This is another simple reminder to keep your circle porous. We are witnessing the drastic consequences of our fears and tribalism. The ability to stop it in our own lives is the one thing we can do.  – Jinx Davis

I have a graduate school memory that has haunted me for over four decades. I was in a theatre acting class that met every day for four-hour stretches, and on this particular afternoon, we were instructed to stand, hold hands and form a circle. However, one student was left outside the ring, and instructions were given that this single student must try to break into the ring while the remaining class members must do all they could to prevent he/she from entering.

We were instructed to fiercely focus on our intention of either getting in or keeping out. Vocalizing was allowed, and the exercise would last indefinitely- or at least until the circle was broken. We started playfully, and within 10 minutes, the outside student broke into the circle. “Focus” yelled the professor. “Follow your intention with every muscle and emotion you have. Get serious. Do and say whatever comes up.”

We did it again a few times, trying to increase our focus, but we always managed to break into the circle. We would end up laughing as we fell over each other. Our professor was not impressed. “I asked you to focus on the intention of ‘getting in’ or ‘keeping out’ with every fiber of your body/mind. I want you to bring everything up inside as you follow your intention. Focus on your intention!”  

We went at it again; this time, the student outside the circle was a female from a religious family who disapproved of her acting career. We were a small graduate class and knew each other intimately through our rigorous schooling and rehearsals. We counted on each other similarly to soldiers in the military. 

What happened over the next several hours depleted us and triggered powerful and ugly agitation. The students dug up buried emotions and intensified the fervor, allowing it to spark into religious, gender, and personal taunts, chants, and degrading insults thrown back and forth as our bodies forcefully fought for our respected grounds. We entered a collective space of mayhem, hatred, and intense hostility. We became Lord of the Flies and brutes out of dystopia. 

This exercise, and many others to follow, taught us about tribalism, being ‘In or Out,’ objectifying the ‘Other,’ and how unconscious values and morals are the driving forces of character in theatre and life.

Tribalism is a powerful instinct that both protects and destroys. It is everywhere. We identify as members of all tribes; our race, families, political parties, gender, social groups, professions, religions, nations, and sports. Tribalism is pervasive, ready to override our reason and control our behavior. Wars and violence are essentially tribalism. Genocides are tribalism taken to madness -we wipe out the other group to keep our group safe. Our politics is tribalism, and we polarize and close our minds to views that conflict with ours.  

We are seldom aware of tribalism’s influence on us at the conscious level. We live in uncertain times and feel threatened by many changes and events. We look to the tribe to keep us safe. Better not let anyone else into our circle. We end up playing the theatre circle exercise over and over again.

We do it in our intimate circles as naturally as in our public dialogue, in our media, and on the battlefield: friends against friends, lovers against lovers, cultures against cultures. Our racial and ethnic beliefs let us believe that our tribe is better than theirs. We harshly judge those of other faiths, social classes, cultures, or colors; we deny evolution, science, or climate change- and in doing so, we restrict ourselves. The more our thoughts are challenged, the more forcefully we defend them…and the more inflexible and closed-minded we become.

We unwittingly subject others to our unexamined tribal beliefs and assumptions. We do it with those we care about quickly as our perceived enemies. Unfortunately, old patterns are challenging to relinquish because they do serve to relieve pain, even if it is only in the short run.

Yes, we like our pain and our wounds. They are comfortable. Unconsciously we cherish and caress our betrayals and violations, and we can carry them through lifetimes as individuals and through centuries as cultures and nations. 

We share our battle scars from life over drinks at a bar or tea in a hut as we purr the latest rumors and massage our memories of cheating lovers, abusive parents, murderous neighbors, oppressive regimes, avenging fanatics, and wicked warmongers and politicians. The noise on social media is deafening.

This is not necessarily good or bad, and the line between the two is porous. We use the lenses of our tribal mentalities to secure our sense of self and belonging: We use it for survival. We all need a family of sorts. We all need a tribe.  

We have our convictions that will resonate with one group of people more than another. I appreciate identifying with those with similar persuasions to my own, but I hope I do not think they are the only people I can learn from and hold hands with. I know I grow and develop when I privately take the time to do some introspection and repentance and seek to adjust my ways.  

With our tribal thinking, we are inclined to readily define whole groups of people as enemies. We can find their suffering, even death, very easy to even expedite. Moreover, we use our tribal thinking to justify our actions in our personal and political spheres. But, when it comes to our enemy, we are flexible. 

The enemy can be defined by its language, religion, or the color of its sports jersey. It depends on which group or individual we feel is threatening our interests.

Tribalism originated from our false belief in separateness of ourselves. Separateness is an illusion. We do not exist in isolation from each other. What we do to others, we are essentially doing to ourselves.

A friend from Zimbabwe laments that getting ahead in his country is based on which tribe you were born into. He does not feel judged by which skill or character traits he has but rather by which tribe he inherited. A Chinese friend cannot marry the man she loves because he is a foreigner. For security reasons, a Sudanese Dinka refugee cannot speak to her Sudanese Nuer friend in the same refugee camp because the tribe separates them. A Pro-gun neighbor will not talk to an Anti-gun neighbor in America’s suburbs. A married businessman in Asia loses his friends because he refuses to pick up women for sex with them when they go out to party. Palestinians kill Jewish children, and Jews kill Palestinian children. Summer camp children divide up randomly into groups for competitions and will quickly bond with their team and show hostility to the other teams. The research and the barrage of evidence about tribal thinking go on and on and on…

We want a place, a part, and a role, and we all like rooting for something or someone. This is part of being human- but so is interdependence. We should celebrate our differences. We shouldn’t force conformance. But at the same time, we can’t expect unity. We’re not all going to get along. We’re going to splinter off into factions and into tribes.

The tribalism based upon narrow preoccupations, entrenched in the exploitation of divisions of class, money, gender, region, religion, ethnicity, politics, morality, and ideology, is separating us. The lack of civility and a raw permissiveness succors rhetorical excess to physical violence. Our unwillingness to talk to the other side, to maneuver compromise and agreements, and refuse to breathe together sets the stage for social disintegration.

We all have tribes that hold our allegiance, pride, and identity, but none surpasses the tribe we all belong to. Humanity.

It shouldn’t be a dirty word.