Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Three-Tribe Theory ... Part 2

Hi all. If you have not read part 1 of this, please go back and do that. Thanks.

Seventeen years or so ago, I had a lovely moment. It was a moment that I think all of us ought to look forward to, but most probably do not. It was the first time my son Glen ever directly defied me.

He was five years old at the time, and had been, till then and mostly since, an even-tempered boy, easy to get along with, and not the least bit spoiled or demanding. So it came as a shock to me when he suddenly showed another side of himself. I'd asked him to do something; put his toys away, or get his shoes on or something, and instead of running off compliantly to do as directed, he stood his ground. He tilted his head down a little and set his jaw and said, "NO". It stopped me in my tracks. I might easily have reacted with anger, but it was so out-of-keeping with what I knew of him that I just stopped. And then I felt the sudden need to smile expansively. So I left him there, ducked into the kitchen and did just that. I was filled with a sense of pride and well-being. I was in love with him and myself too.

Then I pulled it together, faked a scowl, and went back out and made him do what I'd asked.

What had happened? Well, I had been reading books on evolution, anthropology, brain science, the emergence of human consciousness, and anything I could lay my hands on to explain humans to me. I'd reached a dead-end in my quest for WHO I was, and decided to look instead at WHAT I was. So I had all this running through me when little Glen dug in and challenged me. And I had just enough good will in me that morning, and hesitated just long enough, for the real nature of the encounter to be revealed.

My five-year-old had, in fact, profoundly complimented me in two distinct, if related, ways. First, he had challenged my authority, which I was now able to see as an acknowledgement of my authority. He was feeling a need to challenge the Alpha, and the Alpha was me. Secondly, he proved with his outburst, that I had somehow instilled in him not only a clear perception of my leadership, but enough courage (and confidence in my fairness) to risk the encounter. So in one well-placed word, my son had let me know that I was fulfilling both my leadership role, and my role in preparing him for the leadership role he would one day fill. That was a very good morning.

I don't think that I have had a single troublesome interaction with another human since, where I was not able eventually to tease out the tribal dynamics at work. I still fight with people, and win or lose or accept a stalemate, but I don't take any of it personally really. I understand that we are smart primates first and foremost. Our identities as Democrats, or Republicans, or Christians, or Vegans or Yankees Fans or whatever we use as a flag to fly ... all have been grafted onto the framework of the intelligent mammals that we are.

And in the same way that a mechanic would know that a Dodge Caravan and a Chrysler 300 have exactly the same engine and drive-train, I know that however different we look to each other, we are all basically the same under the hood. When you come at me with open-ness, or dismissal, or some seemingly inappropriate air of competition, you are really trying to figure out whether I am an ally or a threat.  And when I react, however I do, I ought to be giving you that information, so that you can get about your business in the most streamlined way you can. This stuff can freak people out, but is the perfectly normal jostling for position that all group mammals do.

All of that is subliminal most of the time, of course. And, because we have invested thousands of years of culture into denying our animal natures, we mostly miss it entirely. Instead we feel rejected and angry. We carry resentments for years. We lie awake at night re-running conversations, combing through our memories to find what went wrong - what we might have done differently. Some of that is okay, as some of that is part of the organic jostling that will always be there; but there's no reason we should make ourselves sick over the bickerings of clever apes trying to form survival units in a hostile world.

Because that is what we are doing. We are attempting to build survival units. Let's go back to Africa for a quick recap of human history.

A couple of million years ago, our little globe was up to a lot of the  same climate-change tricks that have us in a tizzy right now. The rain forests of central Africa were shrinking back drastically leaving savannas and grasslands in their wake. Some of the fruit-eating primates who lived in the forests got squeezed and began to venture out into the open spaces. There were a lot of animals out there to eat, but also fierce predators with savage teeth and claws and explosive speed. The apes spent more and more time standing upright, the better to see things coming, and gradually their skeletons adjusted for that. Also, having inferior equipment for hunting, they learned to adapt their social-group behaviors of the forest to hunting-group behaviors. They developed ways of signaling. They learned to present as a group and scare off much more formidable creatures. They were learning language and strategy and inter-dependence. Their brains grew larger, adding mass and redundancy and the demands of their new world found use for the new grey matter. Soon they were making tools and weapons and building shelters. It wasn't long - in evolutionary time at least - till they began to follow their migratory prey onto other continents.

