Tribalism and the tone of current political debate

It’s commonly accepted that US politics has been polarised for quite a while. People openly identify themselves as Republicans or Democrats; most people tend to associate with those who share their political opinions; media outlets appear to be divided along partisan lines so that people can catch up with what is going on in the world from a perspective that already aligns with their own.

And so it seems that the temptation to disagree with someone simply because they belong to the other side, or to support someone simply because they belong to your side, is becoming harder and harder to avoid.

Using words like ‘left’ or ‘right’, ‘conservative’ or ‘progressive’, as the sole basis for dismissing another person’s point of view is essentially saying that you disagree with them because they are on the other side to you. That you don’t even need to listen or take into account their perspective because you have already decided that it is opposed to where you stand. That the world can be neatly divided into two opposite and opposing perspectives, one of which is completely right and one of which is completely wrong.

It’s tribalism.

And it’s often marked not by the language of debate, but by the language of war.

The end result of this, I fear, is what we’ve been seeing more and more in the lead up to this year’s presidential election. It is particularly exemplified in the farcical (but not funny) situation where we see people attempting to defend the behaviour and views of their political party’s candidate no matter how far he strays from what they have previously stated to be their core values. It doesn’t seem to matter how terrible he acts or sounds, the fact that he is on their ‘side’ overrides everything else. From the outside looking in, it’s almost impossible to understand.

Obviously there is much more I could say about the trainwreck that is Trump v Clinton, but for now I want to confine myself to this one idea and the question I have about its impact going forward from here. What will the fact that this tribalism and deep division between two sides, with little room for nuance between them, is being played out in such a public and global way mean for our future public interactions?

What is the pattern being set for how civic debate is to be conducted?

While here in Australia it is still quite rare for the average person to identify themselves day to day by which political party they vote for, the same kind of tribalistic language does seem to be creeping in. I’m certainly seeing words like ‘leftist’ and ‘right-wing’ increasingly used to dismiss an opinion in place of reasoned responses to coherent and valid points of discussion. And these kinds of words are almost always used in an attempt to shut the debate down. To dismiss the other point of view for the sole reason that it is perceived to be the ‘other’ point of view.

It bothers me greatly and to be honest it generally makes me want to disengage. We are talking about the exchange of ideas in a free society, people putting forward their views on what they genuinely believe it best for all of us. But as soon as we start using the language of warfare and tribalism, when we put one another into two simple boxes and stop listening to those who are not in the same box as us, then it seems to me that we have all lost.

How can we find ways to move beyond the simplistic categories of ‘left’ and ‘right’, ‘us’ and ‘them’?

How can we recognise that good ideas can come from both sides of the political aisle, and that when we listen to one another we might even find middle ground? How can we change the tone from one of war to one of genuine engagement, accepting that we can all learn something from one another, even from those with whom we disagree, if we will really take time to listen?


Today would be a good day to be in Petra

Petra makes it on to plenty of lists of places you ‘must see before you die’ and ‘wonders of the world.’ It has appeared in numerous movies and books. It certainly is a beautiful and impressive place. It is somewhere I could easily revisit as I’m sure there is much more to explore. It is an impressive looking place! But as I reflect on it today, I’m also realising that the time I’ve spent there hasn’t really left me with much of a lasting impression of what it means or who it represents.


What did I love about Petra?

Petra was unknown to the western world until the early 1800s and its not hard to see why. Looking out over the rugged landscape, it is difficult for those of us unused to this kind of region to imagine such a city is to be found hidden in there.


Petra is sometimes called “The Rose City” due to the colour of the rocks. They are absolutely stunning, whether from far away or close up.


The entrance to the site is through a 1.2km long siq, or narrow gorge. Along it runs the remains of an ancient aqueduct, as well as some carvings such as this worn image of a camel caravan.


There is a moment all travellers experience of seeing the impressive Treasury building suddenly come in to view through the narrow chasm of the siq that has a “wow” factor like few other places in the world.


