Community and Tribe

Before I begin talking about what might be a difficult topic for me, I hope it goes without saying that this post is not in any way intended as an attack on others’ ideas; it is more an analysis of why I disagree with them, and what thoughts they have inspired as a result.

Oh – and it is long

With that established… I have a confession to make: I really dislike the word “tribe.”  It makes me wince each time I read it.  And I read it a lot in pagan circles.

Tribalism is founded on “othering,” on an opposition of “us” and “them.”  While I have no doubt that the notion of the tribe in modern paganism is mostly focused on the “us” – on the desire to belong to a group of like-minded people – there is always a corollary.

Most of us will have experienced the sharp end of othering: we live in a society where our religious or spiritual beliefs are generally ignored, often ridiculed and sometimes vilified.  And the desire to reach out and connect with like-minded people is a very natural and healthy thing – that is part of the point of keeping this blog, after all.  Ideas are best developed in discussion with people who understand their context, and sometimes we all need a little reassurance that we are not the only ones of our kind out there in the big, wide world.  But when I read people talking about “finding their tribe” in paganism, it is often accompanied by the kind of othering that sets off my warning bells.

This othering, in my experience, has sometimes taken the form of an imagined projection of the “other” by whom the writer or speaker feels, implicitly, rejected; the fact that this “other” is imagined means that no dialogue can ever be established.  And then there is the use of dismissive terms, playful or otherwise, for “others” – muggles, playgans, mundanes.  People who are not like us.  People who are less serious than us, less valid, less important.* People who wouldn’t understand.  Who are these people?  I would hazard a guess that they are, in most cases, our neighbours, our colleagues, our fellow students; our peers.  In other words, our community.  The people we encounter every day who may or may not agree with our world view (because, let’s face it, how many of us have actually asked them?).

What kind of tribe would we be building, if the main criterion was for all of its members to be just like us?

Between the ages of 6 and 14, I was physically attacked by the kids at school and in my neighbourhood, on an almost daily basis, purely because of a perceived difference.  This experience is probably at the root of my mistrust of tribalism: far from making me wish for a community of people who were just like me, it convinced me of the vital need for us to learn to appreciate difference in others.  I am a strong believer in the fact that you don’t have to agree with someone to get along with them, and that we have as much to learn from people who see the world differently from us as we do from people who share our ideas.  It is not easy to sustain an honourable dialogue with someone whose views are diametrically opposed to your own, but… well, I am a druid; to me, engaging in honourable dialogue is part of what it means to walk my path, regardless of how easy or difficult it is. Sometimes, the dialogue will reach a point that makes walking away the most constructive thing to do – but that doesn’t let me off the hook from trying.

People are always a little suspicious of difference, at first.  It’s an entirely natural response.  It’s also entirely natural for curiosity and trust to allow the barriers of suspicion to be broken down, with a little interaction: we are social animals, even flighty misanthropes like me.  In my experience, pagans often talk of seeing themselves as different, with an implicit assumption that the less-different-than-them others should assume responsibility for accepting them as they are.  But it works both ways.  If you see yourself as different from someone, then you see that someone as different from you.  You also need to accept them as they are.

I know I am lucky: I live in a notoriously friendly part of the world, where it is easy enough to get on with my neighbours (though I do wish the guy downstairs would smoke something a bit less pungent…), and my colleagues are pretty decent.  About a year ago, I had something of an epiphany: these people already think I am a bit strange, and they like me anyway.  I don’t need to be afraid of expressing my strangeness, because the relationships I have established within my community allow for it.  I censor myself because I have internalised some kind of idea that it is not ok to be who I am – but that is emphatically not the fault of any of my differently-minded peers, who don’t particularly mind how different I am, just so long as I am able to share a cup of tea and a chat with them (naturally, that chat will probably not be about the role of the bard in inspiring connection with the sacred landscape, but there is a time and a place for everything).

Of course, some people will never accept difference – in which case, I think it is fair enough to decide not to waste any more time and effort on establishing a relationship with them.  But on a purely human-to-human level, I have been consistently and pleasantly surprised, since overcoming those harrowing early experiences from my schooldays.  I have learned as much about my local landscape – its old stories, hidden natural springs and secrets – from my atheist/agnostic/Catholic/Unitarian/Quaker/Islamic neighbours as I have from my local pagan group.  I would never expect these neighbours to take part in the rituals honouring the landscape which they (unwittingly?) inspire, but I am grateful to them all the same, and the fact that we can all share this love for our local landscape in our own different ways is a wonderful thing.

