The Ethics of Tribalism

The Ethics of Tribalism

David W. Hegg

It seems certain we are destined to live in a society made up of warring tribes. Tribalism, that blind, stubborn, and aggressive allegiance to the group with whom an individual shares deep convictions, has become a leading dynamic in our time, and has given rise to the most divided and caustic national conversation in my memory. But it is not because we hold passionately to what we believe. No. The divisiveness comes from the incivility, disdain, and animosity we openly and proudly demonstrate toward those with whom we disagree.

It is no wonder tribalism has become so dominant. To begin with, we are a selfish and arrogant people. We always know what is right for us since we most often look at life through the lens of self-interest. Add to that our American desire to win at all costs, and throw in a dash of the herd mentality, and you end up with social, political, and religious tribes whose members are incapable of admitting they are ever wrong or their opponents ever right.

Given the reality we no longer are a nation that believes self-sacrifice for the benefit of others is a worthy virtue, I at least propose we bring some ethics into our tribalism. Can we at least re-establish the value of competing in a way that doesn’t lead to all out uncivil war? I propose two governing principles for all tribes and their members.

First, we need to reinstitute the ethic of respect. Respect for our opponents must not be based on whether or not they are respectable in our eyes. Rather, we must always take the high road, and recognize them as human beings, created in the image of God, and deserving of the same treatment we desire for ourselves. Disrespect never accomplishes a worthy end. Disrespect, while gathering headlines and cheers from one’s tribe, only deepens the divide and escalates incivility or worse.

Respect for other people is the foundation of civil discourse, and civil discourse is a prerequisite for any future agreement, if that ever becomes the goal. My great fear is the presence of vitriolic disrespect demonstrates a far greater problem. I greatly fear that, in some cases, warring tribes have no plans to ever agree. They only plan to annihilate all opposing voices. I tell myself this relates only to a minority of tribesmen and tribeswomen, and if that is so, a restoration of respect on the part of the majority is a greater need than ever.

The second principle is objectivity. By this I mean intellectual honesty when it comes to assessing both needs and solutions. It will mean throwing self-interest aside when dealing with the failures of one’s tribe as well as the opponents’ beneficial proposals and convictions. No tribe is always right, and no opposition is always wrong, although even a casual reading of the daily headlines and columns will make it look that way.

Respect and objectivity can go a long way, but ultimately the enemy is our insatiable lust for power. Those who have it will do anything to keep it, even if it means silencing those vying to take it for themselves. The desire for power, acted out without a commitment to respect and objectivity toward both problems and people, effectively evaporates away any thought of sacrificial service and the need to work together with those who see things differently.

While I believe respect and objectivity should rule, I harbor no hope they will change the way our tribes operate. Simply put, the problem resides, not merely in the words we say or the way we say them. Our words and actions flow from our hearts, and it is there that the core problem is found. As I said above, we are a selfish and arrogant people, intent on seeing life through the lens of self-interest. We want what we want, and we want it now, and all who oppose our views must be ridiculed, indicted, or worse. What we need is not a change of behavior, but a change of heart.

Let’s face it. Pushing God to the margins, and then off the paper altogether hasn’t made us a better society. Having demolished much of the Judeo-Christian ethic upon which our democracy was founded, we are now floundering in a quicksand of our own making.

As we head into the season of thanksgiving, joy, and compassion, let’s make it a time for personal reflection as well. Despite our culture’s attempts to forsake the Divine, our hearts still long for something better than we are capable of making for ourselves.

Augustine said “You have made us for yourselves, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” May the upcoming holiday season provide time to assess the restlessness of our hearts, and perhaps find our way to the One who alone can both change and refresh the heart.