re taking this too seriously Steve”.
Yeah, you might be right. The fan’s that I saw jeering at the guys in the 49ers shirts were admittedly few and far between. A huge majority of the people out that night were just regular people out having a good time. If they had friends who were 49ers fans, I’m sure the next day the worst that happened was a little rib elbowing and joking, probably with the knowledge that it could have just as easily gone the other way.
But it would also be silly not to realize that there are a group in every tribe who identify with it so much that they will do something outside of the norm. Almost all of the people I’ve met who are Muslim’s are warm, kind people, many of which I call friends. But I also know that there are others who call themselves Muslim who will fly planes into buildings or strap bombs to children, just like there are Christians who will blow up abortion clinics, or members of the “Protestant” Christan tribe and the “Catholic” Christian tribe in Ireland who will decide it’s ok to kill one another.
Extreme examples, I know. But the extreme can shift more towards the norm as more people in the tribe engage in that type of behavior. For an example of this, just take a look at the political climate in this country.
I read an account in the 50’s about how commonplace it was for large groups of friends to meet for dinner and discuss politics. Some were Democrats, some were Republicans, but that was more a description of which mindset they were leaning towards rather than a tribe they belonged to. They frequently changed their minds. Conversations were civil and were for the purpose of exchanging information.
Compare that account to today, where tribal lines are clearly drawn. You are either a Bible thumping gun toting bigot big business red conservative, or a baby killing socialist thieving welfare queen blue liberal. Depending on what tribe you are in, you have your own TV channel. Do you watch “The Liberal Media” or “FOX News”? Because depending on which it is, that’s where you get a two things:
1.) Reassurance that you are not alone, that you are part of a larger tribe who think like you do.
2.) The talking points you’ll need to put those idiot (other tribe here)’s in their place.
Some REALLY weird people choose to be part of neither tribe. We call these people “third party” or “independents”. They are dangerous, because their votes are at best “thrown away”, and at worst, give the election to “the other guy”.
Is this really the best way to look at things?
George Washington understood the tribal nature of people and didn’t think so. In fact, in his farewell address, he specifically warned against political parties and the dangers they brought:
“While Washington accepts the fact that it is natural for people to organize and operate within groups like political parties, he also argues that every government has recognized political parties as an enemy and has sought to repress them because of their tendency to seek more power than other groups and take revenge on political opponents.
Moreover, Washington makes the case that “the alternate domination” of one party over another and coinciding efforts to exact revenge upon their opponents have led to horrible atrocities, and “is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism.” From Washington’s perspective and judgment, the tendency of political parties toward permanent despotism is because they eventually and “gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual.”
Washington goes on and acknowledges the fact that parties are sometimes beneficial in promoting liberty in monarchies, but argues that political parties must be restrained in a popularly elected government because of their tendency to distract the government from their duties, create unfounded jealousies among groups and regions, raise false alarms amongst the people, promote riots and insurrection, and provide foreign nations and interests access to the government where they can impose their will upon the country.”
As Americans, we are free to choose any tribe we want, or no tribe at all. I’d invite us all to take a second as ask ourselves if we are part of the tribes we are in because of a thought out choice on our part, or for some other reason. Are your friends part of your tribe? Were your parents? Because with enough soul searching, we might just learn that the tribe we get our sense of belonging from was never something we really had the choice NOT to be a part of.
Maybe we don’t even WANT to be part of a tribe. Being able to think without the help of other people or their news channels might be kind of refreshing.
Just something to consider.