States of Affair, Part Two

Posted on Nov 10, 2014 in Church, Footnotes
States of Affair, Part Two

So what letter of the alphabet has your tribe claimed?

We were watching Oregon (eventually) beat Utah Saturday night. I noticed how Utah’s fans put the tips of their thumbs together, raised their index fingers, and shouted “Yuuuu!” in support of their Utes. Not unlike Oregon fans who form a circle with their hands, and yell “O.” Indeed, one can purchase T-shirts with large print commanding “Yell O”—an encouragement as well as an homage to one of Oregon’s colors.

Humans beings are tribal—so says Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. So say a lot of social scientists. Our tribes may be familial, social, racial, municipal, political, philosophical, national, recreational, religious, or any of a number of affiliations. But we are tribal. We are creatures who seek out a strong “Us”—and, almost always, a corresponding “Them.”

Having a strong “Us” is not necessarily a bad thing—our tribe gives us a sense of identity; it is a higher power to which we can offer loyalty; it offers us support in our need and common comfort in our losses. Most of us have one or more “Us” that define how we see ourselves, a part of our identity that we would not surrender without considerable kicking and screaming. And ripping of T-shirts.

Having a strong “Them” isn’t all bad, either. We are naturally competitive, and sports is one of many areas of life where healthy competition binds the community, and builds individual character (or, as one wag has said, reveals it…) The problems come when we feel the need to demonize “Them.” I was at a Dodgers game once when members of the UCLA marching band were introduced to play the National Anthem. They were booed, I assume, by attending USC fans. The National Anthem, booed! (This anecdote, by the way, may have been the other way round—being from Oregon, I demonize both schools without serious discernment.)

Of course, demonization is often far harsher than who boos whom. Our recent election reminds us of how apocalyptic our politics have become—power for the other party, we’re assured, will destroy our national tribe. Our most extreme current example, ISIS, is rampaging across Syria and Iraq slaughtering all who are not part of their “Us.” (But what should we make of our own demonization of ISIS, arguably absent a full understanding of the elements that form such extremism?)

Even within a prominent “Us,” we may find seriously demonized “Thems.” Two posts ago, I shared gleanings from How the States Got Their Shapes, by Mark Stein. All was not fun and games in figuring out our borders. So as to be separated from New York, Vermont threatened to fight on the side of the British in the American Revolution. Battling for control of the upper Ohio River, Pennsylvania fought what is called Dunmore’s War with Virginia; the same issue later caused Connecticut and Pennsylvania to clash in the Pennamite War. Michigan and Ohio exchanged fire over a corner of Lake Erie in the Toledo War. Never mind how many of our state boundaries represent concessions to various Indian tribes, every one of which was abrogated, usually with violence.

But our borders also represent efforts to rise above tribalism. Efforts were made to keep sets of states similar in size—Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, for instance; the stack formed by Kansas, Nebraska, North and South Dakota for another; and the seven degrees of longitude given to Colorado, Wyoming, Oregon and Washington, as well as the Dakotas.

And at least two borders were drawn so as to accommodate distinct “Others” within our national culture. Thomas Jefferson raised the Northern Border of Louisiana one degree of latitude to help its French-speaking majority feel welcomed, and the New Mexico Territory was drawn so as to offer its Spanish-speaking population a sense of security and strength. For all our modern tribal concern about common language, we readily accommodated speakers of other tongues who had suddenly become our newest citizens.

We are perhaps unavoidably tribal, often for good, often not. But we rise to an even higher plain when we can enlarge our sense of tribe, and increase our definition of “Us.”