Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Three-Tribe Theory ... Part 3

Hi All ... if you haven't read parts 1 and 2 of this, please go back and do that. Thanks.

Okay ... I'm back. I never wrote an essay in three parts before. I don't want to write Part 3. I want to have written it; a very different thing. This is where discipline drags laziness off the couch and slaps some sense into him. And to make it worse, I lost six or eight paragraphs last night when I shut the computer down without saving. It feels like punishment to start over. Groan.

So, let's gut it out together, okay? And maybe whatever it is in me that likes to write, and can ... will wake up and decide to pitch in.

In my first two segments, I tried to persuade you that, in spite of all our modern trappings and intricate cultural slights of hand, we are still group-oriented primates. If I have failed to do that you are probably not reading this. So I guess I can stop worrying about you and get on with talking about how the 2nd Tribe can contribute to a better, happier society for all of us.

I hurried through the last of Part Deux last week, because the clock told me I had to finish up and head down to North Hollywood and my hosting duties at Kulak's Woodshed. The crowd that hangs out there is, for me, a 2nd Tribe. And I don't like to miss my weekly connection to them. So I finished up, hit the shower and was pulling on some clean clothes as the phone rang. It was a friend calling; the only other Kulakian who lives in Thousand Oaks. She had a car problem and needed a ride. Now she and I have had some Facebook arguments recently, and I wasn't sure where we stood in our friendship. But, after spending six hours writing about the joys of community and the pull-together spirit - I was sure as hell not gonna say no. I grabbed her up and we drove down and back together, talking amiably. After writing all day about the 2nd Tribe, an hour hadn't passed before I had the opportunity to see it in action.

You see, in spite of our ongoing political disagreements (she is a staunchly liberal feminist and I am, well ... me), our commitment to the funky little community we both love is stronger than our need to either vanquish or be rid of one another. This is a lot of what is so good about belonging to a smallish purpose-driven group. Much is lost when we select our friends based only upon how closely their thinking resembles our own.

I mentioned Facebook. If there is another phenomenon extant in our culture with greater potential to teach us who we are - I am not aware of it. On any day my news-feed shows me what interests my 'friends' enough that they are compelled to state it publicly. I have just about a thousand Facebook Friends. Probably two-thirds have come to me through the world of folk music and those are about 85% off-the-rack liberals. I know what they are going to say before they say it. They're outraged at the Republicans and blah, blah, blah. And there are also the virulent right-wingers who post twenty and thirty times a day, sending along some out-of-context snippet of Obama video that has them in a pantie-wad about the onrushing socialist nightmare. Others never venture into the political, preferring instead to send pictures of meals, kids, reunions and adorable animals sleeping entwined. There are still others who seem determined to prove to the world how grateful they are for their lives, and how full of inner peace they are. Often they post a Rumi quote, or a snatch of poetry written in a curly-cue font across a purple sunset.

It occurs to me that, without this very strange interface - this two-way mirror through which we encounter strangers and 'real' friends with an identical amount of both intimacy and remove - most of the active Facebookers would spend very little time on the thoughts that now seem to obsess them. It's as if this little portal has opened upon a larger world, and we are all casting ourselves into it like messages in bottles, waiting to be picked up and read on a distant shore. Somewhere out there, we think to ourselves, are 'my people'. And when we receive messages back - Likes, Shares, Comments - we have proof of our existence. And we become, a bit more confidently, the person that drew the response.

Years ago I wrote a song about 'taggers', the graffiti vandals who mark up the city with spray cans. In it, I admitted that I'd never clung one-handed to a freeway overpass mere yards above speeding metallic death, but that I sure did know how it felt to want to leave my mark. I've wondered about that often. What is it in us that so needs to be acknowledged? The poet in me lapses into reverie at the poignancy of it all. But I think that I do understand. Our lives are imperiled, in our atavistic brains, if we are not seen as important to our tribe. And whatever that tribe is - however noble, silly, hysterical or violent is the group that accepts us - we will do what it takes to prove ourselves members in good standing.

