Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Why Are We Excommunicating Each Other?

I have written before on the corrosive effects of tribal identities in American politics. Far too many folks have adopted exclusive identities that increasingly shut everyone else out and label them enemies (often in dehumanizing and even violent terms). A couple of recent examples of such posts are here and here; you can also search this blog for the label "tribalism".

My hunch that this is an accelerating phenomenon was reinforced this morning by not one, but two stories in Inside Higher Ed:
Southern Utah Removes Senator's Name From Building
Public School District Drops Ties to Gordon College
The first case involves classic party labels. Utah is a pretty conservative state, dominated by Republicans. Apparently the fact that the one Southern Utah University alumnus to rise to the prominent position of Speaker of the House was a Democrat was too much for these folks, demonstrating that party loyalties outweigh alumni loyalties. The University claims that that's not why Harry Reid's name was taken off the side of a building, but I'll bet those local Republicans will crow about their "victory" in getting a hated Democrat's name removed from the public square.

The second case comes from the other side of the aisle, and appeals to the same tribes without the party labels. The president of Gordon College, an avowedly Christian liberal arts school in the Boston area, had signed a letter asking for an exemption from a new federal Executive Order on hiring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Like many conservative Christian organizations, Gordon College argued that it should be exempt from the law on the grounds of religious liberty. In response, a local school district which had partnered with Gordon for years ended their relationship - presumably because the school district disagrees with the college's position on employment discrimination and sexual orientation. Like the Utah case, no doubt there is plenty of self-righteous congratulatory feeling going around.

Both cases illustrate a fundamental tribal behavior: separate yourself from The Other as much as is humanly possible. Have nothing to do with them. Do not allow their names to adorn your buildings. Do not allow your students to mix with theirs. No cooperation, no compromise, and no recognition of shared interests. They are to be excommunicated, cast out, and considered Unclean.

Humans, of course, have been doing this sort of thing for as long as there has been human behavior. But there had been a general sense that, all other things being equal, the less of it we engage in the better we are. This drive to unite rather than divide is one of the founding principles and aspirations of American politics. It used to be that E pluribus unum was widely understood. Today it seems to be more often translated, "I'm right and you're wrong, so go to Hell."

These small acts of excommunication have very little practical effect. Southern Utah will raise money to build more buildings (with or without Reid's name), and I'm sure the school district in Lynn will find a source of student helpers. These are symbolic gestures - and that is why they are so important.

Are we as a people really so consumed with our tribal self-righteousness that we need to fight over whose name goes on a building? Can Harry Reid's life and contribution be reduced to a single label, overriding everything else he may have ever done? Are the students of Gordon College all the same because their institution's president signed a statement, and does that statement overshadow the good they might be able to do in a classroom?

In the end, of course, these symbolic gestures aren't really about their intended targets, whether they be House Speakers or college students. They're about the egos and identities of the self-righteous who want to stand on the street corner and trumpet their virtue to the world - or at least, to the members of their own tribe. They would rather beat their chests and shout their own praises than engage in real conversation with someone they might disagree with.

The real danger of such conversations, of course, is not that the participants will be made Unclean. It is that they might discover they have more in common with their "enemies" than they thought, and be forced to regard them as valuable human beings rather than as foils and talking points. I, for one, would rather live in a society of people than a Balkanized collection of warring factions shouting at one another.

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