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New American Tribalism

Tribalism in America Based on Opinion not Ethnicity I find USA culture difficult to deal with. I do not believe that this is because people here are particularly onerous — to the contrary, this is one of the more polite, friendly cultures on the planet — but because I am finding that USA society is [...]

Tribalism in America Based on Opinion not Ethnicity

I find USA culture difficult to deal with. I do not believe that this is because people here are particularly onerous — to the contrary, this is one of the more polite, friendly cultures on the planet — but because I am finding that USA society is becoming ever more and more intolerant and ideologically splintered. Each vying niche and cultural sub-sector in the country seems to be becoming ever more set in their respective ways, walled of in their various tribal safe havens. There has always been major cultural divides in this country — between north and south, east and west, black and white, Hispanic and everyone else, rich and poor, rural, suburban, and urban, liberals and conservatives, religious and secular  — but now each sub-sector seems to have tanks full of ready to use information that stakes their claim to rightness in opposition to rival groups.

The “We are the good guys,” ethic has creeped into all sides of the socio-political foray. An age of extremes has been ushered in, and the population scrambles to lock themselves into a particular ideological bend, a world view, a tribe, and are sticking to it.

It seems as if the excess of information that the people of post- industrialized countries now have available to them is not leading towards more respectfully diverse societies where people check all sides of an issue and then arrive at educated conclusions, but towards each facet of these societies simply refining their currently held opinions to ever sharper points. As I flip on Fox News, CNN, leaf through the Atlantic, listen to the radio, look at the Huffington post and through a sea of news blogs I see an endless stream of opinions being screamed out (often literally) into the media ether, and it is clear that the availability of information is not making people any smarter, any more open minded, and definitely not more willing to understand another point of view.

The new tribal lines of America are not based on skin color, creed, geographic origin, or ethnicity, but on opinion, political position, and world view.

In a world in which people have access to a myriad points of view people generally seem to be absorbing those they already agree with to the exclusion of all the rest. The result is all too often ideological tribes building their walls of isolation up higher and higher, a society growing every more splintered and at odds with itself.

The objective media bubble has burst. Everyone now knows that there was never such a thing as an news report without an angle, and now the news agencies seem to be admitting this as well as they come up with more opinionated, more biased, and more entertaining reports which cater to the particular idea sect of their prime audience. And this audience will only observe the broadcasts of their particular tribal loudspeaker which beams out the words, commands, and opinions of their tribal leaders.

America is becoming tribal culture, brainwashed not by the lack of choice, but by the excess of it: the people here are selecting a singular point of view and isolating themselves within its barricade. Mass media is dead, the new world is of the cultural niche, the splinter group, the sub-sector. The talking head who says what its audience already thinks the loudest wins. Pick, choose, select your angle, and be bolstered with a mass of supporting documentation, figures, and facts.

We want to be entertained, fired up, and left feeling secure in our claim to rightness — not educated.

In this age of incredible amounts of choice, people of information societies are choosing their position, staking their ideological claims, and growing further into their sub-sector and apart from their neighbors. There are now so many contenting outlets of information that people are free to pick and choose that which constitutes their opinion from an almost infinite array of options. Then, all too often, each audience demographic puts up filters around itself, allowing supported agendas to enter and unsupported ones to remain on the outside, marked as blasphemous. Post-industrial societies choose their minds and reinforce them to perfection by choosing what they hear, see, and are exposed to.

There needs to be a way to take bearings on these seas of excessive information, and niche reporting has become the compass of post-industrial society. I see an America, I see a world, that is fracturing at the seams not through a lack of information but through an excess of it. People who “know” often seek trying to learn. Each side of a debate builds up their mountains of information and mis-information, they reaffirm their opinions and their positions between each other over and over again to the point of non-contention. If all you are exposed to is your opinion, if everyone that you surround yourself with has a similar outlook, there is a good chance that this opinion will be seen as absolute fact — as world view.

I watch Fox news and listen to the conservative howler monkeys on the radio, I read the liberal magazines and newspapers, I browse through a host of online news sites, and the tribal lines in America are clearly drawn, and with each passing day more information is disseminated which only builds each contending niche even stronger, each wall ever higher. Each niche, each opinion sect, each modern ideological tribe in America have rendered themselves ignorant through believing their own information is absolute. It is not absolute, it is just one angle of many.

Someone needs to say here that it is ALL bullshit. The shit you read in your publications, on your websites, watch on the television is tailor cut to meet your currently held world view. What is broadcasted out to you is all tunnel vision, a single tree masking itself as a forest. Where there is an excess of information the media makers have the ability to pick and choose the supporting facts that meet their criteria, wrap it up into a package, and then present it to their audience as a complete product. They may use factual bits and pieces, but they all lie by omission, show only parts of the whole, cherry pick the data that can be worked well into their hypothesis and leaving out the rest. And we all suck it all in, growing another layer of fibrous sinew over our already thick skulls.

This is the tribalism of the information age.

The issues of this world are more complex, more vast, more complicated than any single 30 second clip, 800 word article, or crash and burn interview can show. The discourse of the new media is that of preachers screaming at the pulpit, defining who they are through who they are not, showing what they believe by putting on the chopping block that which they do not. News programs now have clear agendas, magazines present the ideology of their audience, thus creating a spiraling cycle of expectation: media outlets give their audience content that fits into their world view, and this world view becomes ever more iron clad because of the content.

