I recently interviewed my friend, and Cambodian genocide survivor, Dr. Emad Rahim. While I enjoyed our entire conversation, one story in particular struck me as very relevant to the challenges we’re facing today as a nation.
He discussed an incident that happened in high school, when tensions dramatically increased between the Black and Puerto Rican students. The school was concerned, so a mediator was brought in to reduce the racial and potential gang tensions. The mediators decided to speak to each group separately, but not knowing which group Emad belonged to, they included him in both groups. It was during these conversations that Emad realized this fight started with a fight over a girl. When the students saw the fight between a Black and Puerto Rican student, they assumed it was racially motivated, due to the serious mistrust and animosity that had built up between them. Emad then explained this to both groups, and as they both had his trust, the situation was resolved.
Emad figured this out because he knew both sides, cared for both sides, and had the respect of both sides. If this information didn’t come to light, if there wasn’t someone there that both sides trusted, who knows what might have resulted.
Similarly, today in the US, we find ourselves caught up in a dangerous cycle of increasing political tensions. Each side has their own internal loyalty, fed by the rhetoric of politicians and political pundits.Neither side trusts the other, or any neutral 3rd party. This mistrust has already led to hate, and that hate has led to real violence, and even the loss of life.
I’ve found myself talking a lot about “tribalism” recently.We humans have historically relied on close and extended family to protect ourselves from outside threats. Even today, we feel comfortable and safe with those who are like “us.” Tribal loyalty is an emotional loyalty, not one based on logic and reason, sometimes not even values. Marketers have successfully used this technique to divide us into Coke vs. Pepsi drinkers, Ford vs. Chevy drivers, and Mac vs PC users. They appeal to us, not based on reason and logic, but based on deeper emotional identities, hence the term “tribal.” Seth Godin wrote a great book on the subject called Tribes. He even warns against the misuse of this powerful tool.
Unfortunately, politicians have discovered the power of this biological drive, and use it to divide us into Republicans and Democrats.Research has even demonstrated that our choice of political party actually has less to do with the issues, and more to do with our preferred parenting styles(RESEARCH LINK). This further emphasizes the psychological underpinnings of tribalism. With each election cycle, each side increases the threat that the other side poses, placing themselves as the “tribe” that will defend them against this threat. On TV ads, and resonating in our minds is, “if you don’t vote for your party, the other side will destroy this country.” It works, but each time we become somewhat desensitized to these threats, so the bar is raised, and our anxiety goes up each time. While we clearly see the lies of the other side, we don’t see the lies of our own side. Even when we do, we rationalize them, “they need to play this dirty game … they’re protecting us from a greater evil.”
Is there a better way? Many of the founding fathers saw the destructive effect of political parties back in the UK. George Washington himself was against the idea of political parties in the United States. Should we reopen this debate? Maybe we can add more parties? Or could we move to a parliamentary system?
My point is that there are a lot of choices out there, and that our increasingly tense and violent two-party system isn’t set in stone.That being said, I personally believe that all systems have flaws and can be corrupted. This is why I’m a fan of educating myself and those around me, so that we don’t fall victim to these political games. Whether you agree or disagree, please share your thoughts below. I’d also love to hear your suggestions for topics we can discuss, and if you’re interested in being interviewed.