Tribes



Emerging into adulthood, I lived through the chaotic 60s, the reconstructed 70s and the strange arrival, in the 80s, of a surfacing sub-culture made up of people convinced that those who had little or nothing were at fault, that they were “lazy”and had failed to “try hard enough”. Concurrently, the meme “Greed is Good” captured the imagination of this group and seemed to became their moral guidepost for the foreseeable future. This sub-culture had financial and political clout. My response was foreboding.


Those troubled by these changes became truculent, insisting that there was something sinister in this worldview and the alternative was one of care and concern for those “have nots” that were being dissed by the “haves”. They became the “Have-Nots Advocates”. They had the clout that comes with a larger number of members and more compelling statistics about society. Their moral guidepost became outrage at the “Greed is Good” sub-culture. My response was foreboding.


These competing worldviews became the banners of two oppositional tribes, a tension that has persisted since the 80s and shaped my adult life. Both have a point. What has seemed most irritating to me is that both also have a gigantic blind spot, like an inflamed boil on their butt cheek. They insist that this boil does not exist while avoiding sitting down for conversations. It is obvious that sitting down could be painful if the festering boil is to be accommodated rather than lanced and healed.


The “Have-Nots Advocates” tribe elect to ignore the obvious reality that indeed some of the “have nots” do not take accountability for their actions, blame others, become mired in a victim script, fail to pursue a viable path out of their situation. While for “have-nots” there is an obvious motive for gaming the system rather than deconstructing the system, the “Have-Nots Advocates” tribe pretend away the fact that this occurs despite its obvious presence in the culture. It is not all “have nots”, and not near the majority, but by failing to acknowledge this opportunistic manipulative sub-group exists, it keeps the other tribe locked in their conviction and outrage. If the “Have-Nots Advocates” tribe keeps insisting there are no slackers in their universe, they can be dismissed as simply naïve or stupid.


Alternately, the “Greed is Good” tribe is blind to all the forces beyond simple “failure to produce” that shape the world of the “have-nots”. While invoking “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mantras, they are blind to systemic, structured efforts to disadvantage some people. They also refuse to acknowledge that their personal success, largely defined in financial terms, is in part a function of advantage though this is often demonstrably true. Finally, they deny that they are defending and protecting those advantages and thus sustaining inequity and injustice. They engage in “generous acts” designed to “help” the “have-nots” that in effect accommodate and perpetuate the disadvantage rather than deconstructing the structures that institutionalize these disadvantages.


Now both of these tribal patterns drive me nuts. Examples abound on a daily basis. Cultural ceremonies are enacted to protect and sustain the patterns. To suggest that the patterns exist is to activate the rage of both tribes. They like their world “as is” and do not welcome disruption. After all, each tribe “knows” itself to be better than the other and “right”. I have ever so gingerly tried to point out these patterns so I know.


As the deconstructions of the post-cave Covid era unfold, I would like to sit at some table somewhere that has opted for a conversation about these patterns: not an argument but a simple conversation, a simple willingness to describe the patterns and then ask the obvious question: do these two tribal patterns need to persist? Is protecting these blind spots an intelligent way to run a society? I do know that sitting on an inflamed boil makes this a bit of an extreme hope. Nonetheless, I am holding out for that conversation, wherever I can find it.


“Some of us think holding on makes us strong, but sometimes it is letting go. “

~Herman Hesse