Charlottesville and the Crisis of Identity and Tribalism in America

I’ve given a great deal of thought to the events that went down in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12th, when the now infamous “Unite the Right” rally degenerated into a street fight as police stood by and did nothing. We all know the end result. One young woman killed and nineteen other people injured when a man with white nationalist and neo-Nazi sympathies drove his car into a crowd of counter protestors.

But most of that story has been covered from every conceivable angle. I doubted what I could add to the conversation. What could I say that would further that discussion, and what larger meaning could I find in Heather Heyer’s murder and the violence we saw break out in Charlottesville that day.

What led me to record the video I posted to You Tube was an article I came across: “Identity and Its Consequences,” posted at The Scientific Skeptic in May of this year. Reading it helped me further develop my views as to what the tragedy in Charlottesville means in the larger context of American society at this moment of time. A few excerpts:

We see ourselves as members of various tribes, and depending on the context, we behave, in large part, based on particular tribal loyalties and affiliations. […]

If you are discussing politics, your loyalty and behavior may likely be the outcome of the party that you affiliate with or the candidate that you favor. […]

If you affiliate with a particular religion, your loyalty and behavior may likely be the outcome of that tribal affiliation.

Other tribal loyalties include so-called race, gender, kin, sexual orientation, ethnicity, language groups, socio-economic groups, companies, villages, education level, scholastic groups, clubs, etc., etc., etc.

Anyone who went to high school will probably understand this phenomena.

This is the truth that is being used by the wealthy elites to dismantle our society and to literally lead millions of Americans to fear, hate and distrust their fellow citizens. The great American myth is that we are a nation of individualists who live in a land of freedom and liberty where through hard work and perseverance anyone can succeed. Nothing could be further from the reality. Our history has been one of competing “identities” and “tribes” if you will, some of which were literally invented to justify genocide and slavery. Americans have always associated themselves with various identities and tribal affiliations from competing religious sects to political parties, from “nativist” movements versus immigrants, and even more broadly through conflicts and coalitions among various groups aligned along identity and tribal associations based on race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class – you name it.

I was raised to view America has a great melting pot, when in fact we are one of the most diverse nations, of not the most diverse on the planet. And the tribal divisions among us have often led to strife and demonization of our fellow Americans. These tribal affiliations are so important to our individual sense of self, and they have always been manipulated by the most powerful in our society to keep us divided and at each others’ throats. This is the American story, despite the occasional transcendent leaders who have appealed to the ideals of equality and justice – the idea that we need to see everyone as first and foremost a human being, who deserves dignity and our respect regardless of whatever stereotypes and prejudices may exist in our collective psyche. Instead we generally remain tied to the values, beliefs and norms of the tribes with which almost all of us identify.

I don’t mean to dismiss or ignore the reality of the harms that have been done to a great many people because of the labels put upon them by “tribes” with more power or larger numbers. Far from it. We must never forget the many atrocities suffered by Native Americans, including the most recent example of the horrific violence committed by law enforcement agencies and thuggish mercenaries against the Water Protectors who opposed the drilling of the NoDAPL pipeline project.

Nor should we dismiss the legitimate grievances of so many African Americans, brought to this country to be slaves. Even after they received their “freedom” many suffered horribly as a result of outright and blatant discrimination, bigotry and violence perpetrated against them by means embedded in the American justice system, and by continuing institutional and individual acts of oppression committed outside the sanction of the law. It should shock no one that, regardless of your opinion of them, the Black Lives Matter movement arose in response to both outright and systemic violence by the police and others against people of color.

As Robyn documents everyday, Transgender people suffer from vastly higher rates of homicide and suicide, and face discrimination by our governments and numerous other “tribes” despite their small numbers relative to the rest of the population.

And let us not ignore the plight of poor whites either, such as those in Appalachia, The corporate media and the mainstream centrist left frequently derides and denigrates for their lack of education and intelligence, their religion, their politics, and their backward and unsophisticated culture. They suffer from declining mortality rates and an opioid addiction crisis. Yet many on the so-called left laugh at their problems, mocking them and perpetrating the same types of bigoted and hateful stereotypes/a> that they would roundly criticize if it were directed at any other group.

Our problem is not solely that that our media outlets often ignore or dismiss the legitimate grievances of many of our “American tribes,” or exploit their suffering for political gain. The problem is that too few of us break out of our identity and tribal boxes to attempt an honest dialogue with other groups. Indeed, at present we are seeing factions within the so-called progressive movement in this country fighting with one another rather than build alliances and coalitions to build a strong progressive movement in America, solely based on our species profound and deeply rooted desire to affiliate ourselves with and organize ourselves into tribes.

For various and complex reasons, even when we acknowledge the issue of identity and tribalism, and how the powerful elites manipulate these tendencies to keep us divided, we fail to break those chains holding us back. Yet there are small signs that our past and present tendencies create our own identities based on those tribes with which we feel comfortable and safe, to the exclusion of others who, despite some differences are suffering as much or more than we are, is not necessarily our future. There remains hope that we can get past our need to align our identities with tribes of people for whom we feel an affinity, and broaden our definition of who we include as part of our “family.”

I leave you with this recent example from the world of sports. Last year an African American professional football star athlete, Colin Kaepernick, began a protest in support of BLM and its goals by kneeling during the national anthem. Though other black players also took up his protest, he was the first, and thus he became the scapegoat. Demonized and ostracized by many for his stand, his contract was not renewed at the end of the season, and he has yet to find another job in the NFL despite the fact that he is a very talented player. However, other black NFL stars have continued the protests he began, and this year, little by little they are being joined by their white teammates in a show of solidarity, such as this example involving two players of the Seattle Seahawks, Michael Bennnet, a black defensive lineman and his white teammate, Justin Britt, an offensive lineman:

As he had said he would, Seahawk defensive lineman Michael Bennett again sat during the national anthem prior to Seattle’s preseason game against the Vikings Friday night at CenturyLink Field.

