Daniel Lowe shares with us the third and final post of his three part series.
Part 3 – You be the goodie and I’ll be the baddie
Which do you prefer – Tim Tam or Mint Slice? Dog or cat? Tea or coffee? Coke or Pepsi?
As fun little icebreakers, these sorts of questions can provoke much animated discussion and even some heated debate. What they rarely do is define our social standing in a group. Sure, it is nice to find people who share our tastes, and it is kind of fun to debate with those who prefer something different to us, but the stakes are low. Your beverage of choice is not going to get you outed from a group. What’s more, while these choices are being presented in a binary form where you must choose one or the other, we understand that reality isn’t so simple. For instance, I while love coffee and can’t stand tea, I know plenty of people that happily drink both.
But what happens when we start to apply this sort of binary thinking to more significant issues? Issues that speak to our identity? This is the sort of thinking that Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff identify in their book “The Coddling of the American Mind’ as the third great untruth being perpetuated in our society. We have already addressed the first two great untruths – “What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker” and “Always trust your feelings”. In this final article we will address the third, and perhaps the most damaging untruth, that “life is a battle between good people and evil people”.
I remember as a child there was a very simple formula that went with most of our imaginative play. The setting might vary from imaginative space battles to medieval jousting, but the basic template was summed up in the declaration, “You be the ‘goodie’ and I’ll be the ‘baddie’.” Life was divided up into good people and bad people and we had absolute clarity about who was playing which role. And this is perfectly normal behavior for children. A game of tag gets very confusing when no-one knows who is ‘it’. A ball game falls apart very quickly when players aren’t clear which team they are playing for. Separating ourselves into clear groups or tribes becomes both a practical necessity and increasingly, as we navigate our adolescence, a social necessity. We are drawn to people with shared interests. We identify ourselves with others who share similar ideals, beliefs and values. We join groups to participate in a common activity. We find ourselves in our tribes.
Tribalism can be a good thing. It provides connection, a sense of belonging, a shared purpose. The problem is not tribalism itself but the way our tribes are formed and how they operate. Psychologist, Elizabeth A. Segal, puts it this way, “We are built to be tribal. But sometimes that tribalism goes too far. The worst type of tribalism is groups aligned to destroy other groups, such as through ethnic cleansing and genocide. We have heard the word tribalism used a lot today in reference to our politics. Today in our political world, we have “bad tribalism.” Bad tribalism is a group identity that fosters the bullying and scapegoating of others not like you. Bad tribalism joins people out of anger, jealousy, and spite, not for collective well-being.” (Psychology Today, When Tribalism Goes Bad, March 30, 2019)
We see bad tribalism at play not just in our politics but in our general discourse, and there is no doubt that social media encourages and perpetuates this kind of thinking and behavior. The more narrowly we define our tribal identities around specific issues or features, and the more heavily we police those boundaries, the more negative our interactions become. Cancel Culture and Twitter Mobs are a natural outworking of this. Life is divided up into good people and evil people where ‘good’ is defined as anyone in total agreement with us and ‘evil is defined as anyone who disagrees. You may find yourself in total agreement with your tribe on nine out of ten issues, but should you step out of line on even just that one thing, you could find yourself living out a scene from Survivor as the tribe tallies the votes, announces, “The tribe has spoken,” and, with a dramatic musical flourish, snuffs out your torch. “It’s time to go,” they say. And so, the great untruth is perpetuated once again. Good has triumphed and evil (in this case, you, with your willful rebellion) has been vanquished.
“If only it were so simple!”, says Lukianoff. “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” (Greg Lukianoff, The Coddling of the American Mind)
Life is not a battle between good people and evil people. Rather, life is a complex set of interactions between people simultaneously capable of great good and unspeakable evil. Sometimes we will disagree with the best of intentions and other times we will argue with the most selfish of motives.
We need a better model for navigating our disagreements. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Colossian church with this advice, “Use your heads as you live and work among outsiders. Don’t miss a trick. Make the most of every opportunity. Be gracious in your speech. The goal is to bring out the best in others in a conversation, not put them down, not cut them out.” (Colossians 4:6 The Message). The Christian church has not always got it right, but we have a perfect model for engaging with others.
Jesus was aware of the tribal differences that plagued his world. Here’s a short list of tribal tensions that we come across in the New Testament: Jews vs. Romans, Samaritans vs. Jews, Jew vs. Greek, Greek Jews vs. Hebrew Jews, Clean Jews vs. Unclean Jews, Pharisees vs. Sadducees, Rich vs. Poor, Men vs. Women.
Jesus is also famous for his cross-tribal love. In every single situation where he is confronted with a tribal barrier, he crosses it. He absolutely refuses to be caught up in his own tribe’s tribalism (Jews are better, purer, etc); nor will he be caught up in other tribal narratives. His love is relentless.
Jesus should be our model and the way we teach our young people to engage with each other. Rather than drawing lines in the sand, we need to pursue a relentless love.
“Be friendly with everyone. Don’t be proud and feel that you know more than others. Make friends with ordinary people. Don’t mistreat someone who has mistreated you. But try to earn the respect of others, and do your best to live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:16-18)