Tribal Warfare and Gesture Politics

The good Dr Phil told us that because we were conscious (that is aware of our thoughts) it naturally implied we were compelled to live in two worlds.

The first is the material world that we observe with our physical senses. This is the world “out there”. It is an important world because it has to be negotiated for our physical survival. But it is also the world of our selfish and hedonistic desires. It is the world of status and wealth and competition.

The second world we have to contend with is an intensely private place. It is the theatre of mind, the world “in here”.

It doesn’t take much thought to come to the conclusion that once our physical well-being is assured in the external world, our psychological well-being must be taken care of in this internal world. Given that the majority of us living in the first world are not in imminent likelihood of death or severe physical deprivation it would seem obvious that our happiness depends on how well we can negotiate this internal world.

But this is indeed a hard lesson to learn.

After putting this point of view to his audience, the good Dr Phil would often solicit a response from the audience. He would ask a seemingly innocuous question something like this; “Raise your hand if you believe that your personal well-being is largely determined by the state of your internal world?” Now being the eloquent and convincing psychologist that he is, most would raise their hands.

But the good Dr Phil can sometimes be a little tricky. A little later he would then ask those in his audience to tell him of a recent time when they had become angry.

A typical response might be: “Well I was angry this morning”.

And Dr Phil would respond with the leading question, “And what caused you to be angry?”

And the audience member would say something like, “Well this morning, I went into the bathroom after my teenage son had showered and the towels were on the floor, and there was water all over the place, and there was condensation half-way up the walls, and…”

And the good Dr Phil in his inimitable way would interject and say, “So you let the physical state of your bathroom determine your sense of well-being even though you previously stated your internal world was more important than your external word?”

Now this is essentially a choice most of us have learnt to make. Through the observation of our families and peer group, we come to believe our circumstances along with the people that inhabit them, determine our well-being. When we are inculcated with this erroneous belief, it would seem the only way we can be happy is to manufacture an environment that does not seem to be inimical to us. We need to control our environment and unfortunately the people in it.

We need the approval of those who we admire. This will often include taking on their beliefs in critical areas.

Those who we don’t look up to so much, we seek to control and have them behave in ways we think suit us.

In a very real way we divide ourselves into tribes that reflect the beliefs of those whose approval we seek.

Being tribal we’re preoccupied with status and hierarchy. We are biased towards our own in-groups and prejudiced towards others.

We immerse ourselves in the ideas and beliefs of our tribe and ignore and discount opposing ideas. Commonly in today’s world we avoid considering such ideas not by dealing with the ideas themselves but by denigrating the people that hold them.

Those who disagree with the climate change tribe are denigrated as “ignoring the science”. Those that disagree with same sex marriage are discounted as “homophobic”. But the lack of understanding doesn’t only come from the Left. Economic rationalists championing free trade and competition seem unaware of the damage such policies are wreaking on the unskilled whose jobs are rapidly disappearing in the modern economy. They often denigrate the unemployed as “dole bludgers” when many such people are doing their best to seek employment.

Often we seize on things in our external world as icons of those ideas and beliefs that we share with our tribe, that really have no significance beyond what our deranged minds give them.

Last year we had a protest by students at Oxford University aimed at removing the Statue of Cecil Rhodes from the campus. Protestors argued that Rhodes was a racist and as a result his effigy shouldn’t be tolerated on the University.

Rhodes was probably racist in his ideas, but he lived in a time when many were racists. But Rhodes was an important historical figure involved in the development of Southern Africa. One might wonder at the fragility of the egos of those who couldn’t tolerate the presence of his statue.

The recent riots and killing at Charlottesville, Virginia was ostensibly about liberals attempting to remove the statue of General Robert E. Lee whilst being resisted by right-wing supremacists. Lee, was of course a well-regarded general who fought on the side of the Confederates in the American Civil War. As such he was fighting to maintain the right of Americans to own slaves. Today we rightly maintain that slavery is an appalling affront to human rights, but historically many influential and revered Americans owned slaves. Lee has a rightful place in history. The fight against slavery in the USA has long been won and there is little likelihood that displaying a statue of a successful Confederate General is going to motivate anyone to agitate for the restoration of slavery. Again some have allowed icons in their external world to manifest far greater influence on their internal world than is realistically due to them.

As an interesting aside Lee reportedly opposed the erection of confederate statues. He purportedly said, “I think it wiser not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavoured  to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.”

(It could be argued that the use of slaves by the Romans provided the wealth that enabled the creation of the Roman Empire. Slavery was ubiquitous in the ancient world. Is anyone agitating to remove the busts of Julius Caesar in museums and art galleries around the world?)

