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Trouble with Tribes

Alive and Well Here in the West


It’s so convenient to blame violence on mental illness. Let’s see…how many millions of Russians did Stalin throw into the Gulag because they were mentally ill? And who can defend against untrue characterizations of mental illness? Talk about persecution; it’s almost as bad as notions that skin color affects intelligence or wearing shorts causes rape.

The next scapegoat is free speech. Did that ever take a pounding after the shootings in Tucson, of Congresswoman Giffords and 15 others! And to exacerbate the problem, our modern media uses many of these issues as a means of infotainment.

I have been doing a study about how hierarchical systems control human behavior and thought. At the beginning of this year, I began writing about tribes as well, because I suddenly realized there’s a difference between tribes and hierarchies. Then, just as it occurred to me that tribal behavior is alive and well here in the Western hemisphere, it became manifest with another assassination, as if to prove my point.

And here I thought we were more civilized!

Almost all groups, families, and organizations are based on the hierarchical structure because that’s how they function the best. Most of them are pretty much the same: a leader and then a few people to carry out the orders, like wives, administrators, lieutenants, and secretaries. The next and most visible group are the followers who expect the leader to make their decisions and do their thinking for them; and, at the bottom, are the old, the ill, the poor, the flunkies, the malcontents, and the children whom the system sometimes makes an attempt to help. A hierarchy looks like a pyramid.

Hierarchies are not democratic or equal, and they’re not supposed to be. This is the reason documents like the Bill of Rights, the U. S. Constitution, and Robert’s Rules of Order were written: to instill more equality and give the leaders some feedback from the lower ranks.

The structure of a tribe is the same as a hierarchy but their behavior is more rigid in its influence on its members and more violent towards anyone who disagrees with them. Actually, a tribe is similar to a cult, which may account for the fanaticism that often accompanies the intensity of its members. Tribalism may be more obvious in its effect on people in other countries; but the question is, why the escalation in the West? Or has it been in existence all the time and I just didn’t notice?

I’ve been studying human nature since I was an only child growing up in Massachusetts with two verbally and physically violent parents. As a small child I became aware of all kinds of physical and social prejudice, in all groups and public institutions. In Boston, I met and married a Korean physicist from Harvard, raised three children, got a divorce. I obtained degrees in music, counseling, sociology, and transpersonal psychology. Then I continued my career as a professional harpist. Through it all, I was reminded of a lesson I learned very early: Major problems arise in groups when somebody decides to leave or tell their truth.

Families and groups of all kinds are known to gang up against one member who dares to speak the truth of some offense by those in the upper ranks. Women and underlings are known to deliberately conceal abuse for many reasons, such as their own personal safety or their inability to survive without the abuser’s income. Often, shame is the cause. Yet there has to be a larger barrier that some behavior gets past, a point beyond which lies such extreme behavior as the torture of children or others who are lower in the ranks. This is the line that separates the hierarchy from the tribe.

There is a difference in psychology between individual anger and tribal madness. Most people who demonstrate for political causes are perceived as doing (or at least trying to do) something positive for the greater good, while a tribal fanatic has a more personal need for individual retribution. To blame such behavior on mental illness is to dismiss the environment that the individual has lived, socialized, and worked in.

Actually, what’s going on in Cairo is about tribes and democracy - our whole world needs to understand authoritarian as opposed to democratic leadership. At the same time, we need to understand that tribal behavior is definitely not associated with any one population. Noone has the right to point their finger or persecute another person, religion, culture, or nationality claiming that they are guilty of it. It is obvious that tribal behavior pertains to many homes and groups throughout the world.

Marcia Sherman is a poetry, music, and psychology teacher; a singing tutor and professional harpist and boardmember of the United Nations Association of Santa Barbara.

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