Binary thinking. We see it played out today in our culture, our politics, and on our television screens. It’s black and white, hot and cold, with us or against us. As I get older, I see the danger of this kind of thinking. For one, it’s inflexible and betrays a kind of arrogance, but also, it leaves so little room for grace. Binary thinking pairs really well with tribalism, a way of self-identification that is all about belonging to a group. A “tribe” can come together around a shared activity, ideology, or culture, and tribalism is all about a primary identifier. Maybe you’re a “dance mom” or a “hockey dad”. Maybe you’re “anti-Trump” or “pro-Bernie”. And all of it is great. Activities, thought, traditions, all clearly positive. But tribalism; that fierce, primary identification which includes and excludes as a matter of maintaining prestige or power, is dangerous in the end. Belonging is a serious motivator; we want so desperately to fit in, but eventually our labels fall away, and we are forced to confront who we are at the core. Life is constantly in process and groups are built to dissolve. As Heidi Klum says, “One day you’re in and the next, you’re out.” And what, then?
I’ve belonged to some tribes in my day, and I’ve also belonged to groups. The difference between the two is in how “outsiders” are viewed and treated. A tribe chooses its members and buttons up tight, making the line between “in” and “out” painfully clear to anyone who’s looking, even to the point of unwitting hurt. A tribe elevates itself with exclusivity, but the dynamics of a group are more flexible, fluid, and open. There’s a shared history within its members, but a softer line. An outsider can join a group, but a new member must be “admitted” by a tribe.
It seems the culture we live in is forcing us to choose sides, and as a matter of principle, I’m all for it. We should stand for the ideas we believe in, and fight for them. But as humans, we should be looking for ways to break down walls, to include, to see the ‘other’ and welcome them. We should be taking off our team shirts, introducing ourselves by our first names, and extending our hands. It’s simply what we would want others to do for us. Most people have felt the pain of being excluded at some point in our lives, and we can take that experience and build for ourselves a tribe in what we believe is an impenetrable tower, or we can reach past ourselves and our fragile pride to see a brother or sister in our midst. When faced with that binary choice, the answer is all too clear.