On 26 January 1788 the First Fleet landed at Port Jackson in New South Wales and raised the British flag at Sydney Cove symbolically imposing British rule. In contemporary Australia we have marked the anniversary of that event as Australia Day and chosen that day to install immigrants with Australian Nationality and to honour significant Australian achievers with Australia Day Honours. Now we have local councils declaring that we shouldn’t celebrate Australia Day because indigenous people are offended. They argue that this event signified the European invasion of Australia and as a result the subsequent domination of the indigenous population. But essentially, the offense taken is not as a result of Australia Day itself but the meaning they choose to attach to it.

Now it is not as though European colonisation of Australia could likely have been avoided by the indigenous population. Both Holland and France had ambitions to colonise this country if the British had not beaten them to it. And I wonder if in retrospect those with indigenous ancestry would have preferred that the Aboriginal population had been left to their own devices. As much as they might want to think so, life for the original occupants of our land was hardly idyllic.

The so-called invasion of Australia by the British colonists portrayed by the victim brigade as murderous and brutal certainly resulted in the deaths of many of the indigenous population. Yet it should be acknowledged that far more were killed by the introduction of diseases, and unfortunately, alcohol, than by physical violence.

Indigenous Australians can be largely placed in two camps.

First there are those who are generally at odds with Australian cultural norms. They claim to be victims of colonisation and racism. Many of them choose to live in remote communities and purportedly are driven to live under Aboriginal cultural norms. These comprise some of the most dysfunctional communities on earth with domestic violence, child abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, levels of incarceration, rates of suicide and poor life expectancy well beyond the norms of Australians generally.

But there is another coterie of indigenous Australians. They have integrated into Australian society. They have become well-educated and are employed in real jobs. They care for their children. They respect the rights of women. They don’t abuse drugs and alcohol. Their health outcomes are commensurate with Australians generally. They make significant contributions to our society. I doubt very much that people in this group long to be living in a gunyah and know that if they are to put food in their bellies and that of their dependants they are entirely dependent on their hunting and gathering skills, the vagaries of the weather and the good humour of the tribe that lives next door! This group of indigenous Australians is probably grateful to have the opportunity to share in the benefits that arose from their being able to access European culture.

So if we look at the institution of Australia Day, we look through the lenses of our belief systems. We can choose to see it as a positive event or a negative event. Now this is not a conscious choice. Inevitably we will unconsciously choose to take one of the alternative points of view to confirm our “tribal” beliefs. If we appreciate living in a prosperous, tolerant, democratic society we celebrate Australia Day in recognition of that fact. If our sense of self, on the other hand, requires we take on the mantle of victimhood than we will seize on Australia Day as confirmation of such victimhood.

Now all these dubious devices I have described are about trying to shape the external world for our perceived benefit. They are normally pursued most vigorously by minority groups that have an axe to grind. Unfortunately such minority groups have become more influential often silencing their critics by accusing them of intolerance. They are aided by the tolerance the population in general affords them. Often their tribalisation and activism incur on the freedoms of the majority.

So let me return to the lessons of the good Dr Phil. We are often told that the natural pursuit of humankind is happiness. As an Introvert I don’t like the term “happiness” so much as it seems to imply laughter and jolliness! I prefer to believe that the natural goal of human beings is well-being. I agree entirely with Phil that our sense of well-being is largely determined by the state of our internal world. I have often quoted his formula for attaining psychological maturity. He says we should first know ourselves, then accept ourselves and then, hopefully forget ourselves.

Assuming the mantle of victimhood, automatically prevents us from “knowing ourselves”. It assumes an exterior locus of control and when we accede to the thought that other people are responsible for our welfare there is no incentive to “know ourselves”. And then we become obsessed with how the external world has conspired to injure us.

This, of course is a fatal mistake, because it suggests that so reinterpreting history and other artefacts of gesture politics will somehow magically restore our sense of well-being. Let me urge all of those so disposed that if they want to improve their lives to concentrate on getting their internal lives in order!

2 Replies to “Tribal Warfare and Gesture Politics”

  1. Ted, your comment “the offense taken is not as a result of Australia Day itself but the meaning they choose to attach to it” resonated with me. In a similar way, too often I see people misconstruing a behaviour with a label. For example, “he bullied me” when the facts confirm there is simply a difference of opinion on a specific matter. It is certainly challenging when debating an idea, agreeing to have a difference of opinion or accepting the view of the majority has a tendency to be lost in the labels special interest groups demand as their right to insist upon, irrespective of the facts or other’s views. I agree with your conclusion; let’s all concentrate on getting our internal lives in order first.

    1. We seem to be finding more and more ways of avoiding constructive debate Mark. Thanks for your comment.

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