Pondering the Tribal Revival

Photo Credit: Tribe Bookstore

tribe [traɪb] n

1. a social division of a people, defined in terms of shared descent, territory, culture, etc.

2. an ethnic or ancestral division of ancient cultures

3. a. a large number of persons, animals, etc.; b. a specific class or group of persons; c. a family, esp a large one


Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003

A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea...A group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate.
— Seth Godin, Tribes

Tribe. In recent years, I’ve met a growing number of modern-day tribe enthusiasts at business meetings, dinner parties, and beyond. There are tribe-seekers who express their deep longing to belong to a group of like-minded people. Others adopt the word to claim and affirm their belonging in their group’s particular version of “us.” Business leaders extol the virtues of cultivating tribes—mass movements around brands that amplify meaningful connections between groups and ideas. Fashion-forward friends tell me that tribal trends even hit the runway in 2011 (my knowledge of fashion is so last year) and continue to inspire Spring 2012.

There's no doubt that the savvy marketing guru, Seth Godin, and the popular reality TV show, Survivor, have heavily influenced the current tribe vibe in American culture, although I suspect that globalization is the underlying culprit in this trend toward tribal identification and cultivation. As collective identities get stretched and homogenized beyond traditional boundaries and comfortable recognition, it makes sense that people would seek to redefine their identities and their sense of belonging by assuming and adapting the cultural accouterments of here, there, and everywhere.

However, I personally don’t get the appeal of “tribes.” I mean, I get the appeal of the word. "Tribe" is undeniably cool and fun to say. It sounds like something I should want to belong to. It suggests ancestral roots and sacred rites, a gathering of half-naked people drumming, dancing and frolicking around a fire. And of course, I get the appeal of belonging and meaningful connections.

It's just that I don’t associate these with the often simplistic, contrived, and romanticized notion of tribes. Growing up "global" all over the world and experiencing various traditional tribes (you know, those based on more than shared interests and a way to communicate) probably undermines my ability to understand this contemporary tribal revival as something beyond a trendy reframing of affinity groups of friends, fans, cliques, customer segments, and good old-fashioned communities.

I'm sure that living in apartheid South Africa tainted my appreciation for tribes with the bloodshed of tribalism. Tribalism, divorced from humane compassion and infused with fear, like all isms, can be brutal and fatal. Then, there's my aversion to the superficial appropriation of indigenous customs beyond the occasional use of talking sticks, incense, and tingshas (wait, does that make me a hypocrite?). Plus, as a writer, I’m pretty darn picky about words, especially those I choose to inhabit. 

I can’t help noticing that the word “tribe” is actually based on division. Divisions, though perhaps meaningful, are divisive. I don’t want my belonging based on division. 

Yes, I realize that it's just a word and probably a matter of semantics. And yes, I recognize that there are those who use the term because it authentically and aptly conveys some deeply held personal meaning. Still, unless one is deeply rooted in indigenous culture, I prefer the use of community to tribe. After all, communities commune—they come together to share a life in common. 

Moreover, my community is both local and global—like the stars we organize into meaningful clusters and constellations of brilliant light, some near, some far, visible and invisible, and yet all intimately and infinitely connected within the dark night of this world.

If I must belong to a tribe, I choose the planetary one that includes us all, which is far too often more inspirational than actual, but nevertheless, the only tribe that really appeals to me: the One World Community, All Living Creatures, We, Us, Earthlings Tribe (we're still working on the name). I guess you could say that I agree with the Black Eyed Peas and the Dancing Wombat on this one.

What about you?  What words do you choose to inhabit?