Magic Words & The Tribe

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Arguments with strangers on the Internet are a popular pastime these days. I’ve never been fond of them. Why argue with a stranger?

Arguments can be life changing — you never know when someone will tell you something you didn’t know you needed to hear. Something so powerful should be reserved for the people who matter and for the times where it does the most good.

What you hate has as much power over you as what you love. What you praise and celebrate has as much influence on you as what you object to and argue with does. There is wisdom in being selective with what you allow yourself to suffer passion for.

With all that said, I’m sure almost everyone reading this has been in at least a few arguments with strangers on the Internet. And I’m also sure you’ve been told (or seen someone told) the following statement during such an argument. Particularly when someone is using the wrong word for the thing they mean.

“Now you’re just arguing semantics”

It’s said as if semantics are somehow meaningless or trivial, which is a good joke. That’s false by definition. Semantics is the study of meaning. Linguistic semantics is concerned with the meaning of words, and that’s far from meaningless.

Words mean things, and words are magic. If you doubt that, you’ve not paid attention when someone’s life was up-ended over something they said. Maybe more so than ever before, now that everything is so wrapped up in exchanges made through text, words have a very real effect on reality.

What complicates this focus on meaning is that by convincing someone a word means something it doesn’t, its effect on their reality is distorted. Maybe that’s the real “black magick.”

Tribalism and Tribal are words that had a very negative connotation my entire adult life. 

It is almost always used in a political discussion, and it is used as a shorthand for uncivilized, anachronistic, racist, sexist, and intolerant.  A way to say that someone is thinking more like an animal and less like a man.

That’s what is implied, but we all know that isn’t exactly what the word “tribe” means. A tribe is a social group. A family of families, a group that may or may not share blood but certainly shares interests. A group closely-knit enough that what is bad for the individual is bad for the tribe. It is exclusive, necessarily so, and this exclusivity is what gives it value.

If you think it uncivilized or anachronistic to be tribal, then how do you reconcile that belief with the general mood of The United States in 2020? Humanity will never not be tribal, and small social groups are mattering more and more. If nothing else, this year has taught us who matters the most to us and who we really weren’t close to at all.

Even the most open-minded universalist, the person who calls every man brother and every woman sister, whose heart bleeds for every soul they’ve never met and never will meet, has had to quietly accept reality. At least to themselves in private.

Put bluntly, that mask isn’t on their face to protect outsiders who find themselves in their presence. It’s become a second skin because nobody wants to wonder if they’re the reason someone they care about died.

For the most sensitive of people, it’s so they can tell themselves they had no part in contributing to all the deaths and broken families they hear about every day. For the most selfish, it’s because they are themselves terribly afraid of death. In either case, it isn’t for others — it’s for the peace of mind of the one wearing the mask.

This is heretical thinking for most. Every man is your brother, every woman your sister, right? As long as they praise your god or pay their dues to whatever club you both belong to. As long as you’re part of the same group…the same tribe.

One of the many inversions we’ve seen is precisely that: the case of the bloated pseudo-tribe. 

The idea that you can have all of the benefit of belonging to an exclusive group with none of the exclusivity. An inclusive tribe is an oxymoron, and a very attractive one if you are a person in a position of power in the group you wish to stylize as a tribe. 

If anyone can be in your group then you are opening your arms to all the useful bodies of the world and opening your wallet for all of their money. And hey, everyone likes to belong to something bigger than themselves.

But to determine the value of a piece of a thing, in this case a “piece of brotherhood,” you divide its total value by the number of pieces. In this case that is the enumerated list of every person on the planet. How very valuable your group must be, if so many people can belong to it and that tiny sliver of its value is still worth anything at all.

Put more simply, the smaller the group the more valuable being a member is. Further, the harder it is to be a member of that group then the more meaningful it is to be counted among its ranks.

If all it takes to be your brother is a one-time payment of $99.99 then anyone with a crisp Benji is in. And that’s all the “brotherhood” you’ll share will be worth to you and your brothers.

In groups like these, the natural human thing happens. Cliques form within the larger group and these subgroups are more meaningful. This continues with smaller and smaller subgroups within subgroups until the individual members have found the degree of meaningful connection they needed from the start. 

Groups define themselves through their exclusivity. An implicit or explicit statement of “This is what we are, and this is what we are not.”  The benefit that a member will receive, as well as the service they will render for their fellows, is downstream of this defined identity.

You know who you are being when you know what you are in relation to who We are and what We do.

As we enter the coming age these binding ties of brotherhood and group identity are what will keep our individual worlds together. It is your lodestone, serving both to provide the magnetism to keep things together and the compass to guide you on your way.

Keep your eye on the horizon, your feet on the path, and don’t fall under some deceiver’s spell.

Find Lloyd on Twitter.

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