Weekly Opinion Editorial
by Steve Fair
In 1988, a Frenchman named Michel Maffesoli wrote, “The Time of the Tribes: The Decline of Individualism in Mass Society.” Meffesoli predicted modern culture would decline to the point that society would look back on ‘the good old days,’ and form ‘tribes.’ These groups would engage in group think, reject ideas that weren’t consistent with the tribe’s dogma. Maffesoli asserted tolerance for other tribe’s opinions would decline. He predicted looking back at the principles from the distant past would guide tribes- individual thinking would be discouraged- an “Us vs. Them,’ mentality would reign. Welcome to tribal America! Three observations:
First, tribes have no respect for a differing opinion. That is true in the two major political Parties, in families, churches, civic organizations, or in social situations. The First Amendment guarantees free speech, but many believe that it only applies to them and not to those who don’t hold their same views. The First Amendment is used to justified attacking, insulting, or shouting down those who disagree with them. Civility and respect for a counterview is seen as weakness. That has occurred because of the decline of individualism.
Data from the General Social Survey (GSS), which has been run for a half century, show Americans in the past were more likely to meet people different than themselves. That interaction created the opportunity for dialogue and promoted compromise (a dirty word in today’s culture). GSS found the number of people who identify as conservative or liberal has changed little over the past 50 years. But conservatives have migrated to the GOP and liberals to the Democrats. The tribal mentality doesn’t allow for a liberal R or a conservative D.
Second, the general public is weary of the polarization in politics. Fewer and fewer citizens engage in political activism. They cite the nastiness, unkindness and foulness of those who disagree with them in their own Party. According to Pew Research, 62% of Republicans view Democrats unfavorably and 54% of Democrats feel the same way about Republicans. That is three times more than 30 years ago.
Political scientist Lilliana Mason makes the point that most modern-day voters pull the lever for a Party, not a candidate. Elections have become about numbers- about growing the tribe, and not about solving problems.
Third, groupthink and tribalism discourage creativity, individualism and personal responsibility. Standing alone on conviction or principle in modern tribes is not tolerated nor respected. Tribes require complete solidarity. Members who don’t conform face shunning and possible expulsion. The intolerance of the tolerant reins!
The founders of the United States were willing to work together for a common good. The 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were a diverse group from varied backgrounds. They negotiated, compromised and hammered out founding documents that have served the nation well for nearly 250 years. In 1776, there was only one tribe- all pulling on the same end of the rope at the same time.
Ed Goeas wrote in his book, A Question of Respect, the political pollster wrote: “We Americans have an urgent decision facing us. We must decide whether to build upon a foundation of mutual respect or live in a fractured society, where division rules the day.” Until Americans actually respect other citizens right to have a different opinion (and be wrong), the country will stagnant.