But this time he was joined at least symbolically by center Justin Britt, who stood next to Bennett with his right hand on Bennett’s left shoulder …

Britt, a fourth-year player from Missouri, then hugged Bennett as the anthem ended and Bennett stood up.

Britt said after the game he made the decision after talking with his wife, Alicia.

“It was something me and my wife talked about and discussed, and we both wanted to show support to Mike,” said Britt, a native of Lebanon, Mo. “I talked to him before, made sure it was all right with him, and of course it was. I feel like what I did, I believe in it, and I’m going to continue to educate myself and try to understand why things are going on.”

Added Britt: “I want to support him. I want to support what he’s standing for and his beliefs. I’m not foolish. I’m from Missouri. I get things are different in that area than it is in some other areas. I’m not against what the flag means and veterans. My dad was in the Army. I’m not putting any disrespect to them. I’m just trying to understand the issues, trying to educate myself more in that regard and showing support. I’m going to continue to understand what’s going on in the world and why it’s happening, because none of it’s right. None of it is what should be happening. I’m going to continue talking with Mike and exploring and just helping myself understand things. I’m wanted to take a first step tonight, and that’s what I felt I did.”

If two NFL football players from radically different backgrounds can find common ground to breach the divide between white and black, then we also can learn to do the same. Without denying the identities that all of us have created and to which we are all subject to some degree, we also can learn to also reach across those issues of tribalism and identity politics that “the powers that b”e rely upon to keep us from uniting in solidarity as equal members of the human species, because all human lives matter. Failure to accomplish this is simply not an option considering the many potential life threatening catastrophes we as a species face, whether from disaster capitalism, climate change and/or the constant wars which benefit the few at the expense of the many.

My YouTube video regarding this subject can be found at this link.


About Steven D. Searls

Father of two adult children, husband for over 30 years, and a retired Attorney due to a rare autoimmune disorder. Love books and movies. Politics: Progressive (but not a fan of either Clinton, neoconservatism or neoliberalism). Current avocation: writing poetry, fiction and political commentary online, under my user name "Steven D."
This entry was posted in Genocide, Government, History, inequality, Justice, Progressives, Tribalism. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Charlottesville and the Crisis of Identity and Tribalism in America

  1. There is a story this morning out of St. Louis about another car running through a group of protesters. The protest was for a transgender woman who was killed by police. I don’t want to get into the merits of the shooting. It was alleged the woman who was shot was armed with a knife and had wounded an officer responding to the call. That is beside the point of the hit and run.

    A car ran down at least three protesters and fled. This is a new form of terrorism. The police managed to get the driver stopped a block away. The driver is in custody for charges that include felony fleeing. Story is reported by several news outlets. This is from CBS News.

    Video taken by a bystander:

  2. Terry Welshans says:

    I am having a difficult time wrapping my arms around some parts of what is going on. The nucleus of the force driving this seems to point to a rather small yet supremely powerful group of people with loads of cash. I am searching for their motivation, which I think is financial gain, but I have not identified the mechanism that leads to success. My questions revolve around how their actions financially benefit them. They seem hell-bent on damaging or destroying the morale of those they are affecting, but they, in particular, are not the source of the gain. They seem to be collateral damage. Big money flows between big money partners. How does afflicting anxiety and turmoil among the ‘true believers’ benefit the rich?

    • Turmoil and disruption among groups keeps them divided. It is about two things:

      1.Power and control. Power just for the sake of being powerful. Control to exercise that power.

      2.Personal safety. Tactics that keep unions from forming. Mobs and powerful groups must be extinguished before they take hold. Look how fast the entitled class came down on the Occupy Wall Street movement. That scared hell out of at least some of them. They must be concerned about safety, since most of the entitled class learned the lessons of the French Revolution, and the Russian Revolution a century later.

  3. Terry,

    Consider who benefits from a police state. Private prisons. Weapons and security manufacturers. Private “security”.

    Now ratchet that up a notch. Who benefits from a totalitarian police state. The “protected class”. Owners of for profit infrastructure. Those able to abuse the legal system for personal gain based on the notion of ownership of real property.

    Just look who profited and how at the end of the Reich.

    I think that way lay the path to the answers you seek.

    • Terry Welshans says:

      I knew who would benefit, I missed the how they do it. Makes sense, but soon they would destroy their ‘feed stock’ and it would end like ‘Jack in the bean stock.’ Perhaps we are there now….

  4. Malisha says:

    I never read the book “Games People Play” but I always thought that I knew what it had to say by listening to people who HAD read it. More the fool me. I imagined the game “Let’s you and him fight” was about the political situation where the rulers set the “lessers” at each others’ throats so they don’t get together, compare notes, and help each other get rid of the abominations that are destroying ALL their lives. Just a couple of days ago I was about to use the “Let’s you and him fight” thing and I checked into it on-line only to find out that it is a “feminine” game attributed to women who apparently bitchily [sorry] set men to fighting over them. Boo. I will say, however, that MY CONCEPT of “Let’s you and him fight” is what happens to societies wherein the ruling class does not enjoy enough (by its own estimate) unquestioned and unquestionable power, but has to disguise its perfidy (towards the body social) in verbal constructs giving it “legitimacy.” Then it works for most people and for the ones on whom it doesn’t work, there’s always the threat of violence to keep their influence to a minimum
    “Let’s your group and his group fight,” then, draws off the money, energy, and resources of all the groups that are being emaciated (sorry) by the beast.

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