A man is born in the province of Yan and grows up in the province of Chu. Once he has reached a certain age, he sets out to return home, so that he can pay his respects to the ancestors. Upon the road, he joins other travelers. These other travelers decide to deceive him. As they approach the province of Jin, they point to the wall surrounding it and say, “Look, it is the wall surrounding your home.” The traveler’s face becomes sad. They enter through the wall, and happen upon the province’s main temple. “Look, it is the temple of your home.” The traveler sighs, distraught. Next, they see the beginning of the community’s houses. “Look, it is where your ancestors lived.” Tears began to fall from the traveler’s eyes. Then, they see graves. “Look, here is where your ancestors are buried.” The traveler begins to weep profusely and pathetically. The deceivers inform the traveler that they are not in Yan, but in Jin. The traveler is ashamed. Finally, they arrive at Yan. When the traveler truly sees his ancestors’ graves, he is emotionless.

 

This is an ancient Chinese fable, author unknown. Your impression of the traveler is what matters. It would be rash to call him a fool for believing his deceivers. How could he have known what his home looked like, if he had never been there? He’s no fool — he’s a man, in search of the place where he’ll fit in — in search of his natural identity. Everything he knows about his origins has been told to him by people he has never met before, yet he trusts them readily, assuming they have his best interests in mind. Eager to find the place where he belongs, he assumes (who wouldn’t?) his deceivers are being honest, and that they act with good intentions. The sentiments he displays as he ventures deeper into his fake-home are authentic, and it turns out, ridiculous, considering the sights have no connection to who he is and why he’s here, and therefore, what he’s looking for. So he’s embarrassed, and probably feeling pretty jaded by the world. When the traveler arrives at his true home, he shows no feelings. This final image is compelling, even a bit confrontational. It seems the author wants to shock us out of our predisposition to assign authority to a very personal, individual and subjective origin. “Don’t allow the desire to belong overcome attempts at unbiased, clear thought,” he might say.  

It’s a message that translates well through time and culture. A common worldview — one embedded so deeply into our unconscious that it is difficult and awkward to tap into — is that the life I have is significant because it is about me. Therefore, I’m the main character in my own narrative of the universe. This worldview is manifested often in our culture. As Americans, we see ourselves as predestined for world dominance. We are the greatest people, the chosen ones. In an over-generalized way, the globalized culture revolves around us — ideas, money, entertainment, art. As former President Barack Obama enjoys saying, we are “on the right side of history.” Whatever we think that means, even if it makes your inner American giddy with pride, it’s probably a narrow-minded worldview that devalues the rest of the world to a saddening extent.

We’re guilty of this in the tribal context as well, within borders. There are many names we choose to define ourselves with politically, religiously, etc. The blind acceptance we give these definitions is a large reason for America’s moral and social regression. Unifying beliefs and ideals are no longer a part of what it means to be an American. Instead, we rely on sensations of superiority, sensations that are inherently exclusive. It’s as if we “get off” emotionally to having a self-proclaimed higher intellectual or moral status. (I’m not using the phrase “get off” for any reason other than I think it best depicts the chemical process by which much of our “topical” dialogue takes place. The purpose of  this “topical” dialogue is not to be challenged, stretched or to encourage empathy; it’s about achieving that addictive rush of dopamine that accompanies self-gratification. It controls the way we speak — answer-heavy/preachy/matter-of-factly. It controls the way we listen — either vigorously nodding or vigorously shaking our head — never wanting to truly listen. That is, unconsciously, we allow the desire for self-gratification (to get off emotionally) to dictate how we handle human-interaction, especially with regards to discussions of economics, religion, politics, etc.

This holier-than-thou attitude many of us possess as individuals is exacerbated by our tribal associations. It does not make for a healthy, conscientious society. A group of solipsistic individuals is a dangerous, reasonless mob, bent only on self-gratification. If we recognize this, we can begin to recognize the frailty of our causes: weaknesses, over-generalizations and innate imperfections. We’ll be more inclined to look to history or other countries/cultures for advice, directions, what is sensible and what has already failed. A quick read of George Orwell’s “Notes on Nationalism” (what Orwell called nationalism, we consider tribalism) paints a picture of 1945 Great Britain, a country with many frighteningly familiar tribes framed by anti-semitism, political catholicism, anglophobia and a group Orwell calls “Color Feeling,” best expressed by the line “any intellectual would be scandalized by the claim that white races are superior to the colored, whereas the opposite claim would seem unexceptionable even if he disagreed with it.” He also discusses the Communist tribe, which shares similarities with today’s socialist movement. It is interesting to see how many commonalities Orwell’s Britain shares with our America. So despite our assertions to the contrary, the ideas of our distinct tribes aren’t exactly fresh — and that’s fine, but we should never act as if they are.

It’s apparent the groups we root our identities in matter to us, but to what extent are they really understood? Ignoring facts like our tribe’s unoriginality, and their assignment to us through a combination of societal expectations and personal upbringing, is foolish. These facts can be difficult to confront, and once reckoned with, may lead to disillusionment with group-based causes altogether. The individual could choose a life of quietism. But quietism is naturally lazy, selfish and admits a hollowness about the larger causes humans naturally seek. So, it’s not an ideal response for people who want to connect to a world greater than themselves. Additionally, there is, I think, a universal recognition of the limitedness of the individual, and the worthiness of a meaningful cause bigger than one man.

Nevertheless, in a time marked by sound bites and nasty social media discourse, it seems that we have become less concerned with utilizing reason, research and examination to discover the best cause, and more focused on molding reason to compliment our feelings-centered causes — causes that in many ways are joined and valued not because of an attraction to truth, but their quantity (of members). As Greek philosopher Socrates once quipped: “Popular opinion overcomes truth.”

Occasionally, today’s tribe leaders will encourage simple methods of self-improvement such as traveling, engaging within your community and reading. More often, it seems these leaders aren’t interested in encouraging a challenged belief system, but stimulating tribal loyalty through pointed, dismissive rhetoric. Fox’s Hannity and Tucker Carlson, and sociocultural late-night hosts like Seth Meyers and Michael Che are a few culprits, perhaps. That being said, it didn’t take long for genuine calls from op-ed writers and professors to “vary your sources” to become platitudinous. “Varying your sources” is useless if you do it to achieve validation, rather than understanding. A remedy for our tribal tendencies may be too complex to fully discern.

What would our dear old Chinese philosopher say about our society? He may be impressed with the improved means of transportation and the thoughtful preservation of national parks. He’d probably be a bit amused by our simultaneously judgmental yet offense-prone natures. Most significantly, he’d be dismayed by the lack of real consideration we’ve given our causes. Dismayed by an increasingly weak desire to learn and grow, a once-strong desire that is being steadily supplanted by desires to feel good about yourself. We are like the man from Zhou, falsely lead to believe he’s home, complete with jacked-up emotions due to a deep desire to belong.  Where the philosopher fails to give practical advice, Orwell does not. He understands that biased emotions are somewhat inescapable, but asks that his readers at least recognize the truth that these biases exist. Rather than allowing them to “contaminate our mental processes,” we should aim to control them, setting them at the side of an acceptance of reality, which he admits will be a “moral effort.”