The first television images I can recall seeing, as a boy in the 1950s, were of white Southerners attacking peaceful black demonstrators with police dogs, fire hoses, tear gas, clubs, and curses. Even black children, neatly dressed and carrying books, were turned away from schools by white sheriffs and politicians and mobs. My parents could not explain those bewildering images to me. They could not explain why people with dark skin were prevented from going to school or sitting at a lunch counter or voting. According to my own skin color, I should have identified with the angry whites, but instead I felt the fear and bruises of those who were attacked.
That sympathy was instinctive, as in any child who has not been taught to despise some group of people defined as Other. The Other may be distinguished not only by skin color but also by gender, religion, age, class, national origin, disability, or any number of other markers. Our evolutionary inheritance predisposes us to divide the world between Us and Them—between an in-group toward which we are loyal and protective, and one or more out-groups, whom we treat as enemies. Members of a tribe that exploits, enslaves, or slaughters neighboring tribes—thereby acquiring more territory and resources—are likelier to pass on their genes to future generations. At least they are likelier to do so in an era of low population density and primitive weaponry. Today, on a planet crowded with over seven billion human beings, and armed with murderous technology, from malware to missiles, tribalism may prove lethal for the aggressors as well as for their intended victims.
The risks of tapping into tribalism in the 21st century do not make it any less appealing to demagogues, as we saw in the recent presidential campaign. One candidate addressed his audiences as the in-crowd, while demeaning and demonizing various Others, and he stoked a penchant for violence against anyone he defined as an outsider, including rival candidates. It was a dangerous as well as a shameful strategy. After the election, rather than speaking to the press about his plans or seriously preparing himself for the presidency, he continued holding rallies laced with ridicule and contempt. Even if he wished to temper the hatreds he had roused, he wouldn’t be able to do so without alienating his core followers. Fear of the Other is easy to evoke, difficult to allay.
Fortunately, our evolutionary legacy includes not only a predisposition for aggressive tribalism but also a countervailing capacity: in its everyday form we call it empathy, and in its more refined, often deliberately nurtured form, we call it compassion. Without empathy, we could not have survived and flourished as social animals; language, culture, and cooperative behavior all rely on our ability to intuit the inner states of the people around us. Empathy alone, however, does not assure that we will treat one another fairly. Con artists are expert at reading the emotions of those whom they exploit or manipulate—again, as illustrated in the recent presidential campaign. What con artists lack is compassion, which involves not merely sensing what others feel, but sympathizing with them, caring for them, wishing to address their needs and relieve their suffering.
Figures famous for their compassion range from the Buddha and Jesus to Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mother Teresa. In each case, their caring for others reached across the supposed boundaries that separate humans into tribes. But this potential resides not only in saints and cultural heroes. We can see it demonstrated by countless followers of Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and other religions that uphold compassion as the highest human virtue. Quite apart from religion, we have all encountered unsung, dedicated, kind people whose actions defy divisions between black and white, male and female, native and foreign, straight and gay, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, and every other variation on Us and Them. This capacity for all-inclusive caring is as much a part of our inheritance as tribalism.
On the national stage right now, tribalism appears to be in the ascendant. A warlord is moving into the White House. He has surrounded himself with people who share his prejudices and flatter his vanity. Most of his nominees for cabinet posts are hostile to the public purposes that their agencies are designed to serve—such as defending civil rights, protecting the environment, assuring access to health care, and advocating for the poor. The dominant news media, having profited for years from publicizing his slightest and nastiest blurts, have been slow to challenge this betrayal of the public trust. Most members of Congress either align themselves with the new administration or lack the courage to stand against it.
The menace may seem overwhelming. But we should remember that the incoming president does not represent the majority of Americans. His tribalism has drawn into the spotlight a throng of white supremacists, misogynists, xenophobes, anti-Semites, and others animated by envy and hatred, but such people constitute only a small, if dangerous, fraction of his supporters, and his supporters, in turn, constitute only a small fraction of our fellow citizens. He won the Republican nomination with votes from fewer than ten percent of eligible adults. His electoral college victory was decided by fewer than 60,000 votes in three swing states, and he lost the popular tally by more than three million votes. Forty percent of eligible adults—over 90 million people—did not vote at all. He garnered 46 percent of the votes actually cast, which works out to just over a quarter of eligible adults. He did not come close to securing a popular mandate. So we should not allow his election, his divisive views, or his callous policies to define our nation.
With or without a mandate, the incoming president appears determined to shred the social safety net, reignite the nuclear arms race, replace diplomacy with military threats, set off trade wars, shun refugees, free global corporations from all constraints, abolish environmental regulations, and stymie efforts at reducing climate disruption. Compassion may seem too weak a force to counter so much malice. But compassion is not our only source of healing and courage. We should not underestimate the strength of neighborliness, generosity, and hospitality. We should not forget the power of reason, especially as manifested in science and medicine. Nor should we forget the power of imagination, as shown in the arts and humanities, and in the creativity that wells up in each one of us.
Already, churches and other places of worship are offering sanctuary to immigrants threatened with deportation. Cities, towns, and households are welcoming refugees. States and municipalities are renewing commitments to reduce carbon emissions. Citizens are organizing to defend public schools, public lands, the oceans and fresh waters, biodiversity, and other portions of the commonwealth. Scientists are collaborating with filmmakers to dramatize the reality of climate disruption and other threats to Earth’s living systems, and to lay out paths for recovery. Writers and musicians are stirring up resistance to tyranny by giving voice to our sympathies and affections. Nonprofits, buoyed by an unprecedented inflow of donations, are redoubling their efforts to meet human needs, advocate for justice, protect wildlife, and foster peace. These and a myriad other efforts of resistance and healing are unfolding all across our land. Aided by reason and imagination, powered by love, they arise from our capacity to see beyond all seeming divisions, to recognize our common humanity and our membership in the web of life.
Everything we loved and cared about before the election, we still love and care about, only now we realize more vividly how endangered those precious people, places, creatures, and causes are. Now we realize we must defend them with all our heart and might. When my hope falters, I recall those TV images from my childhood of white mobs abusing peaceful black schoolchildren and demonstrators. Some of those whites are still with us, clinging to their prejudices; some have taught the same tribal hatred to their children and grandchildren. But they no longer rule our country, not even the South. Enough Americans of all shades and ethnicities have sufficiently freed themselves from racism to elect and then re-elect an African-American man to the presidency—a man who far surpasses his white successor in character, intelligence, and concern for human wellbeing. That successor, an accidental president, is a holdover from a cruder and crueler time in our history. We must not let him dictate our future.
Scott Russell Sanders
Read an interview with Scott Russell Sanders appearing in Terrain.org. And read other work by Sanders appearing in Terrain.org: “The Audubon Effect,” a science fiction story; “Jack Haymaker’s Peace Tour,” an excerpt from the novel Divine Animal; and “Buckeye,” an essay (with an audio reading by Sanders).
Header photo of Statue of Liberty by Kathy123, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Scott Russell Sanders courtesy Scott Russell Sanders.