I’ve been both amazed and dismayed by our nation’s seemingly rapid descent into political and social tribalism that threatens our ability to maintain a leadership role on the world stage. We appear to be slipping into a second-class status regarding that role, and our cultural divisions are something that will have profound effects upon our future economic security .
There are many reasons that might explain the increasing rise of divisiveness among our citizenry, but the probability exists that perhaps this phenomenon is nothing new. The seeming upswing of racism, xenophobia, sexism, religious bigotry, and heterosexism may simply be attitudes that have always been present in our culture and have merely become more prominently displayed in public forums over the past few decades. Still, I can’t help but wonder if a combination of relatively new circumstances has caused those disparate factions of anti-this-or-that groups to create new tribal forms, replete with elected leadership that lends a philosophical legitimacy to their causes.
The phenomenon known as Dunbar’s number has become a standard in understanding group dynamics relative to homo sapiens’ social structuring. In the 1990s, British anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggested that the number of people with whom an individual can maintain stable social relationships (where all members of a group know each other and how they relate to every other person) is limited to 150. In numbers greater than this, populations generally require stronger enforcement of rules, laws, and norms. These enforcement mechanisms center on shared mythologies such as cultural expressions, language, religions, and political identities. They allow people to identify “them” as opposed to “us.”
Research tends to support Dunbar’s number, the exceptions being online social and communication networks in which the number of participants can reach up to double the person-to-person number. I would suggest that the information revolution, now only a few decades old, is transforming our social tribes as radically as the industrial revolution transformed the world’s economies. Dunbar noted that smaller groups are almost always (geographically speaking) physically close. Sociologists and anthropologists observe that as populations become larger, they create mythological identities in order to maintain internal unity. But now, communications technologies have rendered physical distance unimportant, and this means that different and unique methods of social structuring are beginning to take place. People can choose their own tribes without having to be any closer than a computer or cell phone. And with new tribal allegiances come new or redefined mythologies.
Our American mythology is undergoing the challenge of redefining itself at a pace that no society in human history has seen before. Normally, cultures evolve over periods of time during which the blending and absorption of new ideas and customs are gradually transformed into newer forms. This is rarely a smooth transition during the best of times, and the increase in uncivil behaviors we are now witnessing is a direct result of these rapid alterations to our social fabric. The question we are now being asked is this: Just who, exactly, do we 21st Century Americans want to be in our own story?
The choice is ours, but if we are to continue our efforts to live up to the ideals expressed in our founding documents, we cannot allow ourselves to become strangers to each other. Instead, we must make greater efforts to find common ground in our understanding of what we have accomplished as a nation so far in order to avoid becoming an increasingly faltering, second class confederacy of angry misanthropes. In the end, our children will have to live with the consequences of how we choose to address this situation now.