Tribalism in the modern age

April 18, 2012

Caroline O'Donovan

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An estimated 3.9 million people tuned into HBO on April 1 to watch the Lannisters fight the Starks, the Baratheons fight the Lannisters, the Starks fight the Greyjoys, and the Targaryens fight, well, pretty much anyone. The oft-blogged about Game of Thrones is a highly popular fantasy television series that is flourishing in its second season. The show details the scheming machinations and outright warfare that swirls around the Iron Throne and domination of Westeros after the death of King Robert Baratheon. One by one, the viewer is introduced to the various tribes that populate Westeros and strive to rule it. The Lannisters, residents of the warm south, are blonde, slender, and haughty. The Starks, from the north, are rougher around the edges, more melancholy and dark. Each of these houses have “words” that sum up the character of its members, much like a feudal crest. House Greyjoy, a sea-faring clan who take pride in their independence, live by the words “We Do Not Sow.”

The best works of fantasy, be they novels, television shows or movies, blend with reality in a way that makes it easier to believe the elements of the story that are fictional. It makes sense to the viewer, for example, that the north is cold and the south is hot, or that a desert tribe--in the case of the show, the Dothraki--would be nomadic. The house system in Game of Thrones unmistakably reflects the tribal warfare and feudal systems of early human history, and makes the magical world of nightwalkers and dragons something contemporary viewers can understand.

To form a tribe, writes biologist E.O. Wilson, is human nature. It is human instinct to “demonize the enemy, to organize rallies and raise flags.” In today’s world we have largely done away with the traditional tribe, but the feeling of belonging to a group, for pleasure and for safety, is as important as it ever was. Sports fans wear certain colors, sing and chant in unison, and, after great victories, dance in the streets together. Such experiences, Wilson posits, do not merely mimic the experience of the team; the fans are “personally flying high” on the bond that they share. It is for these bonds that humans act altruistically, Wilson writes, but also in defense of these bonds that we sometimes act violently; they are they way that we order our world.

One group that has maintained its sense of tribe for thousands of years, despite being scattered around the world, are Jews. Today, however, Jewish leaders for whom this sense of community is most important are concerned about a shrinking Jewish population. One cause is the high number of Jews (50% in the last two decades) who have married outside the faith. By traditional Jewish law, Jewishness can only be passed down through matrilineal succession. With a rapidly rising population of young half-Jewish people, however, some leaders believe that a more accepting, multicultural approach to assessing Jewish identity could help bolster the Jewish population.

Today on Eight Forty-Eight, we’ll sit down with Rabbi Adam Chalom, a Dean of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, and talk about how Jewish leaders should approach young Jews of mixed heritage. Chalom, who believes opposition to interfaith marriages for Jews is based in an understanding of Jews as “the Chosen people,” will talk about how these young people can embrace being Jewish and something else, and how they are beginning to build a new, multifaith tribe of their own.

Jenka Gurfinkel, who blogs at Social-Creature, knows a lot about how young people form tribes. Tribes used to be defined by gender, class, race and religion, Gurfinkel says, but pop culture has given  us the ability to choose our own tribes. Based on a mutual interest in music, or fashion, or professional interest, we form groups, and then solidify those bonds by participating in certain behaviors or dressing in a certain way. Gurfinkel will chat with us on Eight Forty-Eight about individual branding in the modern age, and how new technologies strengthen and weaken our tribe instinct.