When Our Tribes Become Bullies

I was recently reintroduced to the word “tribe” when my son-in-law described my grandson’s reaction to trying a new sport. Since the age of four, Sam, has been encouraged by his parents to participate in athletics, but his interest in anything to do with rolling or catching a ball is nil. He was so disinterested that at age five, during one of his soccer games, he raised his hand, and asked, “Who likes mac and cheese?”

The entire team stopped and raised their hands. By the age of 8, Sam was “baked” with regard to sports. That is, until, his friend introduced him to the World Wrestling Association. He was hooked.

After watching him morph into a “wrestling maniac”, his parents signed Sam up for wrestling classes. He was like a duck taking to water, or puppy discovering snow for the first time. My grandson was in heaven, describing the thrill he felt when he “pinned” his opponents. My son-in-law proudly reported, “Sam has found his tribe!”

This was a new definition of the word “tribe” for me. I thought that it pertained to folks connected by bloodline; kindred relations. So I looked up its definition and sure enough one of them in the Meriam-Webster Dictionary describes it as “a group of people who have the same job or interest.” (Merriam-Webster, unabridged, online, 9/18/2017)

My son-in-law used the word, “tribe” to describe his son’s positive connection with kids who share the same interest. It has given him a feeling of accomplishment and a sense of belonging; he’s discovered a “safe” place beyond his family of birth where he can be himself.

But recently I’ve also heard the term tribe used pejoratively, by political pundits to describe groups of people with less than noble political agendas. These factions, not related through bloodline, use intimidation and force against others they believe to be inferior. In other words, their form of tribal behavior equals bullying.

Tribalism’s slide into bullying has become seemingly pervasive. We’ve all seen how it contaminates schools, sports, and work. In all of these collective institutions there is a drive to form tribes—often motivated by a desire for constructive kinship, but just as frequently for purposes of control, and exclusion.

The change begins at home with parents who understand that hate causes violence. They hold the key to laying the ground-work when it comes to their children’s early learning.

Non-kinship tribal members bond through their passion and shared beliefs. Euphoric-visceral responses when evincing certain behaviors often prompts us to desire more of the same and are frequently encouraged within tribal settings. Tribes have the power to further enlighten or oppress our humanity.

In Sam’s case, his tribal affiliation is positive because he is building new skills and developing good sportsmanship. Conversely, people that engage in tribal bullying, are strangled by their biases and fears.

Because this behavior is so firmly rooted in how humans relate to one another, it is certain to continue unless we become vigilant about identifying it and calling it out. It won’t end when public announcements declare, “Just say no to bullying.” It will stop when people recognize and openly challenge it through education and discussion. And unless persons with serious personality disorders abound, most individuals can learn compassion when they experience kindness firsthand from someone they have previously held in contempt.

The change begins at home with parents who understand that hate causes violence. They hold the key to laying the ground-work when it comes to their children’s early learning. Their enlightened behavior provides the essential framework for their kids’ later behavior.

Our schools must develop more comprehensive and nuanced responses to bullying. School administrators need to write and train their teachers on specific, not general, guidelines to recognize and manage school bullying. These practices must be consistently maintained and not forgotten due to funding or time constraints. And administers should focus on strength-based management.

Workplaces must value their employees as much as their customers, lead through example, and implement zero tolerance for on-the-job bullying. Workers should not need to fear push-back when they file bullying complaints through their human resources departments. These simple business practices go a long way in retaining staff, saving money and elevating workplace behavior.

And recently, political gamesmanship in our government appears to have upstaged productive civil discourse and compromise. Many politicians have taken a “guerrilla warfare” approach to dealing with the opposition. This form of bullying has had a disturbing trickle-down effect with the public.

As individuals we can make a difference when it comes to challenging bad behavior. And it’s our responsibility to recognize and stand up to any type of bullying. Bullying thrives in the dark when people turn a blind eye. It takes courage to defeat the “bully monster” when we are the only ones standing. But we know, that when it’s all said done, monsters don’t live in the light.

A friend of mine often repeats: “change takes a very long time.” And that’s probably true, but I also think these times are ripe for change.

This post is reprinted here with permission from Oxford University Press – OUPblog Featured image credit: gulls fun photo background by pixel2013. Public domain via Pixabay.

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About Kathryn Brohl

Kathryn Brohl is a Florida Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist with over forty years of experience. She has published seven books focusing on psychological trauma and trained mental health professionals throughout the United States, Canada, and Australia and within indigenous communities on trauma-informed care. She is also the author of Social Service Workplace Bullying.
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