This is why, instead of searching for a tribe to which I can belong, I try to focus on community.  Not everyone in the community can be – or wants to be – a druid, but if we are prepared to work on establishing relationships with them, I bet there are plenty of communities who would welcome a druid in their midst.

p.s. the rise of virtual communities and online interactions adds a whole other dimension to this problem, which I have barely touched, but this post is long enough already and I have some cakes to bake…

*(I get equally frustrated with the use of the word “sheeple” in political discourse.  It roughly translates as: people who have opinions which I consider to be more mainstream, and therefore less valid, than mine.)

15 thoughts on “Community and Tribe

  1. Ditto. I dislike the terminology of tribe, clan etc. and despise that term ‘muggle’. To be honest I don’t fit in that well within the Pagan community either. I enjoy the learning aspects of talks and am usually up for a drink but don’t do social events or camps as I don’t find much in common with many other Pagans. My closest friends are other artists. The exception to the above is my grove who have been a constant source of support. Grove I’m comfortable with as it implies a safe communal gathering place where all are welcome (not us-and-them) and other-than-human communities are included!

  2. Brilliant post. I’m in the unusual position of living somewhere with a lot of Pagans in it. There are Green tribes and transition folk, creative people, many of whom overlap. Even so, I struggle a lot with issues of belonging, and like you, it is to some degree because I carry my sense of not belonging around with me. Acceptance of difference makes so much more possible. Willingness to negotiate around what’s workable for everyone. Nothing poisons social interaction like an assumption of superiority, also much of the language you identify is as much about devaluing as othering. We can be other without being more worthy, or more important, or more entitled. As someone who struggles with things mainstream I expect I handle the language badly now and then. Things to think about, and things to work on.

    • A few comments have left me reflecting on how the flavour of a particular locality affects this sense of belonging. Over here, the mainstream is *very* mainstream, and communities are very rooted, and that particular combination seems to encourage an easygoing acceptance of strangeness from someone who is willing to make the effort to be a friendly neighbour/colleague/whatever. Having said that, I do sometimes find it difficult to be surrounded by people whose interests and activities are so different from mine. I doubt I would have formed these thoughts in quite this way if I was still living in Brighton, where there is much more overlap between different alternative/creative/green/pagan types.

      As for handling the language badly, I’ve not noticed, but I think we’re all allowed off-days :) I’ve certainly been guilty of some of the things I’ve explicitly said I don’t like.

  3. “Tribalism is founded on “othering,” on an opposition of “us” and “them.” ” I disagree with this a-priori assumption. Tribalism is founded on kinship, relationship, and mutual responsibility towards members, individually and collectively. Kinship and relationship can be conceived of and formed in many ways, among various peoples, both human and non-human. Tribalism is founded on relationships and responsibilities. It sounds like you are writing more about identity than relationship, based on ideology and orientation, which doesn’t equate much to being responsible towards anyone. It’s ironically a more self-serving, self-oriented way of relating than a communal or responsible way of being part of a group.

    I do appreciate you sharing your experiences with your pagan and other communities. I don’t think that finding or feeling belonging should be attached to also feeling disdain for those who may not belong. I don’t like or support elitism. I appreciate your calling out those who feel that belonging means discriminating. It’s an ugly way to treat others. I am definitely a salmon swimming against the current of mainstream pagan ideas and practices, but that does not mean I look down on those who choose the mainstream. A different orientation is not a superior orientation. I wish more people understood and held to this.

    • You’ve touched on something important there: responsibility is a vital part of any network of relationships. And I do really like the much more positive definition of tribe given in your comment, even if I might still be allergic to the word myself!

