In my first piece in this series, I posited that while relationships tend to involve and breed antagonism when multiple parties are pursuing an object that can only be possessed by one party, shared pursuit of an object can be healthy when that object is beyond sole possession. (Confused? Go read it!) Then in the second piece, I mentioned how I want to apply my initial argument to the "culture wars," and I walked through a few observations about how political "tribalization" arises. In this piece, I want to make a few observations about why people become strongly cemented within one tribe or another.
In his book "A Secular Age," the philosopher Charles Taylor writes about how present-day Western culture shapes the experience of religious belief. (Full disclosure: I’m familiar with "A Secular Age" almost solely through James K.A. Smith’s summary/commentary "How (Not) to be Secular.") Taylor theorizes that present-day Westerners’ religious belief (or unbelief) is “fragilized” through close social proximity to people who believe differently. However you answer The Big Questions, you feel unsettled by the knowledge that some people who you respect and admire answer them very differently.
The theory of “fragilization” can also apply to tribalized politics. Whatever your political convictions, it’s unsettling to have, for example, that Facebook friend from high school–with whom you collaborated on that one project and who you respect as a basically intelligent and decent person–who clearly disagrees with you about morally-important political issues.
It’s possible, of course, to really understand your political “take” (in Taylor’s term) as fallible and to deeply acknowledge that you could very well be wrong; it’s possible to inhabit your frame of convictions in a way that’s open to the full pressure of disagreement from people who you respect as intelligent. But this is inevitably a difficult posture. It’s much easier and more contenting to cement yourself within your worldview through what Taylor calls “spin,” a way of shaping your imaginative frame that avoids granting plausibility to any alternative.
Your Facebook friend from high school, then, isn’t so much stupid as deluded, in the dictionary sense: deceived, fooled, tricked. You can feel not just right but obviously right by convincing yourself that your intelligent friend’s disagreement is not, in fact, intelligent disagreement; he or she just hasn’t really applied his or her intelligence to the contentious issue. “If only he hadn’t fallen in with those socialists, he’d recognize the importance of personal responsibility and the value of free industry.” “If only she hadn’t been raised in that kind of church, she wouldn’t be so hung up about abortion.”
I think that the feeling of obvious rightness (rather than just probable rightness) is the object that the different "tribes" in American culture-warring mutually pursue and which sets them so sharply at odds. In my next piece, I’ll work further toward that conclusion by discussing the dynamics of “spin” and what it looks like in practice. Stay tuned!