The more opinionated a person is the more narrow their view of the world. The people of the USA are perhaps the most opinionated people that I have ever met on the globe, there does not seem to be an apathetic bone in this culture’s body, and I sometimes find this place a touch difficult to function in. This is probably because this is my culture and I am expected to participate, expected to choose a position, expected to stake my position on the tribal map of America. I have no such clear cut opinions, but I find myself being claimed by this sub-sector or that — I am taken to be a part of the ideological tribe of the people I am in proximity to, and these people often speak to me as though I automatically agree with their world view.

New American Tribalism

The people of information cultures are defined by their opinions and ideological positions — not by their ethnic group. Perhaps political correctness means that we now separate out the masses and find tribal lines in opinions, political outlooks, and contending world views rather than the color of their skin, clothing, religion, or ethnic origin. All societies divide people out in accordance to tribal association. The lines between groups in pluralistic societies are always neatly drawn and well divided. “These people are like this, they act like that, and believe this.” This oversimplifying of people, groups, and cultures still exist in modern America. Only the dividing criteria has changed. The opinion is the key factor in dividing post-industrial societies.

There seems to be something in the primitive brain of humanity that demands the ordering of society on tribal lines, and each group is responsible for showing off their colors to all others. In the USA, people stick signs demarcating their political association in their front yards, pepper their cars with opinionated bumper stickers, wear t-shirts with slogans and political candidates, and speak their opinions openly to show the rest of society their particular tribal association. In this way, modern America is no more ideologically advanced, enlightened, or wiser than any other tribal society.

Filed under: Culture and Society, Internet, Journalism, Media Analysis, Politics, USA

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 88 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3411 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Rochester, New York

9 comments… add one

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  • dad May 18, 2011, 4:15 am

    good true story

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com May 18, 2011, 10:57 am

      Thanks Dad!

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  • the candy trail ... Travel Adventures | Michael Robert Powell May 18, 2011, 5:00 am

    Exactly on the mark, Wade … Humans have a history of extremes, stupidity, xenophobia, racism … that’s where the new tribal tread leads … American Tribalism will precede World Tribalism … so, more conflict ahead.

    Ouch, heavy; once travel is no longer possible – I’ll be settling into a cave.

    the candy trail … a party-animal and a part-time misanthropist across the planet, since 1988

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com May 18, 2011, 11:00 am

      Right on, MRP. This new paradigm of tribalism will soon be global.

      Humans have never socially got beyond our cave man selves. The parameters of what constitutes tribal divisions may change over time but in effect it is all the same: where there is an Us there will be a Them. The two groups define themselves through conflict.

      Will be joining you in a cave.

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  • Uzuoma February 25, 2013, 3:14 am

    I like how you put the Vagabond logo with the other news outlets too. Sadly all you said is true, but I wonder what’s your opinion on how this could be solved? And if it doesn’t get solved what do you think this will end into? And since their views of how society should function continue to become more radical. Will all these tribes ,eventually, violently clash with eachother?

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    • Vagabond Journey February 25, 2013, 5:40 am

      @Uzuoma Haha, you were the first one to mention that. Yeah, it’s the same stuff here — well, to a certain extent. It’s the lifestyle of perpetual travel/ global learning that we seem to gather around here rather than a pre-set ideology (we’re all over the place as far as that goes!). But, when it comes down to it, yeah, we conform to our tribal lines — I’m just glad that part of this line is treating opinions as sporting conversation topics rather than anything that really means anything 🙂 
       
      Beyond that, I’m not sure how this is going to pan out. In a way, a good model to look at is tribal Africa, where there are often many different groups in close proximity to each other. Unfortunately, from what can tell, historically as well as in contemporary times, they seem to stay divided, subjugate each other, and often fight. I think this is a very normal phenomenon, and more along the lines of how our species socially evolved to interact. We’re essentially pack animals who began experimenting with a thing we call civilization for the past 10,000 years.
       
      It seems as if we are dividing ourselves down again. Whether or not you can take all of these sub-cultures/ political sects/ special interests groups/ zealots/ finely splintered down religious groups/ alternative lifestylists seriously or not is the big question. I think we would all need to get off the internet first.

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      • Vagabond Journey February 25, 2013, 5:41 am

        @Uzuoma I mean, get off our computers first.

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  • andrew September 12, 2013, 11:42 pm

    yes people have opinions, ideas, points of views that they lean towards, that’s not at all tribalism, putting those views above and beyond logic, reason , and the betterment of the society as a whole is tribalism, you cant compare republicans , and democrats to sunnies and shiaats , because they are from different tribes, you have the right idea, I bet you young , but that is what separated the united states from other countries , you can celebrate your own culture, religion , whatever else , you free to do that , but you came here because you wanted to be a pert of it , participate in making it great , now people come here for a gift , a handout , because its easier to live here , than it is anywhere else

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    • Wade Shepard September 13, 2013, 3:27 am

      I think you missed the point completely here. First of all, you misunderstand what I mean by tribalism. What I mean here is a group enforcing a set ideology upon it’s members or expelling them if they don’t conform.

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