These were, of course, our ancestors. Most of the time we've been on this planet - the overwhelming majority of our time here, we were hunter-gatherers. If you lay a standard 12 inch ruler in front of you and imagine that to be the time-line starting at the arrival of the first bi-pedal proto-humans and ending last Thursday around lunch-time ... nearly all of the ruler is inhabited by nomadic hunter-gatherers. The entirety of our march to law-based societies that began with agriculture's demand for a stationary life, is contained in the last eighth-inch of your ruler. That's how much longer we lived in tight mobile units, than we have lived in large trading-based societies.

And just as the mini-van is built on the sedan's chassis, our large, logical brains were built on those older, simpler brains. And in the same way, our elaborate cultures, our political systems, our economies, and even that group of friends we meet at Starbucks one Saturday a month, are all built upon the bones of tight-knit human survival pods.

Have you ever watched a drastic home re-modeling? There are tax reasons to remodel rather than building new, so the house is torn down mostly, but a little is left to stand. So now a beautiful high-tech house rises, and looking at it you'd never know that somewhere deep inside are a couple of old walls. Our brains are like that. The old mammalian brain is still there, and worse, the old lizard brain too.

These old grandfathered-in brains are not great at conceptual thought. They are not calm weighers of subtlety, prone to careful observation and long-term testing of options. They are reactor-brains. If a new thing appears, these brains are likely to be afraid of it - just in case - and take off running, or at least send that signal to the rest of our bigger more thought-filled brains. If blocked from running as they are by our social conventions and commitments to things like work-days, they will send the signal to agress. Fight or Flight.

I saw a documentary the other day where a British comedian visited Ted Turner at his monstrous Montana ranch. They drove out to see a buffalo herd. After parking the jeep, they walked up the hill, Turner leading confidently. There were a couple hundred huge bison watching their approach. It looked terrifying and must have been for the visitor. At some point one buffalo turned and ran and they all went with him. Turner might think this a reflection of his own uber-alpha vibes, but if a couple of ten-year-old girls had driven up and done the same, the bison would also have done the same. Not sure what that is ... why risk it?

So we live in these modern societies. And we are very much different outwardly from our distant ancestors. We have technology and transportation, hospitals, armies, clothing to sustain us in the arctic if necessary. We have philosophy and psychology and religion, art and music and literature. We have come a long way baby. It is very tempting to believe that we are no longer primates, but rational, clear-thinking PEOPLE.

But we aren't. At least not reliably. We are what the enormous preponderance of our history has made us. And whatever we set out to do, our approach - when examined - reveals these old behaviors. We're stuck with ourselves. Maybe not forever. Maybe just for another half-million years of so. Until then, it would behoove us to let go of our false reckonings, and learn to operate these vehicles we ride around in.

I've been watching Americans for a while now. Pretty good eggs, by and large, but they are having some real problems. Politically we are so locked into opposing groups that compromise is virtually impossible. We are dependant for the fuel that fires our economy on foreign peoples we can't understand. Our schools are mired in wrong ideas and owned by unions more interested in steady employment than education. Most of us can't afford to be either healthy or sick. We run before the promptings of Madison Avenue like cattle before the electric prod. We either doubt God, or are nearly crazy in our devotions. Millions of American adults are on anti-depressants. Millions of American children are on Ritalin. We're eating and drinking ourselves to death. We over-load our lives with accomplishments and possessions and still wake up in the night terrified that we'll be caught up short..

The tapestry is beginning to unravel. Why? I believe that a partial answer is this: we cannot feel contented and safe unless we are connected to other actual humans through on-going tribal interactions. And I say that, for all the crowds available to us, most of us are gripped by a sense of isolation.

A tiny bit more foundation work, and I'll get to my solution.

Our bodies, using the oldest parts of our nervous system, produce feelings of pleasure and pain. More recent are brain-centers that produce feelings of safety and well-being, or conversely, feelings of fear, and anxiety. These nerve-responses, and our feelings about them are there to drive us toward things that are good for our survival and away from things that threaten it. Once it was easy. Hmmm, I like how it feels to eat and have sex, and I don't like how it feels to freeze or be clawed by a bear. So ... my days will be spent trying to get the good stuff and defending against the bad stuff. I see something edible, I eat it. Something threatens me, I kill it or run away. And when the area is depleted, I strike the camp and move on.

And because the demands of competing against the real predators had taught us to depend upon one another, our brains had gradually learned to produce good feelings when we cooperated. After all, I would need to know you had my back on the hunt, so sharing my food with you and helping you thatch your roof was pro-survival. We developed strong group-bonds driven by the good feelings these cooperations gave us, and we learned to hate those outside our group as part of the fear-mechanism that kept us safe from them. Just in case. Simple and direct. And that was us for a long, long time.

