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4 Relationship Rules for a Culture Ruled by Tribalism

4 Relationship Rules for a Culture Ruled by Tribalism
Posted by Andy Patton

Somehow in the noisiest century the world has yet seen, we are dying for lack of talk. And for lack of listening.

The internet has given everyone a microphone and a platform. We all get to hold forth now, but things are moving too fast to listen carefully, think slowly, or reply well. Everything clamors for our attention, but there is less to spare than ever. And the worst part of it is, we’re getting used to it. We are frogs in a cacophony that is slowly getting louder, and we are learning to live in the noise and call it normal. 

Something has changed, and it hasn’t helped our cultural discourse. 

We live in an echo chamber, and every tribe is digging more deeply into its entrenched position, ready to defend itself against any attackers. We are becoming ideologically segregated. The ideas of those with whom we disagree are disembodied, not coming to us through people we know and love but through talking heads on TV. Our interaction with those who differ from us has become less substantive, less nuanced, and less sustained. 

Because of all of that, we have to do a lot of sorting of opinions on the fly. We listen for keywords and slogans. We base our judgments on soundbites. We tribalize people. We are quick to assign labels to people and then handle them by the labels we have assigned. Social justice warriors. Neo-Marxists. Fundamentalists. Liberal media elites. White Evangelicals. Christian Nationalists. The Left. The Right. 

This is how tribal boundaries are built and maintained. 

But is there a way to make a place for real communication even in the midst of our culture’s incendiary dialogue? Is there space to build a nuanced understanding of vital things in the modern soundbite minefield? Can we choose truth over tribe?

The solution is as simple as it is difficult. It is attainable but costly. It starts with questioning the way the modern world has taught us to relate to one another. 

Our Tribalism Problem Is a Relationship Problem

Modern life is the setting for our cultural discourse, and it does not always help our efforts at communication. Quite the opposite.

Today, we hear more from people we barely know and less from the people all around us. It is harder to see people face to face than it used to be. We say things like, “I’ve got some time next month.” The answer to the question, “How have you been?” is almost always “Busy.”

The impositions and implications of love are easier to dodge. A text message will do. Our relationships are thinner than they used to be. We feel our need for them less. And they are less forced upon us. 

In some ways, we’re hyper-connected. If I want to know what book you’re reading or what you had for breakfast, Twitter will tell me. Conversation need not apply. However, at the same time, we’re growing more distant. People are more shocked than ever at what their neighbors, their parents, and their colleagues believe. But they can’t imagine talking to them about it. 

We deftly learn to steer around the landmines out there. We have taken too many lessons from the status quo of our cultural dialogue. It is good at blowing things up but not great at putting the pieces back together. It is good at deconstruction but not good at rebuilding a house that is real enough to live in, talk in, and listen in. A house where we can love across tribal boundaries. 

There is plenty of conflict but not a lot of reconciliation. There is plenty of judgment but not a lot of grace. There are plenty of crucifixions but resurrections are thin on the ground.

Given those realities, how could we expect to have anything other than our fraught cultural dialogue? Or, to put it another way, what if our tribalism problem is actually a relationship problem?

Right about now, you may be wondering: “Am I really that tribal?” Take our quick assessment and find out!


Is This the Best We Can Do?

Will the church show the world anything different than the status quo? 

Cancel culture won’t get us there. Neither will sticking to our ideological silos and slowly filtering from our lives anyone who doesn’t fit. Neither will the self-reinforcing echo chamber of our chosen media outlets and curated news boards. 

Christians in 21st-century America should be haunted by Jesus’s words in John 13: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Sit with that for a minute. If you follow that line of logic, then when we fail to show love to one another, the world is justified in questioning whether there is any reality to the Christian message. If we stick to our tribal boundaries, we renege on a large part of our calling.

Perhaps even the church needs a different model for relationships? Perhaps we need something that deals less in soundbites and character counts and more in unhurried cups of coffee, informal and unplanned contact with one another, and insightful questions that actually produce understanding. 

The good news is that tribal boundaries can be dismantled. The bad news is that the solution will have to run as deep as the problem because the cure has to be more powerful than the illness. 

