Entry: Tribal Councils and the Twenty-First Century Monday, October 10, 2011

Turns out that Disney’s Recess was right: life is all about tribalization.

Let me explain. The Saturday morning cartoon focused on a half-dozen kids, all in the same grade but each of them stereotypically unique: the African-American athlete, the brainy girl with braces, the street-smart tomboy, the high-strung military kid, the overweight tender-heart, and the average Joe that everyone likes. Part of what made the show special, though, was that some of the grades or groups of friends had very tribal identities. This is most true for the Ashleys (who shared the same name) and the kindergarteners (who always wore face-paint and often kept to themselves). The main characters were a nice reminder of how diversity is good and how everyone can get along if they try hard enough. Unfortunately, the days of such an approach is fading if not already gone.

Marshall McLuhan would explain it like this: because of literacy and technology, humanity went from being a collection of tribes to one mass of people. Everyone wants the same thing, everyone has access to the same pieces of the pie, homogenization was just a matter of time. McLuhan would go on to say that because of “electric media,” the world has imploded and we are now in a new state of tribalization. Why seek out the common denominator when you can be happiest being around those like you? Turns out we aren’t TJs and Gretchens anymore; we are kindergarteners with specially-selected face-paints and weapons.

Marketer Seth Godin feels the same way. In his just released booklet, We Are All Weird, the normal no longer exists. At least not as a driving force for what makes life work. Mass, he suggests, was what fed the beast that was the twentieth century. Weird, a world of splintered tribes, is what the future looks like for modern man. Weird has always been around, mind you. Now it’s just the prevalent way to think about things. Thanks to the internet, everyone has access to a community of like-minded people. Why get to know your next-door neighbor when you have friends to communicate with in the next county, state, or country? Why waste your time butting heads with those who don’t think like you when you can draw real energy and momentum from the encouragement of those who see life the same was as you? Weird people, Godin asserts, used to be loners. That is no longer the case, and we are all better off for it. “The goal is connection,” Godin asserts. And connection is bigger and deeper than just wearing the same brand of shoes and drinking the same soda.

“The weird are now more important than the many, because the weird are the many.” I feel more and more that this rings true of my students. Granted, I have a view of what high school should be like rooted strongly in the idea that everyone loves everybody else and that it’s the mascot and not the class that matters. I know this is not true. Class (grade level) matters. Or at least it used to. Now there is even less a sense of an entire grade being “in it together.” One class used to make the joke “you mess with one freshman, you mess with us all.” That is no longer the case, either. It really is every tribe for itself: politically, socially, religiously, everything completely fragmented.

It’s a scary thought, especially if we all end up acting like kindergarteners.

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