If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
US president Lyndon Johnson uttered these words in the 1960s, and never have they been more relevant than today. The rise of tribalism in Europe and the US proves the enduring power of “othering”: finding unity amongst one’s own by scapegoating those different. Tribalism isn’t so much about how people love those similar to them. It is about how much they loathe people different from them. It unites under the banner of people feeling under assault.
For centuries, war had ravaged Europe. Since the end of World War II, the 28 member states of the European Union have been at peace for the longest time in history. But the UK now looks poised to leave the Union. The reason: Brexit supporters blame immigrants for Britain’s imagined decline.
In the US, Republican voters believe immigrants from “shithole countries” are responsible for economic stagnation, crime, and their social malaise. Yet it was Republican governors and senators who enacted policies that stripped workers of their rights, deregulated corporations, and enacted policies that have impoverished the middle and working classes. These people blame crime and terrorism on foreigners, when native-born Americans are responsible for the vast majority of mass shootings and gun violence committed in the US.
“Divide and conquer” has been the modus operandi of corporatists, politicians and demagogues. And the “both sides are guilty” argument has been damaging to any meaningful dialogue. The LGBQT community is not trying to convert anyone. People of color don’t want to rule over white people. And women are not looking to enslave men. These “tribes” want equality, while their adversaries want to maintain an unequal system that privileges themselves over others.
Well-meaning folks speak of compromise, but how can one negotiate equality? Trying to do such results in something like the Constitution’s Three-Fifths Compromise, which ruled that black slaves were to be counted three-fifths of a person. It’s like the old joke of being “a little bit pregnant.” A woman is either pregnant or not. Just as a woman has autonomy over her body or she doesn’t. And minorities have equal rights or they don’t. Fortunately, these oppressed tribes now have the numbers to make things happen on an electoral level. It’s just time that they become as organized as their opponent tribes.
“We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike,” Maya Angelou wrote. But our differences matter. And being different isn’t a bad thing. Muslims are different from Jews. Jews are different from Christians. And atheists are different from all of the above, as well as there being differences within each group. Where we can find common ground is important for us to co-exist, but what makes us different also defines us.
Being part of a tribe can be a glorious thing, and is not mutually exclusive from peace. Domination, subjugation and oppression of others are the enemy.