Remember Patty Hearst. The 'Stockholm Syndrome' is what they called it when Patty switched allegiances and joined her captors in a bank robbery. So powerful is the human need for acceptance by the group, that even being locked in a closet by terrifying strangers won't shut it off. When stripped of its tribe, the poor human grieves a while and then latches on to a new one.

And the freeway tagger? Who pulls him in? Who gives his life meaning? Well unless he is scooped up by Father Boyle's Homeboys or one of the other fine groups working to loosen the grip of gangs, he'll likely end up a 38th Streeter or join the Mexican Mafia. Gangs are tribes. They would say their purpose is money, turf, honor ... whatever half-baked thing their alphas have come up with. And the police provide the outside threat. It's hard to break their hold, because there is nothing as compelling with which to combat them. There are about 500 violent gangs in Los Angeles county, with upwards of forty thousand members. That tells us a lot.

It seems to me that Facebook too, is evidence that we are, as a people, painfully unaffiliated. Hundreds of millions of us ... looking for our gang. The cute kitten videos are the 'tags' of the cute kitten gang. The old clips of, say, David Bowie on the Mike Douglas show, are the tags of the old rockers signaling to find their bros. The most obvious, of course, are the political bomb-throwers. They are soldiers in a cyber army, passing weapons around, calling out strategies, and covering each other as they storm the machine-gun positions of the enemy. This is no game to them, especially here in an election year. They have found a tribe and attached with every fiber. And no reasonable entreaty toward cooperation is of interest to them. They piss me off, but I have to admit ... at least they have beaten back the numbing effects of our consumerist society. They are at least interacting.

But are they making the world any better? No, I don't think they are. They are, rather, falling for the well-marketed myth that humans break down into the 'good' and the 'bad'. They're not greatly different really, from the thousands who went on crusades to kill others that they'd been told were not worthy of life. Not so different from Rwandan Hutus sharpening their machetes. Except in degree, of course.They aren't yet killing the enemy, but they are dehumanizing him, which is the warm-up step. They are susceptible, as are we all, to in-group, out-group thinking, and responsive to the promise of a better life. If the enemy of goodness can be located, and you can help to defeat him, your life will be better. Simple as that. This week it's a boycott against Rush Limbaugh for dissing a woman over her demands for free birth-control. Next week it will be something Obama said indicating weakness in the face of Iran's nuclear threat. If my tribal identification is as a left-winger, I'll be getting a pound of Limbaugh-flesh. If my identification is as a right-winger, I'll be lining up to beat up on the President one more time.

The most devoted of the Facebook brigade, probably feels an awful lot of the enlivening effects of a good group affiliation. But Facebook is a lousy substitute for a 2nd Tribe. Too big. Too full of strangers. Too little accountability.

Human beings do not break down into 'good' and 'bad'. There are no neat lines of demarcation dividing them into such broad categories. People are all mixed bags of traits, talents, tendencies. We can be moved in any number of directions by anyone canny enough to find our buttons and push them. Before this week is out, I will do or say something that, later, upon reflection, will just baffle me. But when I do look back, I will see how the doing of that dumb thing was in some way an attempt to be accepted. It's always that. And how often I do it, and how stupid it is, has everything to do with how solidly affiliated I am with a tribe that asks for my better aspects and pushes back against my worst.

And how willing a 'people' is to war against another, or just to vilify another has everything to do with how unhappy and bereft of purpose they are.

Of course, it isn't only the largely-written dysfunctions like war that make our lives less wonderful. Loneliness. Depression. Addictive behaviors of all stripes. Verbal and physical abuse that goes largely unnoticed. All of these micro things drain away the pleasure of life just as surely as the macro ones do.

Perhaps the greatest example of the intentionally constructed 2nd Tribe has arisen in response to the soul-killing problem of addiction. The 12-step movement illustrates a lot of what I've been talking about. The steps have been adapted to fight numerous addictions, but for simplicity, let's just use A.A. as our example. It might be said that there are millions of people in Alcoholics Anonymous. That might seem to disqualify it as a 2nd Tribe. But the fact is that the program is practiced in small groups. A group, or meeting, usually has thirty to fifty in attendance at any one time. There is a lot of overlap too; people can be semi-regulars at several meetings. These people all get to know each other over time. So if you are an A.A. regular, you will probably know a hundred or so people more-or-less well.