In short, if you are unhappy with the status quo, you are going to have to change your life.

Four Rules for 21st-century Relationships

The best way to really understand views outside your own tribal boundaries is to get to know someone who actually holds those views. Let them tell you what they think in their own words. Let them correct your mistaken understandings of what they said. Make them a cup of tea before your conversation. Then, rinse and repeat across the span of decades, not news cycles.

Yet how can we hope to accomplish that if we remain in the hurried, siloed status quo? How can we begin to establish a pattern of life that helps us choose truth over tribe?

Here are four things you can do to walk toward a new way of doing relationships. Not everyone will be able to embody them all, but everyone will be able to take something from them to apply in their own context. 

1. Get Face-To-Face.

Christianity is about living in reality. However, so much of our 21st-century communication technology thins out reality even as it offers us expanded powers of communication. And when our communication is disembodied, it is more likely to go wrong. Think of the difference between cutting someone off in a car and cutting someone off in line. One leads to honked horns and waved fingers. The other is face to face and, therefore, more likely to draw out a quick apology and a smile. 

Our tendency to create straw men and caricatures of the opinions of others increases as distance increases. One problem with our cultural discourse today is that it is so often digitally mediated. People aren’t standing up in town hall meetings and airing their feelings. We drop bombs from the safe distance the internet affords us. But when we are face to face with someone, any number of social norms and interpersonal realities serve to keep the dialogue from going off the rails. Even when we play the troll and say something we regret, we see the effect of our words at close range. We have to live with what we say and, in the healthiest cases, live to apologize for it. 

By the way, when you get face to face, do yourself a favor and put your phone away. 

In Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Sherry Turkle reminds us that our phones are “psychologically potent devices that change not only what you do, but who you are.” 

Your phone is not a neutral object. It produces psychological and relational effects. When you leave it out on the table or take a text message mid-sentence it says, “I’m here, but I’m ready to be elsewhere.” It says, “I care about what you’re saying, but I’d also like to be interrupted.” Leave it in the car. Put it in another room. Let your attention wander into the words of the person in front of you. Remain present in the time and place you are actually in. Stay face to face.

2. Return to Institutions. 

Guess what. It may not be a good idea to curate your entire world yourself. The world you end up with isn’t reality; it is a mirror. 

The exodus from institutions that has taken place since Robert Putnam wrote Bowling Alone in 2000 has only continued. And cultural dialogue is worse for the lack. Relationships and the mutual understanding they foster build on routines over time, and institutions are the engines of communal routines. They aren’t sexy these days, but throughout human history, societal institutions (along with family) have been the primary gateway for the obligations of love that a community needs to thrive.

Today we prefer a lot more freedom than that, but pure freedom isn’t good for us. It isn’t our native habitat. Rather, we were built for freedom and form, individuality and community, authentic self-expression and long-suffering duty.

The forces of modernity are so often corrosive to exactly the rhythms our families, friendships, and communities need most. When we are always interruptible and always elsewhere, we close ourselves to the opportunities that enduring in the present moment might provide. When we are driven by the fear missing out on what might have otherwise happened, we miss out on what is actually happening. 

Committing yourself to—God-forbid—an institution and its demands is to say “No” to the shifting winds of possibility and “Yes” to giving attention to the people and places that are actually around you. To protect those bonds from interruption and disconnection is to begin to lay down the layers of meaning between people that will make communication resilient against oversimplification, silo-ing, and tribalism. 

Basically, go back to church. 

Church is a great place to let your life become entangled with people of every age, color, and walk of life. But if it isn’t church, commit yourself to something to which other people are already committed. Go back to the food bank and pitch in every Saturday afternoon. Join the PTA. Take your kids to the library for children’s time every week. Heck, join a bowling league. 

3. Find the Third Layer Together.

It might be that the real problem in your relationships (or our culture) is not the differences you face but the things that keep you from dealing with those differences well.

Conflict doesn’t have to be the enemy of relationship. It can be the grounds to a deeper understanding that would have been impossible to reach had the conflict been avoided. This is where cancel culture goes wrong. Instead of handling differences, cancel culture eliminates them instead, forfeiting the opportunities for understanding that conflict represents.

