Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Tribalism Up Close; Not So Personal

Brant Rosen reminds us that we are all tribal creatures. Tribalism seems written into our DNA.

I just had the opportunity to study an easily recognized tribe on my flight aboard United 84 from Newark to Tel Aviv.  I forgot that when I fly United from O'Hare to Ben Gurion through Newark, the likelihood is that the majority of the passenger list will consist of Jewish (Ultra) Orthodox families, a tribe easily distinguished by, among other things, its mens' black suits and wide brimmed black hats; the long black skirts and frequently covered heads of the women; and the abundance of children. I'd say a good third to half the passengers were members of this tribe.

Compared to the tribe I belong to - Christian, Episcopalian, progressive (others might describe us as recklessly permissive), inclusive (we at least wish to appear that way) - this tribe has extremely clear and firm boundaries, is traditional/conservative and exclusive. Observing the lot of them (I was totally surrounded), I found myself admiring the certainty by which they defined themselves and what I imagined to be an unshakable feeling of belonging. While I found them routinely polite, I also found them totally impersonal. There was no encouragement for getting to know your seat mate with a line like "So where are you from?" No small talk with non-tribal members. The other characteristic that was most prominent was their seeming total absorption in themselves and their families. Pleas over the PA to clear the aisles so stewards could distribute drinks, dinner, breakfast were totally ignored. United personnel would finally say to the man 6 inches in front of their cart, "Sir, I must ask you to take a seat so I may get through."

As noted earlier, Orthodox tend toward large families. The family ahead of me had two small girls (looked like 2 and 3), one in their arms and one on the way. And they seemed like very happy children, given considerable latitude to climb over and around anyone in their way. The poor fellow trapped in the middle of this bunch maintained a cheerful attitude as he passed bottles and blankets and children back and forth across the aisle - through most of the flight. Generally, the children appeared well cared for and intensely prized.

I may try Royal Jordanian through Amman next time.

Tribalism is a way of defining ourselves and creating a culture we find supportive of our values. City gangs, corporate executives, homeless people, factory workers, alcoholics, police and fire fighters all form tribes of one sort or another. Not a bad thing in itself. It only turns sour when the tribe sets itself over against others, sees others as threats to themselves, projects negative characteristics on the members of a "rival" tribe.

So here I am, in a land where tribalism of a negative variety is creating untold suffering, liberally contributed to by a dominating Western world which only exacerbates the conflict.

April at the garden at St. George's

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