Who Is In Your Tribe?

Thursday, April 16, 2010
The strength of our identity with any group determines the extend to which we feel comfortable with, or separate from, others outside that group, or “tribe.”

Yesterday I suggested you think about your philosophy of life so that you might better know how your worldview affects your relationships. Did you get very far in that process?  My suspicion is that either you ignored the “assignment,” not knowing how to put into words the things you believe, or if you tried, you found it a hard job.

That is because what we believe is so ingrained into the very fiber of our being that we accept it without question. We tend not to examine our beliefs and assumptions too closely. Like those who lived before Galileo were sure the sun went around the earth, your philosophy of life seems as familiar to you as your skin. Not something to be questioned.

A good example of this could be seen on “60 Minutes” this past Sunday in the interview of John Angelo Gotti III, or “Junior” Gotti, a New York mobster who led the Gambino crime family when his father was in prison in the 1990s. He gave a polished performance of being upfront and honest about his life, though he never admitted to murder. One suspects he had his hand, directly or indirectly, in more than one. He certainly has had experience in evading truth and was a defendant in four racketeering trials between 2004 and 2009 that all ended in mistrials.

Finally the federal government announced in January that it would no longer seek to prosecute him for those charges, which has given him the nickname of  “Teflon Jr” because he was able to evade prosecution, unlike his father. (I suppose I have to acknowledge that if a jury could not convict him that I shouldn’t consider him guilty. But folks, it’s a little like expecting a mother to believe her three-year-old hasn’t taken a cookie when a few crumbs are still on his face and there are cookies missing. MAYBE the dog ate them and the child was just kissing the dog; then again. . .)

What struck me about the interview was his portrayal of the mindset of the people in the neighborhood in which he grew up, at least according to his report. You didn’t snitch. You looked after your own. You accepted punishment according to the code under which you lived. When a neighbor accidentally killed his brother because the boy had suddenly ridden his bike into the street, the neighbor “disappeared.” That was accepted as home-grown justice, according to Junior Gotti.

In the interview there was, as you would expect, a lot of justification for his actions. He loved his father and was unable to leave the mob as long as his father, who died in prison, was alive. Such loyalty, even in the face of doing what he knew was wrong in the wider society, is a perfect example of the pull of tribe.

By tribe I mean a group of two or more people who share a common identity, beliefs, obligations, and expectations of behavior with others. The group can exist outside of states and national boundaries, or within them. And, in fact, I believe we can belong to more than one “tribe” at a time. For example, we identify with some people and some beliefs in religion, with others as a sports’ fan, with others as member of a political party.

As the world becomes more complex, we seem to need the “security” of our tribe more than ever as a bulwark against a cacophony of conflicting opinions and potential terrorism. And this has ramifications for relationships both for those inside and those outside the groups with which we identify.

I decided to write on this topic today after reviewing notes I took at a conference I attended last month in Washington, DC. Rick Simon, editor of the Psychotherapy Networker magazine that puts on the yearly event attended by more than 3,000 therapists, opened the conference by noting that last year the conference began on a note of optimism. Positive change seemed possible. However, after a year in which, as he said, “politicians acted like five-year-olds with oppositional disorder in a food fight in the school cafeteria,” hope seems more elusive.

The problem, he surmised, has a lot to do with the fact that our brains have not evolved to deal with the daunting challenges that face us. We haven’t evolved out of our need for a tribe. You see, our brains are hard-wired for social interaction and the first tribe to which we all belong is the family. How well we separate from that tribe (family therapy refers to that process as individuation) helps determine how well we will be able to have relationships with other tribes.

The potential tribes to which we can become attached throughout our lifetimes have various ways of hooking us, of making us feel a part of them even when the tribe has not been around for a long time. For example, consider the Tea Party movement. People who join them feel empowered by what they sense is a connection with others who “share their views.” The fact that you can find highly divergent opinions in the group doesn’t seem to dissuade them from believing they are in it together.  Better to assume a connection with others in a “tribe” than to feel you are alone in battling forces that require you to change in ways you aren’t ready to change.

Incidentally, the same observation can be made about the variety of people who supported Obama in the “hope for change.”  They believed that the upcoming change was the change they expected. Consequently, they thought they belonged to a tribe in the forefront of change. The only problem was that they had different ideas of what that change would be. It was not a cohesive, well-defined tribe.

It is easy for us to give lip service to the concept of one world and our connection with all of humanity. But in this fractured world our tribe offers us a sense of security that does not require us to think too carefully about the assumptions of the group. This was clear in Sunday’s program when it showed a bare-chested Junior Gotti with a large tattoo of a cross and picture of Jesus on his arm. Apparently the pull of the mob’s tribal cohesion and rules was greater than his adherence to the basics of his avowed religion.

As I write about Gotti’s tribe and his fractured logic, I must wonder whether I, too, feel connected with a tribe that is inconsistent in its beliefs. Always easy to see the mote in the other guy’s eye than the beam in mine, right?

In any case, being honest with oneself and sorting through one’s beliefs is a topic I’ll return to in future posts. For now, I hope you will consider these questions:


  • If I were to write down a list of characteristics of people with whom I feel most comfortable, what would be on that list?
  • Do I consider those people to be my “tribe,” even though I may not generally use that term?

We can become so strongly, yet unconsciously,  identified with our tribe that we don’t question the position of the tribe.  If you identified yourself as a Nazi, your enemies automatically became those who were identified as Jewish. If you were of the Protestant tribe in Northern Ireland, you did all you could to suppress the Catholic tribe. Today the partisanship of left and right is driven by fear of the other.

However, many years ago Edwin Markam, born 1852, wrote words that ring with truth today.

He drew a circle that shut me out,
heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win
We drew a circle that took him in.

Substitute the word tribe for circle and perhaps you can expand your philosophy of life in which, while acknowledging your relationship to a tribe, sees beyond that identity to accept other tribes that do not accept yours.

And to draw that larger circle may require you to act more independently than you have in the past. It requires you to think for yourself, which is what I hope to encourage you to do in this blog.

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