  4. Pingback: Outside the tribe | Druid Life

  5. hi. i discovered you via nimue’s blog. she recently write a post about othering which i intended to comment on, but didn’t…in relation to that, and your fantastic post here, i want to say that i believe othering, and the “us and them” mentality that is perhaps, as you suggest, one of the motivating forces for the creation of tribe, is based in fear. we can – probably should for our own safety and sanity – choose whether or not to engage with people’s fear. but perhaps it’s more useful and we’ll be stronger, and more flexible, if we thoroughly investigate just why we’re using terminology that reinforces the idea of difference. i understand that people are frightened – which doesn’t mean i condone hatespeech or acts, or bullying, however subtle. it does mean i can have compassion for whatever conditioning, and past, has led to that fear that has then, in turn, closed a person down.

    i’m personally allergic to the term “conscious” as a descriptive term for people, lifestyles etc. i find it extremely divisive, and i feel strongly that if we start from the assumption that anyone is “conscious” then that automatically presumes some people are either “unconscious” or less conscious. it’s all shades of grey, isn’t it? and yet we’re so much less likely to be able to see that if our descriptions of people aren’t conducive to dialogue with them. if i carry around a notion (and i have) that some people are more worth engaging with than others, i just end up reinforcing my own personal belief system, which, of course, is limited.

    thank you for your work – you too, nimue, if you’re reading this. i’m a yoga teacher and your musings are providing me with a great deal to think about as regards the yoga community, and my personal practice.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment. It’s a strange one. I have been (rightly) taken to task by people who see the creation of a tribe in a more positive light: networks of relationships of mutual responsibility and shared interest, all reinforcing each other. I suppose it’s a truism to say that for every inside there has to be an outside, so the important thing here is probably the emphasis; whether we define ourselves negatively, in opposition to something, or positively, by identifying with something.
      *deliberately avoids mentioning politics*
      There is also a practical limit to the number of active relationships we can really engage with, and that as much as anything else can define the limits of a group. Part of what motivated me to write, though, was that we live in a peculiar moment in history in which our definition of community is less and less likely to include the people with whom we spend most of our waking hours, and that is quite sad.

  6. I don’t see any difference between the words “community” and “tribe” – a “tribe” doesn’t have to be a group of people who all thing and feel the same way, dress the same way, act the same way…. a tribe is a diverse community of people who have different opinions, different ways of doing things, but they are united as a community, to work together, to share with each other, to communicate and develop ideas together. Tribes/communities do not have to be at war all the time. They can meet up and say “hey, I noticed you do things differently where you come from, so lets have a chat.”

    • That’s a fair enough point. “Community” and “tribe” do mean slightly different things to me in this context, because I was talking about the way people use the word “tribe” to mean group of like-minded people where they feel they belong. One important definition of “community” for me, in contrast with that, is the immediate physical group of neighbours, colleagues and other-than-humans who we encounter every day. I often use the phrase “the pagan community” in a very similar way to what you describe above – people who share and develop ideas together, whether online or in focused groups – and I think that more specific, focused kind of community (or tribe, or whatever… might need to re-think the semantics here!) is important. There doesn’t need to be any conflict, you’re right, although I think it’s important to acknowledge when there is, and to consider our role as druids (or whatever) outside our pagan enclaves.
      As you suggest, all these words can have several meanings, and not all of those meanings have to be negative. I’m trying to think about how we use this language, and how it might affect the way we think. And, thanks for commenting, because the comments really help with that!

  7. These are good ideas, it just comes off to me that to root the idea in applicability misses a qualifier.

    As you say, it’s not easy to sustain honourable dialogue with someone whose idea is opposed to your own, but if the fundamental difference in worldview is that of using dialogue as an exchange rather than physical violence, and the other (necessarily another) believes in physical violence to end the dialogue, then that’s not a difference I want to stick around for, to sit with, and to accept. It can be (has been) turned on the other person that they’re the ones who don’t accept difference, but in that context, with that qualifier of difference, I would proudly own that neither do I.

    To keep Difference as a vague ideal that must be accepted without any qualifier, would risk (by my experience) getting caught in the trap of tolerating intolerance rather than finding fundamental agreement of mutually-respected boundaries (which, left to the same level of vaguely unqualified ideal, is applicable to finding “a tribe of people who are just like me.”)

    • Thanks, Faemon. These ideas are still only forming, so qualifiers and definitions are lacking slightly… I am also beginning to realise that, on the internet, nothing goes without saying – the only context we can be sure of sharing is that we are both here. Your point about boundaries is a really important one – it ties in with Erin’s point about responsibility and respect, both of which I would think of in terms of “honour” (which could probably do with an exploratory post of its own one of these days). Intolerance and over-tolerance do seem to be two sides of the same root problem, as you suggest.

      Unfortunately in my case, I had no choice but to stick around with the violence for a few years. They grew out of it, but I left the place where I grew up as soon as I was able and never went back :/

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