Tribalism: The Rising Phenomenon You Can’t Unsee

The Case for Frou Frou Drinks

“If the enemy of my enemy is always your friend, you’re opening yourself up to friends you’re really better off not having.”
-Ezra Klein

First, an introduction: I believe that whiskey drinkers care more about symbolism than taste.

When I first moved to Portland from Chicago, a friend made the kind gesture to invite me out to meet her local friend group. It turned out to be a cohort of post-college adults who I later learned refer to themselves as a “clique” and buttress their self-appointed label by doing things like work for the same company, date each other and exclusively wear black.

We met up at a cool bar. The type of place with a vintage photo booth used primarily for making out and taking topless pictures behind the parodied privacy of a half-curtain while a DJ spins the Drive soundtrack across the dance floor. As we shuffled through the order line I was introduced by my friend as a mom, which is never a great conversation starter.

That night, in keeping with my aforementioned ideology, I eschewed what everyone else was ordering (whiskey soda) in favor of a Piña Colada. It was a decision made firmly with the understanding that it would 1.) taste good and 2.) sport an umbrella (which I confirmed with the bartender because I’m the worst). If my drink costs north of $14, I prefer it to come with festive accouterments — e.g. fruit stuck through with a tiny bamboo sword adorning a mai tai, or a half a banana cut into the shape of a dolphin swimming in a daiquiri, maybe even a miniature Ty Beanie Baby clutching the stem of a glass of Franzia. I’m tacky, not picky.

We continued to chat as whiskey after whiskey was handed from bartender to clique and I had successfully begun to steer the focus off of being a mom and onto more relatable topics. Then my drink landed on the counter — umbrella, violently proud, stood conspicuous. The vibe shifted sharply from minimalist chit chat to early 90s sitcom after one of them loudly scoffed, “Who ordered the Piña Colada?” When everyone laughed pointedly, I realized I wouldn’t be making any friends that night. After a few half-hearted attempts at furthering the conversation, I finished my island escape, pocketed the umbrella and bounced.

Ultimately, that moment and the people in it held no influence over my life. I was turned off by their judgment and insensitivity toward a newcomer and they were turned off by what I can only assume was me in all of my Jimmy Buffet glory. It’s fine. I made other friends.

But this memory does exist to serve as a reminder that humans often feel more comfortable placing artificial values around certain acts or preferences rather than welcoming something or someone different, even if they pose no apparent threat. Even when they are in a vulnerable situation. My experience as an outsider to a tribe in this instance was annoying, but nothing further. This, unfortunately, is not always the case. Tribalism is nothing if not expansive in its scope, shifting from harmless inclinations to dangerous policy in a heartbeat.

Postmodern society broke the thick black lines we had previously drawn around what was socially acceptable, like the unquestioned reverence of capitalism or the willful ignorance of inequality in America. This progress has largely been for the better, but it hasn’t been without its growing pains. One critique of postmodernism is that it signaled the end of the individual. American literary critic Fredric Jameson referred to this notion as the “death of the subject,” which has lead to today’s cultural ache of tribalism.

My experience with cliquish attitudes was trivial, but there is an entire end of the spectrum that breeds far more nefarious attitudes. The recent example of the family separation crisis has been particularly illuminating for me in how the community around arbitrary markers (party affiliation) can take precedence over what I once believed to be a universal truth (do not harm kids). I can’t help but feel like the Overton window (the boundaries society places around acceptable discourse) is being stretched to a breaking point, while the arc of justice flatlines.

We all have the capacity to set aside reason in support of the tribe. That’s why a whiskey neat is okay, but a Piña Colada is an embarrassment. That’s why Grimes and Elon Musk confound us as a match. That is why my white child is precious, while brown children aren’t our concern.

That’s the thing with tribalism (or, as modern parlance would have it, cognitive bias): It’s hardwired into us, making it seem natural and valid. But people tend to forget that evolution isn’t intentional. It’s inefficient and random, which may mean that our instinct to team up is as necessary today as our appendix. And given that it pairs so easily with the artifice of advertisers or politicians, this instinct, like the appendix, can be just as dangerous when infected. Because what bias does most mercilessly is strip us of our reason.

In “Why Pure Reason Won’t End American Tribalism,” author Robert Wright presents the concept of tribal antagonism by explaining that “people in opposing tribes don’t like each other.” Wright posits that “the more you dislike the other tribe, the more uncritically you trust your experts and the more suspiciously you view the other tribe’s experts.” This, he says, is easily observable in your own self by a simple scroll through an ideologically mixed social media channel. How does it make you feel when you see evidence presented from a perspective you don’t agree with? It probably makes you mad, or perhaps you’ll feel superior. I know that I’ve certainly felt those things. What it often doesn’t make you feel is considerate or empathetic.

Wright’s piece was written in response to Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, a book that focuses on the Age of Enlightenment from a secular humanist perspective. Wright’s critique is that this particular work focuses too much on the idea that you can sway someone with facts, science and reason. But what sway do those Enlightenment-era qualities hold over a post-truth world? One that will arguably become harder to navigate when advancements in machine learning and technology mean it will become more difficult to discern reality from manipulated audio and video. He goes on to suggest that only by teaching the Buddhist practice of mindfulness alongside the scientific method do we have even a glimmer of getting back our reason.

Mindfulness is the act of being aware of your thoughts and emotions and choosing to explore why you may be having them. It’s critical analysis of the self. Wright suggests that as “long as you remain truly mindful, you will be less inclined to reflexively reject evidence at odds with your views, less inclined to uncritically embrace—and impulsively retweet—evidence supportive of your views.”

I, especially lately, have struggled with the impulsive retweet. It’s difficult not to given the tenor of this administration. Even now, I don’t know how two people can hear the tape of imprisoned kids crying and not feel the same horror and disgust that I feel. But there is credence to what Wright is saying, even in situations like these, where tribalism is being manipulated and used to support the oppression of the most vulnerable. Allowing emotion to overwhelm reason, when they should live in balance with one another, is to risk causing additional convolution. Those missteps, made from the emotional act of unchecked trust, ultimately undercut and distract from the very real tragedy at hand.

With all of this bad-mouthing of tribalism, I do want to clarify that I believe community is important. A healthy one provides material and emotional support, brings out the best in its members and encourages service, love, humility, artistry and ingenuity. But I wonder if it’s possible to take the best parts of a community and weed out the parts of ourselves that tend toward acts of othering.

Truly, who do those “othering” acts serve? What inherent value does a storied glass of scotch hold over its raffish cousin, the Piña Colada? What justice is served in blindly trusting the draconian policies of your party? What is gained from sacrificing arguably the most human trait — our sense of reason — on the altar of association?

Not much from where me and my tiny umbrella are sitting.

Rachel Siemens is a writer living in Portland, OR. Follow her on Twitter @_RSiemens and Instagram @siemensrachel.

Photos by Carsten Schanter and Tomas del Amo via Getty Images.

Rachel Siemens

Rachel Siemens is a writer living in Portland, OR.

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