Had space aliens stopped by planet Earth a hundred thousand years ago, as homo sapiens first began to migrate north out of Africa, I suspect they would have noted in their star log that these evolving creatures had a very serious challenge before them: tribalism.
Yes, the aliens would have noted, homo sapiens was remarkable at invention. Remarkable at problem-solving. Highly adaptable to new climates and new food sources. Very affectionate and respectful and loyal in family and tribal groups.
Yet, when it came to one tribe interacting with another, one group understanding another, there was often trouble. No, usually trouble. Trouble to the point of violence and slaughter.
Those aliens might very well have filed in their star log that homo sapiens might survive—and even thrive—were they able to get past the ill effects of their ability to find the smallest differences . . . and make a big deal out of each and every one.
What do we want in a tribe? Unfortunately, it appears that our default setting is to want everyone to look, think, act, and be exactly as we are.
That’s why it is still true, as Martin Luther King said long ago, that Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America. Only eight percent of US congregations are integrated in any meaningful way. Eight percent. After all those years of trying. And, let’s face it, mainline Protestant denominations, such as Episcopalians and Presbyterians and Unitarian Universalists, have really, really tried.
Why the abysmal failure?
Psychologist Gordon Allport isn’t much known these days—he died in 1967—but when it comes to the study of good ‘ol human tribalism, we parrot his work constantly.
Allport set out to examine how our attitudes and prejudices are constantly evolving.
It would at first appear that getting to know people of other races and cultures is a no-brainer in terms of reducing prejudices. But it turns out this is not as simple as it seems.
For example, in the Southern United States, whites and blacks are in much closer proximity than in the northern US, yet racial prejudice is much more pronounced in the South.
Another example: in terms of social class, everyone experiences people from other social classes every day, but the prejudices do not go away.
Then there’s the odd fact that males and females have been living together for . . . uh . . . a very long time . . . but . . . Well.
Clearly, proximity alone doesn’t do the trick.
It’s not about getting to know you. It’s about how I go about getting to know you . . .
Allport’s Prejudice Scale traces how prejudice operates, from the low end of making jokes and assumptions about others, to the high end—or perhaps the lowest—of actual extermination of the other.
Allport contended that we have to go into an interaction with those unlike ourselves with an open mind
The Unitarian Universalist Association has an anti-prejudice program for congregations called “Beyond Categorical Thinking.” The term “categorical thinking” comes directly from the work of Allport, who in 1954 said, “The human mind must think with the aid of categories.” Allport went on to say, “Once formed, categories are the basis for normal prejudgment. We cannot possibly avoid this process. Orderly living depends upon it.”
So. How do we go beyond categorical thinking? How do we get outside of our tribal thinking? Allport’s Contact Hypothesis says that not only must we have contact with those not in our tribe but that the contact must be on equal terms and with common goals.
Equal terms. Common goals.
This explains why race relations in the South don’t improve, despite proximity. It explains why maids and their employers don’t see each other. Equal terms and common goals. It explains why females and males can have children together without ever really seeing each other.
Why are only eight percent of US congregations integrated, despite years and years of trying?
We’ve been going about it all wrong. Congregations wait, in smug certitude that their preexisting terms and goals are, of course and obviously, the true and correct ones.
Equal terms. Common goals. These two things require respect across the divides, be they racial, economic, or religious.
Equal terms. Common goals. Were we to achieve these, those aliens might write in their star log a hundred thousand years hence, “Mistaken about homo sapiens. Tribalism vanished. Humanity flourishes.”