The purpose of A.A. is a good and simple one for bonding a group's members. Everybody in the tribe knows that alcoholism is dangerous, and the A.A. literature does much to make it even more fearsome. The compulsion to drink is variously identified as a fatal disease or anthropomorphized into a demon who wants you dead. The central ritual involves the telling of harrowing tales - the 'drunkalogue' - always ending with the nick-of-time rescue by A.A.. It's compelling stuff. A formidable foe, this alcoholism. A constant threat. Members are strongly urged never to be confident about having beaten it. It is believed that A.A.'s, as they call themselves, have only a daily reprieve, contingent upon a constant maintenance of their spiritual condition. This is gained by reading and re-reading the books, passing along the principles to others, and returning again and again to the meetings. The last thing you hear at the meeting is this couplet, spoken loudly by all in unison: "Keep coming back. It works, if you work it!"

I have a long history with A.A.. I think that I have been to about 3 thousand meetings. Our relationship was always stormy. I'm not great with adopting doctrine unquestioningly, and ultimately I found a path to sobriety outside those rooms. I found it lacking as a treatment for addiction (A.A. itself claims less than 10% as a success rate), but I was and remain impressed by how well A.A. provides an on-going small-tribe structure within which people are drawn toward their best selves. Admitting one's failings before the group is part of the program. That brings a large helping of accountability to the table. If you admit how you screw up, and want the people you've befriended to admire you, you will eventually replace those negative behaviors with positive ones. And about the time that that happens, a newcomer or two will start asking you for guidance. Then, on days when your own salvation is not enough to inspire you ... the salvation of those looking up to you usually is.

Ironically, A.A. has no interest in discussing tribal dynamics. They place the power of the program squarely on an individual's personal contact with God. That such a contact is not effective outside the context of a group, seems not to cause them any cognitive dissonance. I'll write later about how I think A.A. could double or triple its success rate by embracing evolutionary psychology. But let's move on.

Church congregations once provided excellent 2nd tribes. This was particularly true in rural areas where people lived spread-out. A once weekly reminder that you were accountable to forces greater than yourself lent much-needed perspective to a life. The church also served as a center for social activities, and led the charge when a charitable effort brought the community together. Add to this it's role in sanctioning the life-passage ceremonies: Christening, Marriage, Funeral, and it's not surprising that as church attendance has dwindled, societal malaise has spread like kudzu.

It's unfortunate that, as science has eroded the belief in God that once gave cohesion to society, it has done precious little to encourage bonding around non-god-based ideas. I'm as agnostic as they come, but I'm not blind to the profound loss secularism has fostered.

A problem with the formation of purpose-driven groups is the problem of leadership. People follow people, and a group can quickly become a cult of personality. This is almost always problematic. Most humans are too erratic to provide consistent leadership. The few who are steady enough to lead steadily, usually have no need for followers. Successful religious groups posit an ultimate authority outside any of their number, including the priests or ministers. A.A. has a nice take on this. No one person, however charismatic, is seen to be more important than any other, or as important as the group. There is no hierarchy as such. And at the beginning of the meeting, the readings often end with a statement as to the importance of anonymity. "Anonymity is the foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place Principles Before Personalities." That's good stuff there.

In the best of cases, sports teams can provide a lot of the character-building that takes place in a 2nd Tribe. I read yesterday about the great UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden. Wooden is well-known to have had an effect on his players that lasted beyond their four years under his tutelage. I was curious about how he did that. I found a copy of his famed "Pyramid of Success" and twelve other principles he was fond of imparting to his players. Not surprisingly, most of these had little or nothing to do with basketball. I'll attach a link. Suffice it to say that most of his wisdom had to do with hard work, care for one another, faith in God, and a steadfast belief in team-over-individual. If all coaches were like John Wooden, we would have a better society. The inherent weaknesses of teams as 2nd Tribes are obvious though. They are made up of people selected on the basis of physical talent, for one thing. Also one's membership ends at some point, usually only a few years in at best. And there is not necessarily an acknowledged purpose greater than winning the game. That can be pretty limited.

