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Culture

Keeping Our Distance from Political Tribalism

Greg Hodges | Nov 27, 2014

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the authoritative views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Greg Hodges | Nov 27, 2014

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the authoritative views of the Baha'i Faith.

Baha’is work for far-reaching changes to society, and at the same time try to avoid involving themselves in partisan politics.

For many people, this appears to be a contradiction. And I’d be lying if I said I’d never felt that way before. But every once in a while, something comes along and, with crystal clarity, reminds me of the wisdom in staying away from the political fray. It happened again just recently.

Anita Sarkeesian

Anita Sarkeesian

In the past couple of years, there has been a growing debate about the portrayal of women in video games. At the heart of the controversy is the feminist blogger Anita Sarkeesian, who has criticized what she sees as the fewness, shallowness, and sexual objectification of female characters in video games. She has long been a target for rape and death threats from anonymous strangers. Then on October 15 she cancelled a speech at Utah State University after someone threatened to kill her and a large number of attendees if it took place. After that, coverage of the controversy exploded in American political media.

The best piece of commentary I’ve read on the debate as it has unfolded since then came from Ezra Klein on November 1 at Vox.com. He made the case that it is the latest example of a wider phenomenon of American politics and culture he calls “the politicization of absolutely everything.” Reading Klein’s essay, I had that moment of crystal clarity I mentioned earlier. Klein noticed that media outlets that almost never talk about video games were all getting in on the action, and they were arranging themselves into the typical liberals vs. conservatives battle formation. Liberal sources lined up behind Sarkeesian and other feminist voices inside and outside the video game industry. Conservatives lined up in defense of the millions of male players who felt offended by being called sexist. Klein wrote:

What’s telling about the constellation of forces here is that none of them actually care much about video games… Rather, these are outlets and players that specialize in political conflict. And Gamergate has become a political conflict. Video games, at this point, are an excuse for that conflict.

The points he made that left the greatest impression on me were about the cultural backdrop of the whole controversy: the rise of political tribalism.

That has happened all over the world, but seems especially pronounced in the United States, which has always had a number of political divisions related to race, labor relations, the international role of the military, partisan loyalty—and even a Civil War–that separated the country into two opposing camps. In the past, each issue divided the American people differently. But now, we always see the exact same division, no matter the issue: conservative vs. liberal, red vs. blue, Republican vs. Democrat. As a result, the country has separated itself into two polarized political tribes, with fewer and fewer ideological commonalities, thereby insulating Americans from meaningful discussion across tribal boundaries.

One consequence of all this: any perceived slight against a portion of the tribe or any strong words from a known enemy of the tribe sets the whole infernal machine in motion. And so long as such variation exists between conservatives and liberals in the foods they eat, the parenting practices they follow, the TV shows they watch, the religions they practice, etc., political controversy can easily reach beyond government policy and extend into the culture and everyday life of political tribespeople.

So what does this have to do with Baha’is?

It has to do with the ways Baha’is get involved in their communities to put the teachings of their faith into practice: an end to war, religious tolerance, racial and gender equality, elimination of extremes in wealth and poverty. The challenge for Baha’is and for everyone who values and seeks unity, as I see it, involves staking out space for unified social action that remains autonomous from tribal struggle–but not indifferent to the vital issues at stake in their debates:

The unity which is productive of unlimited results is first a unity of mankind which recognizes that all are sheltered beneath the overshadowing glory of the All-Glorious; that all are servants of one God; for all breathe the same atmosphere, live upon the same earth, move beneath the same heavens, receive effulgence from the same sun and are under the protection of one God. This is the most great unity, and its results are lasting if humanity adheres to it; but mankind has hitherto violated it, adhering to sectarian or other limited unities such as racial, patriotic or unity of self-interests; therefore no great results have been forthcoming. – Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i World Faith, p. 257.

We all need to be pro-active in making the unity of the human race not just an objective, but also an operating principle. Unity, as the Baha’i writings repeatedly point out, isn’t just the end goal—it’s also the means we use to get there.

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Comments

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  • Oct 18, 2020
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    Finally an article that highlights the negative effects of American democracy clearly. Thanks Greg!
  • Matthew Freeman
    Jul 5, 2018
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    Clear, pragmatic thinking, Greg. Thanks
  • Candra Janée Cherry-Pitts
    Oct 17, 2016
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    So this is what I'm getting from this article...instead of involving ourselves in political affairs we should instead push forward the ideals of the Baha'i. In that sense it sounds like what you are saying for us to do is to not focus our attention inward and fight battles but instead turn our focus towards change the world view instead. Our motivation should be in focusing on creating a "new positive" rather than changing an "old negative".... Very thought provoking article!
    • Candra Janée Cherry-Pitts
      Oct 17, 2016
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      * Baha'i faith.
  • Christine Wenger
    Sep 5, 2016
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    Thanks for writing this article. I have really been struggling with this issue lately. It's nice to see an alternative to all the polarization.
  • Sep 4, 2016
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    i find polictical and all squabbles beneath humans. In fact it sickens me. the constant putting down, the political correctness run amok, safe zones,politics, my god is btter then yours or believe as i do or you'll be in "hell". All this is below humans. we all need to realize that if we all just focused on the exchange of ideas and knowledge and focus on working on the goal of helping our species thrive and survive. to end hunger, homelessness, sickness and even death. As i said above, there is no need to fight politically, ...religous. just keep simple voting and let people vote for who they wish. even leave religion out of anything and everything. i am a bahai. keep whatever faith or no faith to ourselves. in the end does anyones religion really matter in the benefit of us as a species??
    Read more...
  • Feb 12, 2016
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    I'm thinking in the word "patriotic", I think it has to do with societies divided in countries, I tried to imagine several times how the world would be in a future, because the current division in countries sets barriers to unity
  • Oct 23, 2015
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    One challenge is not allowing ourselves to be pigeonholed as being in one tribe or another. Every issue Hodges listed that Baha'is care about has already been tribalized in America. If I say I personally believe spiritual life begins at conception, I must be in the same camp as Randall Terry (Founder of extreme pro-life group Operation Rescue), the thinking goes. Or if I make a case for the elimination of the extremes of wealth and poverty, I must #FeeltheBern (IOW, support Bernie Sanders in the partisan Democratic primary).
    Fun, eh?
    • Janina Barnes
      Apr 4, 2018
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      I think it is valuable to point out that both sides are seeing different parts of the same whole. Recognizing the truth in multiple perspectives is what keeps us from merely fitting our religious beliefs into someone else's political tribalism. As Shoghi Effendi says, "To some of the principles and ideals animating political and ecclesiastical institutions every conscientious follower of the Faith of Bahá'u'lláh can, no doubt, readily subscribe. With none of these institutions, however, can he identify himself, nor can he unreservedly endorse the creeds, the principles and programs on which they are based."
    • Oct 24, 2015
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      You identified a major point that I was preparing to get into about 3/4 of the way through the essay, but I shied away from because it was an issue that required way too much attention to fit the space. The problem as I see it is not that it is tempting to "get involved" in political tribalism. The problem is that even though a person may not like partisanship, it is so deeply imbedded into American culture that any one of us is almost certainly recognizable to other people as belonging to one tribe or the other. The challenge ...is to be true to one's culture and one's convictions, while doing it in a way that is inclusive and friendly towards those who belong to "the other side."
      Read more...
  • Mar 23, 2015
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    This is important to preserve unity and harmony within the Baha'i Community, while maintaining good relation with all people in the world.
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