The Trouble with Tribal (Regression in self-identity)
Any time we imagine that our selfhood is in majority defined by what we are rather than who we are, we risk the loss of that very selfhood. We have already spoken of one level of this self-misrecognition, that of the life-chance variable. These factors, such as gender, age, level of education, socio-economic status and such-like, certainly influence, sometimes to a great degree when combined with one another, an individual’s ability to access resources, gain employment, marry up or down, as well as one’s longevity. Just so, they are factors that impinge upon our personhood, they do not define it. We are, at our best and most developed in terms of worldview, singular souls who must come to terms with our own finitude. At once, this condition allows us to share intimately the pith of what it means to both be and to become human, and this is of the species-essence, while confronting the equally profound, though this time existential, situatedness of being a thrown project into the world and ‘running along’ towards mine ownmost death. Avoiding either of these means evading them both, and the most common, and also base, manner of doing so, is hanging one’s existential hat up upon the tribal peg.
More ancient than modern life-chance variables, and therefore sometimes more potent to the unconscious mind, are traditional factors such as language group, ethnicity, region of birth, sex rather than gender, caste rather than class. These variables, some almost primordial for human beings, influence us at a deep level, often escaping conscious reflection. Far easier it is to identify through analysis the roadblocks present in our lives due to contemporary features of organizational and family life, aspects of our social role panoply that would include wealth and social status, ability to ‘pass’ as a member of a certain class or professional group, and so on. These are factors which could be said to be ‘in hand’; they are present or absent along the lines of how we can use them in the day to day. I lost a major status when I retired from the academy, as well as major wealth. These were easy to understand and were even partly measurable. But the deeper and thus more disconcerting loss was of my personal identity, for I had made the ethical error of making too close an alignment between my profession and my person. Though this is a commonplace mistake – I am what I do for a living – it results in existential avoidance that, if there is a life-change at hand, one must then confront rather nakedly and without guidance.
I witnessed, before I retired, a number of older colleagues who exhibited what could only be referred to as an abject terror at the prospect. They really were what their work life had made them into. There could be no future vision from such a vantage point. This was one minor factor influencing my own decision-making at the time; I didn’t want to end up like them! And even though it took a few years, I have remade my professional identity. That was, it turned out, the easier part, which underscores the point we are making here. More challenging was extricating my personal selfhood from that professional. The ego was a major instigator of the desire to hang on to the latter. From having a built-in audience transfixed by one’s every word – on a good day – to possessing the ability to possess through relatively unlimited consumption, to being called ‘professor’ or ‘doctor’ innumerable times a day, all of this contributed mightily to the sense that this must be who I am, as it felt so good. This ‘goodness’ was in fact a mark against my character; the one who is moved by praise and power alone. Before entering into an Augustinian retrospective, I have maintained some of this sensibility, though with more circumspection and even modesty than previously, in my current professional role. There is yet no money in it, but the promises of El Dorado are enough, at my age, to pique my declining pecuniary interest.
‘Exogamic’ internecine role-conflict – that between authentic levels of self-understanding; the idea that I am one thing or rather another – deeply contributes to the anomic false consciousness. I realized that I was suffering from this while I was a professor, and indeed, upon leaving that vocation behind for good, entered a kind of ‘recovery’ phase, which for me lasted some years. I was a member of the academic tribe, kindred with that medical, legal, and even other less voluminous professions such as architectural. As with any tribe, to mix imageries, one circled the wagons when there was an external threat – from either proprietary students and resentful administrators, for the most part, and once in a while, from suspicious politicians – and when there was not, one instead practiced a kind of status one-upmanship which of late, so I am told, has migrated from comparing one’s c.v.’s to comparing, in Pythonesque fashion, just how miserable one is being of, or descending from, such an such an identity. You don’t say?
Identifying with historical variables as if they were personal does generate a kind of miserable self-penury. The distance it creates between authentic Dasein and the manner in which one views the world alone is almost fatal to both compassion and a sincerely expressed desire alike. One wills one’s own negation. One says to oneself, ‘Surely it is better to tell the other who is like me that she is my very kindred, my flesh and blood; that we are both, or even all, bred in the very marrow of our kind; language, ethnicity, sex. Only through these deep connections can we make a truer community.’ This outlook presents to modernity the ultimate regression; that we are somehow better off as neolithic gatherings of fictive consanguineals. Not only is this contrary to the evolution of consciousness in general, it is an Edenic fantasy borne on some sort of Nosferatu nostalgia, with the fear of the other as its cardinal theme.
Now none of this is to say that the confrontation with otherness writ small and into the human heart is not a severe challenge to selfhood. Anyone who has lived will attest to the ethical fact that to come to know another as she is to herself is a rare accomplishment, and one deserving of both the utmost care and compliment alike. But to shrink into the shadows of primitive frameworks with the express purpose of avoiding that confrontation and the ever-present conflict which comes along with it, is to deny one’s very humanity. Worse still, it is to deny the same of that very other, for, in identifying too closely with faux essentials such as ethnic group, language, or sex, is to make one’s fellow human being into a shell of herself. I observed, in a number of field studies of professional organizations, that the great bulk of human interaction in modern institutions was geared into shared experiences of this or that work-life. In leisure activities, familial experiences were added in, but always at the same shallow level. In one sense, this is necessary to keep sociality itself afloat, but in another, that same sociality is the vehicle for inauthenticity, for human unfreedom. All of this is very old hat, of course, which simply tells me that we haven’t been listening for well over a century if not more. Speaking of Augustine, the inventor of narrative subjectivity as well as of the apical confessional and perhaps also the autobiography, are we not also avoiding the tribulation, the trial, of having to actually be a person, and that further cast into our mortality?
Instead of the authentic, if extreme, overture of Hamlet, who is apparently willing to at least act out his own demise – with the ex post facto caveat that we might be more careful what we wish for – we have taken the ‘to be or not to be’ and placed it into the melodrama of identity politics. Here, the personal is only the political if the former is vanquished. The sole manner of being is to not be a selfhood, to abandon the personal source of experiences which create and develop the self. To become rather a member of some kind of latter-day tribe is the goal. Its desires are kindred to those of all other attempts to avoid the anguish of human finitude, which, ironically, is one of the essential and real experiences that all of us share as a conscious species. The search for extraterrestrials, in its most desperate and unscientific guise, the quest for immortality through prosthetic or ‘artificial’ intelligence, the sub-culture of social regression hoisted into the limelight by neoconservatives, and the tribalism notable perhaps more on the ‘progressive’ side of fashionable politics, both of which are anti-culture, all share this avoidance behavior with those who dread the confrontation with existential anxiety and ethical anguish. Not that either of these need be Pauline or Augustinian respectively, but how they are presented to us in the present rather than historically, is not ultimately altered by our running headlong away from them.
If we are to have a human future, if we are not to carry on in mass denial of world-altering forces at work around us and through us – tribalism, climate change, warfare, greed – then the first step must be to recover a perspective that respects our own human selfhood. In doing so, we place ourselves back into the world upon which we had been thrown at birth, and we rejoin the movement which traces the existential arc from birth to death, from one happenstance to another. And we do this together, not as a contrivance but as an authenticity; I am at once myself and of a species of consciousness, unique in the universe just as my selfhood is unique within that selfsame species. I am nothing other than this, other than the vehicle for the other to gain her own humanity and lose her like provincial status and outlook. This personal, though not private, risk is the mirror by which we undertake the risk of the future itself.
G.V. Loewen is the author of 56 books in ethics, education, social theory, health and aesthetics, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.