People do attempt to form identity groups around the watching of sports teams, but I think that sort of thing has little potential for bringing out the best in people. I don't think I need to go into a litany of sports hooliganism to make the point.

I've been mulling over these ideas for many years, and one thing I return to again and again is the military. It's obvious that a sense of purpose and that of a looming threat are not hard to find within the culture of soldiers. In combat, a 'company' made up of several 'platoons' tends to operate best at around 150 in number. Not surprising. But the bit I particularly like is the opportunity to both boss and be bossed.

Last week, when I was hosting at Kulak's Woodshed, one of the volunteers came out of the back and said to me, "Paul wants to see you". Paul is Paul Kulak, owner and creator of the Woodshed. He's the boss. It's usually not good news when he calls me into the back where he is directing the camera-shoot for the live web-stream we do there. Now keep in mind that I had, to this point, been rockin' along, keeping people laughing, making decisions, and generally being 'the man'. Now I have to go see what Paul wants. Sure enough, he hasn't called me back to compliment me. He's seen me doing something sloppily that he'd rather I did well. He let's me know about it. And I, not being in my humblest mode, snap back a little. No big drama, just a guy legitimately bossing another guy who doesn't really want to hear it. But, because I know that I get more from the experience than I give, I stuffed my indignation down, went out front, and did as I was asked.

I have this little Beetle Bailey cartoon in my mind whenever I talk about the tribal structure of the military. A fighting force, in contrast to A.A., is richly hierarchical. I see a string of offices connected by doors. In the one on the far end, The general is shouting at a captain. The captain says yes sir and walks through the door. There he yells at the waiting lieutenant, who says yes sir and walks out the door, where he barks an order at a sergeant who goes and does the same to a corporal. In this scenario, everybody gets to be both a honcho and a lackey. Everybody, that is, except the private on the bottom. Even the general has to answer to civilian bosses ultimately. I know from my own life experience that being both the boss and the bossed has much to recommend it. Knowing where to find your inner-leader is always handy, and humility really is one of the indispensable traits of a decent human being. And there's nothing like being reminded of your failings to keep a little humility alive in a person. It keeps a man reasonable as he can never get too sure that he is right on anything. It also makes him more forgiving of others. After all, wasn't he doing his best the last time he came up short?

Aside from all that unfortunate business with killing people, there is a lot to like about the military for bringing out discipline, courage, humility, decisiveness, and a lot of other good things. I'm guessing more than one combat vet misses his platoon for reasons he can't quite articulate. As for the poor grunt with nobody to boss? A little bit of effort and self-control ought to get him a promotion.

Service organizations offer a lot of opportunity for those looking to layer a little sense of purpose into their lives, while keeping their people-skills in shape. I'd guess that these outfits, Optimist Clubs, Kiwanis Clubs, etc. attract their share of annoying busybodies, but most are probably good-hearted. The Salvation Army is interesting. They actually use a military structure of sorts. And they do genuinely roll up their sleeves and help the needy. You could do worse for a 2nd Tribe.

Cultural organizations are easy to find and join too. Our friend Bonnie Wallace helped to run a theatre company on Bainbridge Island Washington, and found that a lot of the pro-community dynamics I talk about developed in that group. She is now writing a book teaching others how to do the same wherever they live.

Early this year, I finally got around to reading Malcolm Gladwell's first book, The Tipping Point. He writes about the Rule of 150. He mentions the Hutterites, a religious sect not too different from the Amish or the Mennonites. The Hutterites have been keeping their communities limited to about 150 for centuries. They find that a strong social fabric depends on the ability to know everybody you depend on. That when groups get much bigger, rivalries happen and a split is coming anyway ... so they prefer to get out ahead of it.