But once we switched from hunting-gathering to agriculture we had to stay put. Now we were faced with turning the daily gamble into predictability. We had to stay in one place long enough to get a crop in, and further, we had to trade what our land would grow for what we needed that it would not. We had to develop long-term discipline and some way to guarantee our safety when we hauled our load of flax down to the river to trade for fish. So we came up with a one-god theory and started to hang some moral imperatives on it. And this morphed into towns and cities and countries and armies and courts, and along came shipping and empires and machines and manufacturing and eventually us.

Suddenly there was concrete and nice square-cut lumber and big foundries and factories and mills. And we worked in the mills and the factories and made homes from the lumber and concrete, and as we standardized and mass produced all our needs, we did the same to ourselves. We began to define individually, what once we'd defined in groups. The market that once served us, was now driving us to serve it. It was more profitable to persuade each family to own furnishings and stoves and washing machines and cars, rather than share them. Village gave way to suburb, and all that natural need for cooperation was buried under structured task-work often making things we had no use for or clear understanding of. And our intentional energies were slowly  pried loose from their origins. It was gradual, but inexorable. Now a couple hundred years into the industrial revolution, we appear to be a species that prefers to live in small blood-related groups of one or two adults and two or three kids, and often we split even that tiny unit among two homes. And it is possible to live separated by just a wall from a neighbor we might never meet.

So that is where we are.

Now, the Three Tribes. My notion is that, in spite of belonging to any number of groups, as I mentioned in my last piece, there are just three that are essential. I'll start with the first, skip ahead to the third and then drop back to the second.

The first, and smallest is the Immediate Family. This is the Ward and June and Wally and Beaver unit. It's fine as far as it goes. It is thought, particularly among religious conservatives, that this is the basic building-block of society. They think that we must, above all else, preserve this first tribe in its most basic Dad-Mom-Kids form. Maybe, maybe not. But it is deeply rooted culturally for sure. This is The First Tribe.

The third and largest is Society At Large. Quantify this as you'd like, but as an American, I see this as The United States. It is apparently central enough for us to bicker about endlessly, so this is, for my purposes here, The Third Tribe.

The Second Tribe is like a hole in our society. It's mostly not there when you go looking for it. Mostly, in fact, nobody is even looking. It has been forgotten. But what is it? This is - or should be - the modern analogue of the small tribal village. It is a community of perhaps 75 to 150 people in a range of ages, not necessarily related by blood but all known to one another. This is key. You need to know everybody in the Second Tribe. You do not, however have to like them all. In fact, the Second Tribe works a lot better if you don't like some of them.

In order to be a happy and productive person, one needs to learn some basic things. One needs to learn that he or she is not the center of the universe. One needs to learn how to defer gratification, and spend some energy working on things that benefit others more immediately than one's self. One also needs to know what sort of talents he possesses, and where his weaknesses lie. Does she have great leadership potential, or negotiating skills? Is she particularly good at seeing a problem in a new light and finding solutions where no one else sees them? One needs to know one's attributes and liabilities. And only interactions with other humans will bring these out and develop them.

Additionally, people need ways to calm and comfort themselves, and to experience joy. If these things can be done without resorting to drugs or alcohol, and in communion with others, strong pro-society habits can be formed. We know that the opposite is true.

So how is the First Tribe at these function? Well we all know families who are very sensitive to their childrens' talents and weaknesses. In the best-case scenario, a child can grow up pretty well with just the influence of the parents. But there are pitfalls. Because of the blood-bond and the fact of so much familiarity from birth, a kid might be perfectly acculturated in the First Tribe and be awkward as hell outside. School and playground help a lot with this, but last only through childhood, and don't offer much cross-generational experience. We also know families that are just incredibly toxic. It's hard to leave when things start turning dark. They share a house and own things together. Dependency weakens resolve. It is possible for the most horrible abuse to go on for decades in the sealed environment of a nuclear family. And where not horrible, it's still likely to not be optimal. A kid can be spoiled rotten or destroyed spiritually and there's often not much we can do about it.

So the First Tribe can be weak for building citizens. How about the Third Tribe? Well, the Third Tribe is a mega-tribe. It, as an entity, has no idea that you are even there. Sure we vote for or against its leaders and abide by or break its laws. We pay into its coffers and fight its battles. But it is mostly opaque to us. And we are invisible to it. If I walk off into the wilderness today, the Third Tribe won't miss me at all. Pretty much the only way to get its attention is to break its laws. I sometimes think that Columbine and the Kennedy assassination were simply cries to be noticed by the Third Tribe. A drive toward fame is that as well. The proliferation of reality shows. Celebrities with no talent beyond self promotion. The Jerry Springer Show. "Cops". Jack-Ass. Youtube videos with no other purpose to the poster than to be known by strangers even if it means being known for your own stupidity. None of it works for long. None of it patches the hole. The Third Tribe does not love us. It doesn't even bother to hate us.

