In my periodic attempts to comprehend the human race, I start with the recognized belief that humans evolved in interdependent small groups. These groups formed tribes, and that made good survival sense. You couldn’t go out to the mammoth store and buy a prepackaged mammoth: you had to go out in a group, with at least some guys knowing to do it, and then drag home its parts, where others knew how to cook it. Division of labor, partly gender-specific, but it worked okay in its context. And from what we know from present-day “primitive” tribes, the CEO of the mammoth-hunt didn’t glom a bigger hunk of the beast. He just offered his wisdom for the survival of the tribe.
We’ve come a long way, baby, but we still have the hunger for tribe. Even in historical times, the worst you could do to a malefactor, short of death, was to exile him from the city. Now we have international mammoth-hunting corporations, held together by salary, and exile isn’t an option.
Sports teams (at least up through high school), live theatre events, musical groups, etc., are held together by competition, applause, but above all, tribal identity. Of course that doesn’t last long for talented individuals for whom the NBA contract, the movie deal, or the solo concert tour takes precedence, while the early group is just where you “got your start.” The high school football team doesn’t stay together and at last join the NFL. Not even in Texas.
The military is an anomaly. Of men once together in combat, many stay in touch for years. Marine fathers may claim Marine sons. Doddering elders from a forgotten war will don their moth-riddled uniforms and parade on a holiday. Is this because, like the mammoth hunt, the stakes were really high, or is it evidence of our need?
What accounts for the fandom of professional sports? We recall the spirit of cheering our high school basketball team, all students at our high school, no ringers from South Omaha. Perhaps we recapture a hair of that by cheering for Cleveland, though not a single player is from Cleveland. It’s not really our tribe, but our need is so profound.
Political movements feed on the longing for tribe. It’s obvious in any form of identity politics, in ganging around a single issue, in wearing a certain hat, in cheering a leader. Of course, the grouping we choose is affected by our own values, but the intensity of connection—and the difficulty of changing minds—flows from our need for tribe. To change your mind is to exile yourself from your nearest and dearest.
A present-day subset of political groupings is the Conspiracy Theory or Thinking For Yourself, whichever. “Yourself” most often is a tribe, simply one that’s tuned to a special website and a special group-think.
Traditional ties have undergone steady deterioration. Family is something to escape from, and ethnic identity—a very strong tie in this nation of immigrants—is in decline. The most common experience now is the anonymity of the city, and the greatest threat is isolation—and the hunger that attends it. Marketeers are at the head of the pack in understanding this, but politicians are picking it up by fits and starts.
Feminism, racial balance, and gay acceptance have all gained strength from this hunger, but at the cost of strengthening their opposition. What is the tribal identity for straight white males that doesn’t get mocked by someone? What can I feel a part of?
In my view, the future belongs to the outfit that throws the best party: never mind the band or the booze or the gender balance—it’s the party that makes you really want to be there. To feel part of the mammoth-hunt, even if you’re vegan. I don’t deny the rationality of human endeavor, but since high school I’ve doubted that that’s a big factor. For me it’s finding our tribe. I’ve had great empathy with human life, and I want human beings around me, chanting the chant of my tribe.