On Tribalism and Individualism / Echad: A better alternative
When it comes to the discussion of how people ought to be understood, categorized, and treated, there is an evolution of thought. A progression seems to be in place, worldwide, cross-culturally, from Tribalism to Individualism. The thing is, for most of history, there is a pendulum swing between the two. However, I think a third way exists, a way for the individual to exist among the collective, and for the virtue of each to remove the vice of the other.
This is the belief that people are classified and defined by the groups they belong to. Skin color, gender, political or religious views. It assumes that who you are is more about where you come from than anything else. In some senses, who you are ought to be determined by where you come from. Tribalism is, as the name suggests, a primitive grouping system in which “sides” are created based on largely superficial parameters.
Tribalism utilizes a significant amount of “Us” and “Them” speech, and tends to be afraid of groups that are different than your own. Group identity is your only identity, and says everything about you.
The benefit of tribalism is a deep sense of commonality and support from those in your tribe. Tribe members are loyal to the death and will do or say anything to defend their tribe.
The sins of tribalism are many, though. Those who do not conform to the tribe are enemies of the tribe. It shuns members who are divergent in their thinking and blatantly attacks those from “opposing tribes”. Tribalism tends towards emotional appeal and feelings. It’s main goal is the preservation of its own tribe through any means at the expense of anything.
Individualism favors the individual. It recognizes the uniqueness of each being in mind and body. It allows for a variety of intellectual opinions. This, historically, is the progression from tribalism. It realizes that often tribal structures become destructive, and that individual rational thinking and personal choice are important.
Individualism despises conformity. What is unique is what is worth pursuing and sharing and cultivating. “Outliers” are applauded. Logic and ration are king. Personal opinion, critical thinking, and competition are the virtues of this system.
The benefit of individualism is a reduction in prejudiced persecutions of the outliers. It allows for a laissez-faire attitude towards persons who disagree, within reason, so that each individual can pursue their own goals and dreams. It recognizes the variety of beliefs and opinions. This prevents minority groups from being destroyed by a tribal majority. it allows for people to be defined by something other than superficial tribal commonalities.
The sins of individualism, though, are many. Rather than a tribal hive mind which seeks preservation at the expense of other tribes, individualism becomes destructively self-centered. The false-virtue of individualism is “Self-Actualization”. This is the idea that each self has an “ideal” that can be materialized by self-creation and definition. Each individual’s “right” to define, create, and pursue whatever they want becomes destructive to the self and the other. Individualism tends to doubt the limitations of the self and of the mind. It believes ration makes righteousness and that the pursuit of personal fulfillment is man’s chief end.
Individualism leads to a sort of “self-worship” and “might-makes-right” competition. It sets you up against the other in multiple arenas. This creates an isolationist system in which no two people come together. No sense of “us” exists because every other living entity is a “them”. It becomes objectifying in nature, seeing other people and things as a means to one’s own “self-actualization” at the expense of the other.
Unfortunately, as seen above, both of those systems have deep-seated faults which inhibit them from ultimately being just or helpful.
To be fair, Tribalism and Individualism both contain beneficial and just virtues. On one hand, community and support from people is integral to human flourishing (and something often neglected by individualism). On the other, individual development, expression, and freedom is a vital component of human flourishing as well (often discouraged and demonized by tribalism).
However, there is a third, more honorable and virtuous way.
Echad is not an “ism”. It’s an ancient Hebrew word for “one”. It is used of God in Deuteronomy 6, mainly. However, another key use is in Genesis. Adam knew Eve and they became echad(one) flesh.
In Christianity, God is one but three. A married couple is one flesh. The Church is one body. Notice that there is unity and diversity. The father is not the Son is not the Spirit, but all are equally very God of Very God and one.
Man is not woman. Woman is not man. But the two come together and become one flesh.
You and I are not the same, we come from different backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures, and beliefs. Yet, we are one body. The fullness of difference is brought into a complete unity, bound in love.
For interpersonal relationships to promote justice, they have to promote holistic human flourishing. This means that people’s needs for “relationality” and individuality are both being met. We need the freedom to be united with the other while also being fully ourselves.
For this to happen, the best of the two ideologies ought to be held in tension. As a result, the following statements are both true (though, on a surface level, they seem to be contradictory):
“I am nothing without those around me.”
“We are nothing without each individual that makes us up.”
The reason both statements can be true is because of a difference in the central motivation and ethic behind echad: compassion.
Tribalism and Individualism run on fear, indifference, or cruelty as a means for preservation. Echad is powered by an engine of compassion, understanding, and presence in midst of difference and misunderstanding. It thrives when we are aware of the strengths and weaknesses present in ourselves and others.
Echad is messy. It’s earthy. It’s not easy. It’s not clean cut, or black and white. It requires listening to understand. It requires empathy. It requires sacrifice.
The question is, then, are we willing to do the hard work of Echad? Are we willing to lay down our life for the other? Are we willing to listen and understand? To have compassion? I pray, day by day, each of us would grow better at these things.
Perhaps one day, we will look at the Church and world, and be able to describe it as Echad.
Header Image Modified Under CC Attribution License. Original by:Nick Page