To remedy this, I suggest we think of society as moving between three layers: civility, conflict, and accord. 

The first layer is about similarity, innocence, civility, infatuation, and common grace. It is the way you treat the man at the grocery store, your new neighbor, the cute girl in class, your future in-laws. It is holding the door open for someone, waving someone through an intersection ahead of you, making eye contact, and shaking hands. It is the grease on the wheels of a civil society.

The second layer is the place where differences emerge. It is the place of unpleasant discoveries, of slowly appearing bruises, of resentments, of things regretted, of honest words, of reckoning with how downright nasty the world can be. It is the place of outright conflict. Not everyone can make it through the second layer. If they venture in at all, they may emerge angry and bitter and biting. They learn the lesson that conflict must be avoided or, if that is impossible, won at all cost. But some endure.

The third layer is the layer of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “blessed community.” It is rugged and weather-beaten but has become rich with wisdom. It holds memory but not resentment. It has re-learned how to laugh. It releases the poison of the second layer’s pains while retaining the gift of truths discovered there. In the third layer, the hurts and anxieties that life in community draws to the surface become doorways to healing and transformation. The third layer is about acceptance of distinctiveness, where one another’s uniqueness is celebrated, smiled at, forgiven. When a community or relationship frequently visits the third layer, it becomes resilient to the kind of reductionistic, polarizing dialogue that is so common in our culture today. 

The ironclad rule of true intimacy in our relationships is: You have to pass through the conflict of the second layer to get to the accord of the third layer. 

However, our culture is losing the ability to follow that advice. When we venture into the second layer, things fall apart. As a result, we develop ever-more elaborate rules for remaining only on the first layer, and we cancel anyone who breaks them.

But if there is any hope of lessening tensions and strengthening relational bonds in the 21st-century, we have to learn to go the distance together. The third layer is the hardest one to get to, but it is also where most of the weight, meaning, beauty, and glory of life waits.

4. Village-ify Your Life. 

Most people live their daily lives in a wider radius than humans have been capable of for 99% of our history. 

You live in one part of town, work in another, and go to church in a third. Most of your friends live in yet another part of town. To accommodate this, your life is lived partly in buildings and partly in your car. Human culture wasn’t built for that kind of mobility, so living this way renders some vital parts of relationships unlikely to happen and others impossible.

But what would it look like to village-ify your life?

I’m not talking about moving to a town of 100 people. I’m talking about asking the question, “What would it be like if I lived like my community was already a village?” What would it mean if you lived your life in a smaller radius?

When I lived in Chicago, my friends and I started experimenting with this. Chicago is built on a grid system, so most of the streets follow a rigid row-and-column pattern all the way to the horizon. This means that there are 100 possible ways to get anywhere. It also means you don’t bump into people regularly, even if you live next to them. So we decided to live as though Chicago were a village. 

We got out a map and drew a circle around the neighborhood we lived in. Then, we tried to stay inside the circle. Instead of seven coffee shops, we chose to frequent only one. Instead of the grid system, we selected a handful of streets and avoided the others. We went on foot whenever possible. And for the first time, we started to bump into one another without needing to plan it weeks in advance. It had a powerful effect on the closeness of our relationships. It kept our relational soil rich for new seeds of understanding and connectedness.

What might that look like in your community? What would happen if you lived in a small enough radius that in time you started to recognize more people at the grocery store? The dentist’s office? The gym? What would happen if you structured your life in such a way that the higher tempo of micro-contacts with your neighbors could accumulate into deep, satisfying relationships? Could the tribal echo chamber slowly become not so echoey? Not so tribal?

Want to hear more? Check out our recent podcast interview with Thaddeus Williams. In it, he expands on how it's possible for Christians to choose both truth and justice, leaving us with insight into how to promote unity over tribalism. 


Posted by Andy Patton

Andy Patton is a former staff member at L'Abri Fellowship in England and holds an M. A. in theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Read more from Andy on The Darking Psalter (translations of the Psalms with new poetry), Three Things (a monthly digest of resources to help people connect with culture, neighbor, and God), and Still Point (reflections on deconstruction and why people leave Christianity).

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