Defining The American Tribe

What does identity mean in a community?

My five-hour hike through Shenandoah National Park last week paled in comparison to Thoreau’s two-year two-month two-day residency at Walden Pond. He sought to “suck out all the marrow of life,” while I was perfectly content sucking the molten core out of all the s’mores.

But, there is something about walking down a trail, single file and silent. Liberated from modernity’s constant distractions, the mind is left to, as Walden put it, “front only the essential facts of life.”

So began my conversation with a friend about identity. Not our individual identities, per se. We lost those long ago thanks to Home Depot, Target, and who knows where else (et tu OPM?). But, what does identity mean in a community? Were we defined by country? Region? Race? Income?

While traveling home, I heard an interview with Sebastian Junger on Boston Public Radio. He was promoting Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, his new book which examines how soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan adjust to life outside the military’s tribal community.

The interview focused on the broader, underlying theme of the book Junger defined as, “how the loss of community affects everyone.” One particular point caught my eye (or ear, as it were):

“What happens with humans is that the worse the circumstances, the better people act. And, it’s pretty clear why evolution brought that about. If adversity and hardship and danger produced bad, anti-social human behaviors, we all would have died. But, it produces the opposite. It produces good behavior.”

I arrived at my destination and turned off the radio. I walked silently through the very un-Walden parking lot wondering: could Junger be any more wrong?

Amid the danger of terrorism and the hardship of economic instability, Western society is leaning more towards bad, anti-social behaviors rather than singing Kumbaya. The threat of immigration gave rise to non-communal behavior like building border walls and Brexit. Terrorism has caused Muslims to be ostracized from communities, now presumed to be terrorists until proven otherwise.

Junger mentioned a 1915 earthquake in Avezzano, Italy which wiped out 96% of the population instantly. In the aftermath, the community came together to form an egalitarian society. Junger quoted one survivor, “The earthquake had produced, as he said, what the law promises but cannot in fact deliver which is the equality of all men.”

In reality, Junger is both right and wrong. It depends on how you define the community or tribe.

In a community, a person’s identity depends on the frame of reference. Consider the question, “Where do you live?”

If I’m talking to someone from my neighborhood, it doesn’t help for me to answer “Charlestown.” I would give the street. If I’m talking to someone from Boston, I would say Charlestown. Someone from the region, I’d say Boston. I suppose the same would go for anyone in the U.S. because Boston’s a big enough city, but I might also say Massachusetts. If I met someone from outside the United States, I’d say I’m from America.

Junger’s idea that adversity produces good, social behavior fails when you zoom out to the national level. America, as a singular identity, existed during the World Wars (and perhaps after 9/11) but it doesn’t exist today — particularly on issues of immigration and terrorism.

America, as a singular identity, doesn’t exist today.

But if you zoom in further to focus on a subset of America, say American whites, you can find a unifying identity to which some (not all) subscribe. Building walls and banning Muslims is highly social and good for that identity from an evolutionary standpoint. If American whites see themselves as a singular tribe (however falsely), it make sense they would want to protect themselves at all costs — especially at the expense of outside groups.

Before starting to write, I listened to the interview again, this time staying to the end. Ultimately, Junger arrived at a similar conclusion, without saying as much.

“What we’re wired for is to be prepared for an external enemy,” he explains. Although swimming pools may kill many more of us each year, we’re far more concerned with child abductions because it’s an outside threat. “That’s our evolutionary past. It’s an amazing thing. It brought us to this point. We owe it a lot. But it does give us a certain selective bias about what we think is a threat and what isn’t.“

External is the key word here. By observing how leaders frame threats, you can roughly outline who they consider to be inside the tribe and who is not.

Junger also said mandatory national service “would give every generation of young people a common experience (black, white, rich, poor). That might actually bind the country together a bit.” For more on that topic, click here.

Framing terrorists as threats makes sense. However, policies that treat all Muslims as terrorists (like Trump’s proposed ban) make it clear followers of this specific religion are considered not part of the tribe. Same goes for immigrants. Focusing reform only on immigrants coming from the South clearly walls off Latinos from the community.

The problem is we define our tribe too narrowly. The line separating Us from Them is artificial and obscured. We say America’s a melting pot and print e pluribus unum on our money, but our aspirations have yet to overtake our evolutionary tendencies.

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