• J. R. Guillermo

Narratives and Neo-Tribalism

The last century has seen an unprecedented amount of social mobility. Never has so many people voluntarily displaced themselves at any given era in human history. Generation upon generation has grown up and moved out, with each subsequent generation getting farther and farther away from old countries, motherlands, or even home towns. Each generation grows further detached from their ancestors’ roots.

This distance from any sort of roots from ethnicity, nationality or even locality has created an identity vacuum among large swathes of the youth. Personal self-determination abhors a vacuum, so other elements have stepped in to provide a locus for identity. Some have turned to their consumption for identity, as seen in the various brand wars that have broken out over some niche subcultures (Playstation vs. Xbox, for example). Others have turned to cults of personality for identity, as seen in the extremities of celebrity culture. Fan wars within various pop cultures, from music to sports, offer glimpses of this form of modern self-determination. Among the most divisive, as well as potentially defining, forms of these new means of self-determination, are the tribes that form around narratives.

Now, narratives as integral components of self-determination are nothing new. Nations have been formed out of narratives, after all. But what sets the current phenomenon apart is how Gnostic many of these new narrative tribes are. Whereas national narratives are meant to be embraced by many peoples, these new narratives are designed to be embraced only by the chosen few who are then defined by how they separate from the mainstream.

These tribes can be thoroughly niche, such as those tribes that have clustered around various conspiracy theories. The general public doesn’t notice them until somebody prominent and held in high regard within the mainstream voices out their membership in such tribes, such as when two NBA stars, Kyrie Irving and Stephen Curry, let slip their respective beliefs regarding a flat Earth and a staged first moon landing. But other narrative tribes have immense public influence. “Identity politics” is a catch-all phrase to identify the politics around narrative tribes whose identities are woven around victim narratives tied to some specific personal characteristic. The fact that these narrative tribes cut dividing lines across people who share the specific characteristics in question (i.e. the “Uncle Tom” or the “self-hating gay” as necessary terms of exclusion and separation in their respective narrative tribes) only reinforce the notion that it is the narrative, and not the characteristic in question (i.e. being black, female, gay, etc.), that defines tribal affiliation.

So pervasive are these narrative tribes that they can create real-world consequences for those they define as their enemies. They can wield political, economic and social ostracization throughout their spheres of influence. In some cases there may even be violence. In becoming narrative tribes, they take on the joys and advantages of forming communities, but also the separation and non-group hostility of tribal conflict.

It is this reality of narrative tribalism is something that every entity, from the individual person to the largest organization, has to contend with. But in this patchwork minefield of competing and conflicting narrative tribes, there will always be ways and opportunities for those who live in the fringes of these tribes to either thrive in the chaos, or defend themselves from the inevitable consequences of being excluded. Narratives that define these tribes are only as strong as the belief and acceptance of an audience. With enough narrative knowledge, there remains ways to create space for the non-initiated, even under the shadow of neo-tribalism.


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