No it is the Second Tribe where human beings are polished up into the extraordinary creatures that they can be. I mentioned that all members of the 2nd Tribe must know each other. Why do I say this? Accountability. If you don't know me, I can run a number on you. If, in my daily life, I encounter mostly strangers, then I can get by on charm or intimidation. I can lie and cheat. And by the time the note comes due, I'm on to the next victim. But not in a 2nd Tribe. Word is passed around too easily. Exposure is quick and scrutiny follows. If I correct my behavior, it is noticed and encouraged. If I don't, my grace-period will not last long. Hustlers don't do well in the 2nd Tribe.

This is the crux of it. Only in a group small enough to be directly affected by my misbehavior, will I get the kind of blow-back I need to decide that being an A-hole is more trouble than it's worth. And only in a small group will I, if I get on the good foot, get the kind of acceptance that will make me want to be even more of a contributor. And all of this happens organically. If left to its own devices, a purpose-driven group will naturally move its members toward their most cooperative selves. And while doing this it will draw from each his talents and creativity and wear away his insecurities.

You notice that I said 'purpose-driven'. That's an important distinction. Without a common and compelling purpose, the 2nd tribe is nothing special. Unless everybody feels a strong need for what the group provides them, or is passionate about what the group provides for others, then they will just go their separate ways when they hit a rough patch. It's the staying on that does the magic. I mentioned that it's best if we don't particularly like everybody in the group. Working with people we like is easy. But finding ways to work with those we'd not select as friends, is a real workout for the mind. It not only makes us more confident of our own people skills, but erodes our tendency toward prejudice as we learn how to bridge those personality gaps.

I need to add also, that a group like this should have some sort of on-going challenge to its existence. It is, after all, the old survival urge that underpins human bonding in the first place. It doesn't have to be anything drastic, but some slight threat that the group could be dispersed or its mission thwarted, adds dynamism, and makes accomplishments sweeter and team-mates more valued.

I am running out of time for writing here, because I will be leaving soon to drive to Kulak's Woodshed in North Hollywood. Kulak's is where I meet with my own 2nd tribe. It's a little listening room and community hub, geared to singer-songwriters of all skill levels. I've been going in there for the open mic every Monday night for almost 5 years. When I first arrived, I knew nobody, and though I was an experienced performer, nobody made a fuss over me. I kept to myself at first. But I made a few friends, and on instinct, decided to keep coming back. Gradually I dealt with a lot of what had been bothering me my whole life. While rubbing up against a lot of performers - some of whom I did not like - and by wrestling my own ego down (or just as often, up), to a level at which I could feel like an equal to all, I began to genuinely enjoy people for who they were.

Our purpose is to provide a safe, friendly environment wherein people of all ages may express themselves though performance. Our challenge comes, in calm times, from raising rent, paying bills and lots of technical and volunteer issues. There have been times when outside forces have actually tried to shut us down. So far we've pulled together and survived, but the wolf is always nearby.

I'm not in charge of Kulak's Woodshed. There is a boss, and he's not me. I do host sometimes, like tonight, and I have a little authority on those nights, but I serve at the pleasure of the chief. That is so good for me. One of the great things about a functioning 2nd tribe is that a person gets to be the boss one minute and be bossed the next. That is a balance found in nature, and is terrific for the balancing out of the ego. After five years of Mondays, I hardly know myself. Or maybe I finally do know myself. Whatever the case, I am different. I'm more confident, less bitter, a better performer, and I have not felt the need to drink alcohol in 21 months. Without trying really. I'm certain these things are connected.

So, I have to run. In my next installment, I will talk about how some groups function as Second-Tribe units. I will also talk about how a 2nd Tribe can go bad. I'll tell a couple Kulak's stories. I'll look at the 2nd Tribe potential of 12-step groups, small business, sports teams, church, and maybe others, and hopefully get you thinking about how you might get tribed up.

In closing I'll give you my 2nd Tribe equation:

A 2nd Tribe must be small enough to feel your impact, either positive or negative.
And it must be large enough that, should you opt out or be tossed out, it will go on without you.

Dave Morrison ... February 27, 2012

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