I've Been Wrong to Avoid Tribalism and Slow to Enter the Fight

Aftermath of riot
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Being wrong isn't much fun, though I try to embrace it as an opportunity for growth. Being wrong about something big is harder to swallow. It has a way of making one ask, "What the hell was I thinking?" If I could have been this wrong about something so important, what other errors have I made?

I am beginning to wonder if I have been wrong about political tribalism and the value of avoiding it. I've long viewed this as a hallmark of freethought, but I am now questioning it. And you better believe this is making me wonder what other mistakes I've been making.

How I Have Thought About Tribalism

I've regarded tribalism as toxic, especially in a political arena. It fuels polarization and undermines compromise. Democratic systems do not function well in such circumstances. The more tribalistic we become, the less capable we are of solving complex problems.

I understand the pull of tribalism, but I view it as one worth resisting. Instead of giving in to an "us and them" worldview, I've advocated for trying to understand "them." I've wanted "us" to be broad enough to include the full political spectrum. I value compromise and bipartisanship among leaders, and I'd like voters to reward it.

In my daily life, I've reached out to those with different viewpoints. I've sought to understand them, and I've tried hard to refrain from demonizing them. I have viewed us as people who disagree and not as mortal enemies. Even when confronted with extreme views, I've tried to empathize with those who hold them.

What I May Have Missed

So what did I miss? Where is the error? Let me pose a question that should highlight it. What do slavery, war, and genocide have in common? Yes, I suppose an old book some Christians describe as "holy" condones them all. But that isn't what I'm after here. I have something else in mind. What these things all have in common is that none of them need both parties to take part to the same degree.

What do I mean? The enslaved do not need to take part in their enslavement for it to happen. One side involved in a war does not have to opt-in for the war to take place. If attacked, they are at war. And of course, the victims of genocide do not have to consent to their extermination.

If I have managed to resist tribalism while others have embraced it, what have I accomplished? If those who have embraced it hold opposing political views and welcome my demise, what then? Have I been holding the door open for them?

The Trump Effect

I opposed the election of Donald Trump. I spoke out against him while he was running, but I didn't recognize the seriousness of the threat he posed. I was too focused on overcoming tribalism and reducing polarization. Once he took office, I told myself I should give him a chance. He might not be that bad. He was far worse than I ever imagined.

Trump ushered in a new wave of authoritarian extremism. It is right-wing, Christian nationalist, and often violent. The targets include Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ persons, atheists, liberals, BIPOC, and others. The message, that the United States is no longer for any of us, was unmistakable.

Even as this reality set in, I resisted "the resistance." I saw it as the left adopting the worst tactics of the right. I wanted us to be better. I feared that it would exacerbate the polarization when we needed to change minds. I now think I may have been wrong about most of it.

Fear and Loathing in the New America

The United States has transformed into something else. Civility is gone. Something as basic as the separation of church and state no longer feels secure. Efforts to roll back reproductive rights and even voting rights are succeeding. Almost half the country believes we have an illegitimate president. Violent assaults on the targeted groups I mentioned above are up.

Does my rejection of political tribalism prevent me or my friends from being a target? It does not. If the other side has declared war, we are at war regardless of whether I choose to fight. I'm not sure how to fight without giving into tribalism. I'm not sure whether some version of America that might still exist is worth fighting for. I am sure that many of the targets of authoritarian extremism are worth fighting for.

I don't know how to reconcile this with freethought, humanism, or my rejection of tribalism. If I can't, it may be time to reconsider whether these things will have any value at the conclusion of this fight.

Where Does This Leave Me?

I'm not sure where this leaves me. Confused, scared, ashamed, exhausted but somehow still mad as hell. Yes, that sounds about right.

One thought echoes in my mind: They are already at war; pretending otherwise won't change that. If more of us don't get in this fight soon, our apathy will mark our demise. We will look back on the rights we used to have and the safety we took for granted. We will wonder why we didn't take action before it was too late.

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