I was also interested in Gladwell's profile of Gore Associates, the Delaware-based manufacturing firm responsible for Gore-Tex fabrics and a lot of other high tech products. Often cited as one of the best employers in the U.S., they also adhere to the Dunbar Number, establishing new plants whenever existing ones swell past 150 employees. They eschew the traditional 'corporate ladder' and call all employees, 'associates'. Nobody gets a corner office. Everybody has access to everybody else and ideas can move horizontally with ease. All are aware of the strengths and weaknesses of their fellows. Because of this, there is tremendous positive peer pressure. They have none of the us-against-them mentality that has often hobbled American business, and created a fertile environment for labor disputes. Neither is there much goofing off. When asked how they keep the numbers down, an executive said, " ... That's easy. We put a hundred and fifty parking spaces in the lot, and when people start parking on the grass, we know it's time to build a new plant".

Personally, I think that small businesses have terrific potential to become life-long 2nd Tribes. All of the elements are there. Earning a living is the most direct post-industrial analogue to hunting and gathering for survival. Likewise, competition from other businesses in the same niche will sometimes pose a threat to the tribe's very existence. If people are properly valued and much is expected of them, they will face such challenges with relish. As a lifelong tradesman, I know well the deep sense of satisfaction that comes from making something well that is then useful to whomever buys it. If your work can bring such satisfaction, and keeping it coming is dependant upon all working smoothly in shared purpose; and if, because of these bonds, all are assured a good living and good working conditions ... well then you will have a pretty fine life in a free capitalist society.

We are never going back to subsistence farming. We're not going back to join roving bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers. A tipped hat to all the folks who are going off-grid, and living a simpler life. But my concern is for those who don't want to live in yurts and teepees, but do want to feel alive and engaged. The money-economy is here to stay, how well it works is up to us. There is no good reason for us to be polarized as deeply as we have become. There is no good reason for our children to slip through the cracks while their parents flounder.

At some point we have to fully recognize what sort of creature the human being is, and begin to notice which societal structures make us more or less happy and good. Religions mostly accept evolution now as one of God's elegant tools, for change if not for creation. That's good enough for me. Let's set aside the first-cause debate and even the speciation debate, and work on how we can give these flawed and spectacular humans - as they strive to be better - every opportunity to succeed.

Dave Morrison ... March 5, 2012

John Wooden's Pyramid of Success
Kulak's Woodshed Live Feed (I host the 4th Monday of each month, 7:30pm)


  1. Dang, Dave, I foresee a future for you on Oprah with all this. Is she still on the air, though? OK, then I propose some sort of reality show where we go in and organize or repair and revive Second Tribes. Got to be better than those giant catfish wrestlers and tattoo freaks.
    It is funny that the day before I read this I was driving up Lake avenue mulling over many of these same questions. Having just witnessed a second tribe I had inadvertently created being replaced by a small paranoid clique, and having moved on to a more upscale tribe not of my creation, I have been pondering on the emotional and biological imperatives that rule this somewhat neglected dynamic. Within these tribes, like AA and the Military, there is often deliberate structure and codification, But I am pleased to see that you have taken on the Subject as a whole, and are looking at it as generally beneficial and overlooked necessity to belong and contribute to this mid level of community.
    Perhaps, like me, you are a bit surprised to find yourself standing on such a path. Our upbringings as nuclear family "rugged individual" Americans make it easy to retain the delusion that we are complete and healthy standing alone in the world, until addictions or other strange and compulsive behaviors bubble up within us to attempt to fill or mask this unseen and unexpected void.
    I have had to become somewhat of a social anthropologist of late, simply to understand all the buffeting about that goes on in this new social arena I am immersed in since leaving my solitudinous trade, aging out of the nuclear family, and entering the very social and tribal world of art and entertainment.
    Your analysis is some of the most cogent thinking I have encountered, and is very welcome. And extremely well communicated. I'll have more to say, I'm sure. Got to rush off to some tribal function at the Viva Cantina shortly. Duane

  2. Ps, I loved my little tribe, and it's very specific purpose and function, and will still provide some nurture for some of its heartful and talented members. The other endeavor is somewhat related, and only the location is more upscale in some respects, not the people or purpose...... Did not mean to say that.