The Insidious Power of Othering and Tribalism

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An elderly member of my family, who has identified with one church or another for most of her life, recently stopped attending her church because her pastor was showing too much love for folks who don’t look like or live like she does. He was being too…. Christian.  

This pastor was advocating a New Testament love and acceptance for those in the LBGTQ+ community, immigrants, people of color, people of different political persuasions, people who have sinned (everyone), etc. Apparently, he was too committed to Jesus’ message.  

So, how does someone who has been a “Christian” all her life, who has accepted Jesus Christ as her savior, abandon a church and a pastor for showing too much Christian love? In short, she was in church for about an hour a week, but watching and listening to right wing media for dozens of hours per week.  

Over the last few years, I have observed her shift from a relatively open-minded, loving Christian to a “Christian” who fears immigrants and Democrats, believes LGBTQ+ citizens are immoral and dangerous (out to convert the rest of us), the COVID vaccine was made with microchips and has killed tens of thousands of Americans, the 2020 presidential election was stolen, and various consumer products are made with “baby-parts.”  

It has been both fascinating and horrifying to watch this devolution in a once-loving, rational person, who also happens to be a close family member. It is also a case-study in the power of othering and ensuing tribalism through hate. My personal sense is that she first had to be made to feel fear before she could move on to hate, and the Youtube videos, far right and conspiratorial websites, and news channels she watches were more than happy to oblige. If nothing else, they have a deep understanding of human psychology and frailty.  

Equally fascinating, the same media bubble has convinced her that government programs and policy that support the poor and otherwise disadvantaged folks are part of an evil, socialist plot, even though she herself is able to live a relatively stable life because of Medicare, Medicaid, SNAP (food stamps), and subsidies for utilities, transportation, and even the internet through which she accesses the messages telling her all of these services are part of an evil, socialist plot. That is the power of tribalism. If facilitates a kind of mental gymnastics that makes it possible to criticize, if not hate, other people who benefit from social services and subsidies, but somehow makes it okay for oneself (and others in the same tribe) to benefit from the same evil plot—all without any apparent dissonance.  

Being able to observe this process with a family member, and individuals around her who have gone down the same path, has helped me understand how this kind of manipulation can lead to extreme outcomes such as overt cruelty and even genocide. If othering and tribalism are severe enough, it becomes possible to not only exile others, but to even kill those who are different, because, they’re not just “different,” their differences are seen to pose an existential threat.

Observing this radical change in a person so close to me has been like a violent car wreck that I’d rather not see, but can’t turn away from. It is both macabre and fascinating at the same time – sociopathology in real time.

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