“He got all the way down to a tribe with just one member — himself.” — Lee Child
When I was a kid, my parents voted for Nixon, so I was thoroughly for Nixon and heartily against Kennedy. I had no earthly idea why one was to be preferred over the other, but it didn’t matter: my folks were for Nixon, and that settled that.
My dad’s work afforded him the perk of a new car every few years, and they were all Chevrolets. Therefore I was a Chevy kid who had utter contempt for Fords.
I grew up unthinkingly anti-Russia and pro-America because, well, that’s how everyone else was. America was my tribe. The other guys were bastards.
Then high school came along, where most students were keen to belong to the “in” crowd. But I was oblivious, a nerd whose head was firmly planted way up inside his, uh, books. I had friends, though they were nerds, too, interested not in social status but in science and music and literature. We were so far outside the “in” group that, for all intents and purposes, it was lost beyond the horizon. So we ignored it.
As a marching-band member, I attended football games, but I wasn’t into sports and didn’t really understand what was going on. I noticed the other bleachers filled with strangers from opposing schools, but I had no sense of them as an evil enemy, the way so many of my classmates seemed to feel.
Just what, exactly, were we learning in high school about other people?
Decades later I came to realize that all those social climbers had gained important skills for adult life, skills that I had missed, that would help them later to deal with office intrigues, to win the most socially respectable mates, and to protect their teams from outsiders. By the time I realized this, I noticed I’d acquired some mental skills of my own that might actually serve me better. Here are some of them:
•Instead of being tribal, I’m inclusive. I don’t identify with any group or association (whether an in-crowd or an out-crowd), but instead I tend to take each person on his or her merits. I’ve watched too many episodes of “Star Trek” to worry about skin color, size, shape, religion, etc. This enables me to interact with, and benefit from, people others might disregard. After all, we love our families but don’t therefore hate other families; why should we despise strangers just because they’re not part of our group?
•Instead of being loyal, I’m contractual. That is, I don’t go all-in with a person or group, but limit my interactions to what we have in common. This removes most sources of conflict, and I don’t have to sacrifice myself to the whims of some group leader who suddenly goes screwy and drags everyone with him off a cliff.
•Instead of being argumentative, I’m contemplative. Political arguments, moral disagreements, set-to’s over resources: all go nowhere, with each side angry at the other and both sides frozen in their beliefs. So I take a step back and look at the entire field of play — how each side lines up against the other, how our perspectives are warped by our own needs — and search for ways to solve the issue so that the dispute evaporates. In the old days, problems could be intractable, but today there are always new techniques for resolving situations, plus new technologies that help make room for everyone. Where once we’d take a firm moral stance (which, conveniently, always favored our side in a dispute), now we can actually fix the problem so that both sides can walk away happy. There’s more room to move than there used to be, and less need to get on our high horses and do battle.
•Instead of being a taker, I try to be a producer. We all want and need resources, including good pay and plenty of friends, but these days it’s too costly to win them at the expense of someone else. Better to focus on what I can contribute at work and socially, so that I earn the benefits instead of trying to extract them by dominating others. Just because people are strangers, or don’t belong to our church or party, doesn’t mean we should regard them as prey. And just because someone stands in our way doesn’t mean we have to get tough and take them down. Better, perhaps, either to walk around them or arrange things inventively so that they end up aligned with us.
What we need today, in an increasingly interactive world of diversity, is the ability to get along with everyone, no matter their creed or color and despite their different customs and preferences. The old ways of tribal loyalty and distrust of outsiders may have worked in centuries past — and they certainly influenced my high school cohorts — but in today’s crowded world such a path too easily ends in disaster. It’s the tribal, loyal, argumentative side of us that wants to fight. But we’re also born with big brains that can help us modify our primal urge to contend and, instead, develop ways to cooperate and get along usefully.
Steven Pollan suggests that each of us, even if we work deep in the bowels of a huge conglomerate, should regard ourselves not as loyal corporate drones but as independent contractors who have temporarily leased our time to an employer. The point is to stop thinking of ourselves as obligated to a slow-moving, rigid social structure like a corporation. This insight might just as easily apply to our membership in huge political parties, religions, etc. We can give support to such groups, but we don’t need to “go all in” and sacrifice our best interests to them, especially when they’re on crusades against people we otherwise like.
If you still need to belong to a group, then think of yourself as the group. In this group there just happens to be only one person. And your group’s membership has the freedom to interact with any individual or group, in adaptive and constructive and harmonious ways. You’re not stuck inside a big, ponderous faction with its eccentric collection of beliefs, some of them harmful. Your micro-tribe can, instead, adapt at will to any situation. You can get together with anyone for any purpose and not be stuck with all the politics and conflict and heartache of big tribal organizations that demand strict obedience. You can build close and abiding friendships without expecting loyalty.
Instead, you’re a tribe with one member. And that tribe, on its own or with others, is free to do great things.