The treasury building (Al-Khazneh) is Petra’s most recognisable image and standing in front of it certainly provokes awe. Interestingly, however, it is basically a façade. There is nothing inside but an empty, uncarved room. My understanding is that rather than a storehouse for treasure as the name suggests, it was a mausoleum, a place to honour the dead.


The theatre in Petra is at first glance similar to many Roman theatres I’ve seen elsewhere … until you realise that while they were built using rocks, this was carved out of the existing rocks. I love the idea that like Michelangelo who could see a stunning statue of David in a lump on rock, the Nabateans who built this place could imagine and then create this from the natural material already there.


What did I learn from Petra?

Each time I have been to Petra I have seen new things – both because I have walked into new corners of the site, and because new parts of the site have been uncovered by archaeologists.


Amongst the guides I’ve had, there is some debate about whether some of the rock hewn dwellings were houses or tombs, places for the living or for the dead. Either way, the time and skill displayed by these people (without modern tools!) is impressive.


Petra was home to the Nabateans and it remains their primary legacy. Unlike the Romans, whose structures and artefacts are found all over the place, it is really the only thing they are remembered for. For me, however, it seems a somewhat confusing legacy – raising more questions than answers about who they were and what they valued and why they did what they did.


So like many ancient sites, Petra reminds me that what we leave behind in this world, impressive as it may be, can never capture the complexity of who we are and how we live. That is found only in our relationships and our impact on other people, which cannot be seen in our structures or possessions or bank accounts …

sunsetAs the sun sets over Petra above, as the sun sets at the end of each day, its worth asking the question of how we are investing ourselves in the things that will truly last. Am I working on things that merely look impressive or investing in that which has greater substance and ongoing influence? Because one day the sun will set on my life, and I’m not sure I’d want people to look at what is left behind and think “Looks great, but what does it mean?”

Today would be a good day to be in Salisbury, UK (or the difference between space and place)

My sister reminded me this week of some of the places we have travelled together over the years. So in thinking about where I’d love to be spending time this Monday, I decided to reflect on a place we visited together ten years ago. Salisbury in the UK is well known for two of its stone structures: Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral. It is also home to the site of Old Sarum, a settlement dating back some 5,000 years. We were particularly excited to stumble upon this site, as we both read the book Sarum by Edward Rutherfurd while in high school after it was recommended by our beloved Pa. It remains on my list of favourite reads. With the areas around Salisbury as its setting, the novel tells the history of those who lived there from ancient to modern times, bringing this place to life.


What did I love about Salisbury?

I love the lush green beauty of the English countryside, even on a grey day!


The river with its swans was particularly picturesque.


I loved seeing the remains of the ancient site (Sarum) …


… as well as its view towards the more ‘modern’ (but still quaint) town (Salisbury).


What did I learn from Salisbury?

Salisbury is full of beautiful spaces. But it also makes me think about the difference between space and place. Space, to my mind, is the more abstract concept of physical location generally. Place, a subset of space, is that which has been named and given significance and meaning. Place matters because of what has happened in that particular space. And so while I loved the beautiful spaces around Salisbury, it is the significance of its places that has me remembering and pondering it today.


Stonehenge is a place, one that obviously had meaning and significance to those who established it, even though we still can’t seem to figure out exactly what!


Sarum is a place, one that has significance because of how early and how long it has been settled.


Salisbury Cathedral is a place, one that has a 750 year history of worship and reverence for the people of God.


And Salisbury, for me, is a place, because of the time I shared there with my sister. We laughed together over our visit to Woodhenge, a place far less popular with tourists than its rock-hewn cousin. (Note to ancient monument builders, if you to be well-remembered, try to build with materials that last!)



And we cried together in Salisbury Cathedral, as we prayed for some of the difficult situations in life we were experiencing at the time.


And its that experience that perhaps even makes Salisbury a sacred place for me – a place where my sister and I met together in the presence of our God and knew His mercy and love upon us. I believe that can happen anywhere, and everywhere. But I also know that sometimes it is important to mark out that kind of place,  to place a physical or metaphorical stone of remembrance there (a common practice throughout the Old Testament), so that we don’t forget. And I think that is really why I’m remembering Salisbury today.