What's Tony Thinking

In the Thrall of Tribalism


I watched a good deal of yesterday’s hearing and the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh. I found both compelling.

Blasey Ford seemed to me wholly believable and completely without ulterior motive or motivation. Kavanaugh was painfully honest about the viciousness of the proceedings.

Kavanaugh did seem to get a little intoxicated on his own righteous indignation, making smart-aleck remarks to the Democratic senators as the afternoon wore on.

What can we say for this hearing? This — it provided a sharp, a laser-focused picture of our current national situation, dilemma and tragedy.

Complete polarization. Two tribes. Two realities. Choose one. Pick your side. Harbor no reservations. Admit no uncertainty.

Should this state of affairs have been at all unclear the Republican and Democratic senators underscored it.

Like school kids they were mostly concerned to be casting blame on the other side.

Republicans: Why didn’t you bring this forward weeks ago? You are just trying to slow this down to impact the mid-term elections.

Democrats: You’re just trying to ram it through before those elections. Let’s have a full investigation.

Back and forth. “You started it.” “No, you did.”

A week before the hearing Andrew Sullivan wrote a perceptive piece in the New York magazine titled “Brutal Binaries.”

Sullivan argues that tribal thinking holds complete sway in our culture today. It is Donald Trump’s stock-in-trade. You are for us or against us. There are two groups, “My people,” and “Not my people.” Choose sides.

Here’s Sullivan:

“And so it seems that Kavanaugh is either a perfect exemplar of judicial expertise and impeccable moral conduct, or he is a lying rapist determined to destroy and control the lives of all women . . . Those appear to be our choices, ladies and gentlemen, in this particular polarization cycle. There is little nuance in these battles and absolutely no mercy for anyone unlucky enough to get caught up in their swirling vortex.

“This is what our culture is driving us toward, and it’s a culture where each moment of conflict galvanizes and tribalizes us still further, in what seems like an endlessly repeating loop of resentment, righteousness, and revenge.” (italics added)

As Sullivan points out elsewhere in his piece, such a way of framing the world is emotionally highly satisfying. Moreover, it is what we are wired for, lizard-brain and all that. But it doesn’t help us to come to grips with reality or solve problems. It only divides us. It only drives us toward win/ lose outcomes. Outcomes in which we all lose.

I had the feeling as I watched yesterday that we are all somehow caught. Caught by some terrible power that is driving us toward self-destruction. This is another way of talking about our thralldom to tribalism, to good/ evil polarities, to vengeance.

And that is, of course, a classic definition of sin. Sin understood as a power or dominion (as in the New Testament), and not simply sin as a specific action. The latter is “sins” plural, the former “Sin,” as a power. Addiction is about Sin as a power.

Right now, we are addicted to tribalism. Addicted to our brutal binaries.

For the record I do think a fuller investigation of the charges by a more impartial body, like the FBI, would be the better next step. I also think that is unlikely to happen. We can’t stand that much anxiety. We want to “get this over with.”

The editors of the excellent Jesuit magazine America, who had originally endorsed Kavanaugh’s nomination, today called for it to be withdrawn. They argued that is “the best of the bad options.” They also argued that the nomination has become a “referendum” on how we as a society handle allegations of sexual assault.

They may be right that a withdrawal of the Kavanaugh nomination is the best course at this point. But I also don’t see that happening.

We are too locked in our tribal binaries. Too enslaved to win/ lose thinking.

So the Republicans will, likely, push for a “win.” It will come at a great cost to us all.

Update, later Friday: Gratefully, I was wrong. It appears there is a good chance that an FBI investigation will take place. Good on Jeff Flake for crossing the line, and opening a way here.

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