Who are your people?

I saw Barack Obama speak in Calgary earlier this month. Dave Kelly, a local personality, had the honour of interviewing the former U.S. president, and started the conversation by asking what advice Obama has for parents trying to teach children how to be kind – especially as the “leaders” around us are often behaving anything but kindly.

A week later, I went to an event featuring Arno Michaelis and Pardeep Singh Kaleka. Michaelis is a former white supremacist, and Kaleka is the son of a man murdered during a white supremacist’s attack on a Sikh temple. They came together, founded an organization, wrote a book, and are now doing what they can to promote peace and forgiveness. An audience member during their Calgary event asked a question that was similar to the one Dave had posed to Obama.

Responses to both questions included discussions of tribalism: noting that when people feel threatened, they often narrow their focus and turn inward to their “tribes.” Further, responses to both questions included a reminder that this behaviour relates to our having evolved from small-group primates. All three speakers went on to discuss the need for us to override our primate instincts.

I understand there are reasons to feel threatened. While globalization and free trade have brought benefits, they’ve also brought the demise of many jobs. While there are more democracies and a larger middle class in the world than ever before, there is also a widening gap between rich and poor. Increased development has benefits, but has also meant climate change. In short, we’ve made lots of great advances into the 21st century, but also see natural disasters, famines, volatile conflicts, etc.

Still, as I’m thinking about the tribalism part of the answers by Obama, Kaleka, and Michaelis, I’m stumped by two things.

Here’s the first: If our response to threats is to retreat into our own small groups, why does it also seem like we’re turning our backs on the people nearest to us? I don’t understand, for example, why so many people have stopped shopping at locally-owned businesses in favour of Wal-Mart. I don’t understand why daily coffee budgets go to Tim Hortons (owned by the same multinational that owns Burger King) instead of the local coffee shop. And I know I’m not alone when I say that I’m better acquainted with certain strangers on Facebook better than I am with my neighbours.

I’d be hypocritical if I suggested we had to change all of this. But I am advocating that we at least think about the use of our time, energy, and dollars – especially if we’re going to use our words to say we want to support our communities and economies. As just one more example here, I’d really like to see everyone demanding more pipelines also realize that opening more markets means swinging the door in both directions.

Particularly as more people go in and out of these “doors,” that brings me to my second point of confusion. How do we classify others as being in or out of our tribe?

On the day I saw Obama, a man approached me on the train platform. We talked for a few minutes, and I learned a few things about him. His name was Joseph, and he’s originally from Sudan. So, we’re different? But we’re both living in Calgary (neither of us were born here). We both like chinooks as a break from cold weather. And we were both using public transit. So, we’re the same?

Joseph is having a hard time financially, and recently lost his job in mining. So he’s the same as my relatives and friends facing similar issues in their industry?

And lastly…Joseph first started talking to me because he had a question about which train to use. Later, a woman with a lot of jewelry and a fur coat asked me a very similar question. So, she and Joseph are in the same group? Or different?

If we’re reacting to threats by retreating into small groups like our monkey-brains tell us to, don’t we have an obligation to use our human-brains to consider who really is or isn’t part of that group? And if we give that concept some serious thought, won’t we find – as Kaleka and Michaelis repeatedly suggest to their audiences – that we’re all just people?

Sometimes it seems like a lot of work to find out that perspectives appearing different on the outside are actually driven by the same kinds of underlying needs and values. But as I’ve tried to suggest elsewhere on this site (like here and here), isn’t it better in the long run to do the work rather than keep feeling threatened?

Maybe There's More


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