~ by David Inglis , December 2023
Do you ever think, “What’s wrong with those people” when they unswervingly support someone who actively flaunts the Constitution and the rule of law; who promotes white supremacy, Christian nationalism, and antisemitism in his speeches; who never fails to display admiration for Putin, Erdogan, and even Hitler; who regularly claims that the legal system is being weaponized because lawyers and judges–whom he himself nominated to their positions–point out his lies and crimes? Can’t they see his blatant attacks on anyone who tries to curtail his power or hold him accountable? Don’t these people know about our democratic principles and liberty and justice for all? Aren’t these people Americans?
Yes, they are Americans. They are our fellow citizens who have a different experience of the world than you or I do. They see that their once-secure place in the world is being taken from them by a global economy that shutters our factories. Their small towns are losing jobs, people and hope. They feel marginalized by the emphasis on equality, diversity, and inclusion. They feel themselves looked down upon by educated, cosmopolitan, woke, bleeding-hearted post-modern “libs” (like us).
Right-wing podcast host Mark Levin put words to this position when he announced: "I would not negotiate with Hakeem Jeffries and these Democrat Marxists and the Squad and all the rest of them if you put a gun to my head. These people are destroying our country at every turn. They are the enemy." We can almost hear him saying, “What’s wrong with those people?” and “Aren’t those people Americans, who should know how to protect and defend the backbone of America from all this pluralism, relativism, egalitarianism, and socialism?” This is a sincere declaration of values that seem as American to Levin and his followers as our repulsion at hearing about them seems to us.
An illuminating perspective and perhaps some paths forward can be found in Ken Wilber’s Integral Philosophy. It seeks to integrate the stages of cognitive, psychological, spiritual, and cultural development into a unified theory of human evolution. Wilber explains it this way: every person is a unique blend of various stages. But while the constellations of world views, values, needs, and motives can give us insights into people we just don’t understand–we must remember not to limit our perception of people to our labels, thus overlooking their unique, complex, ever-changing personhood.
Using Wilber’s model, I see most of the hard-core MAGA supporters as in the Tribal stage or worldview, which is where most of the human population was for millennia (before they became part of the large, organized societies that gave rise to the Traditional worldview). People who have a Tribal worldview tend to experience the world as dangerous, and organize around an authoritarian leader for their protection, identity, and cohesion. Loyalty to this leader is essential, because it is the unquestioned authority of this “strongman” (it is almost always a man) that gives the tribe its coherence. By relinquishing their power to this authority figure, members of the tribe can then vicariously participate in his exercise of power. The more defiant and belligerent he is in the face of the people and forces that tribe members feel threatened by, the more powerful the tribe members feel (as long as he gets away with it). In this struggle for power and survival, any means of prevailing are justified, because the world seems stacked against those with the “Tribal” worldview. Fear is seen as making one weak, so there is a drive to cover that weakness with anger, which makes one feel powerful. This would explain why so many people at this stage feed on conspiracy theories and “news” that’s designed to inflame their anger. Without that anger, they would have to face their fear of being nobodies.
Robin Williams once said, “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be Kind. Always.” All people are desperately trying to hide their inner battles in all kinds of ways, and one thing we can do is to try to understand the hidden fear and pain of those with the Tribalist worldview in the face of a changing society and very fraught future. Fear has caused their nervous systems to short-circuit their rational brains and has put them into survival mode. (All of us are wired to do that; that’s what helped our species survive.) Maybe can we understand their fear and pain by seeing how the “libs'' and our society itself are triggering their anxiety. They see us and “the system” as trying to take away the things that give them security–their majority status, their sense of self worth, their tax dollars, protection from criminals and border security, and their freedoms–such as the right to own guns on their own terms, and even to eat a hamburger and fries, or drive a big gas guzzler without guilt.
What might our first step be to creating connections across our differences? If we are interacting with someone from the other side of the political spectrum (perhaps at a family holiday gathering), we could try to find a way to create a safe space, where both of us can share our concerns (don’t call them fears) about our world and our future. The purpose of the space is not to change them. It’s simply to make them feel heard and understood. Their devotion to a brash, blustering loud-mouth as their proxy in the world is motivated in part by feeling ignored, devalued, and sidelined. We can shift that a little by being a real-live “lib” who actually listens to them with respect. We might even find some concerns we share in common, and talk about how we deal with our own fears. And we can identify their unmet basic needs and ponder ways to have these needs met. If the conversation gets confrontational, we can ask for a pause, check in with ourselves, tell the other person what we need right now, and invite them to do the same.
We also need to understand that people who see themselves in a binary, zero-sum game, with winners and losers, perceive that if somebody else gains in status or opportunities, they themselves stand to lose. Perhaps we can find out what groups most arouse those fears, ask if they know anyone in that group, and have them tell you about them. What bothers them about this specific person? Why might they be that way? What might it feel like for them? They might then be open to you sharing an experience you have had with a person or people in that group. What you are trying to do is to help them move from seeing the feared group as a label to seeing the three-dimensional fellow humans in that group, in the same way you are trying to view the person with the Tribalist world view as a three dimensional fellow human being, and not as a label. We might wonder out loud how everyone’s world might be better if everyone (including the person we’re talking to) were given the opportunity to become their best selves.
Postmoderns also threaten Tribalists’ worldview by political correctness (which makes them feel incorrect), and by doctrinaire positions like anti-capitalism, anti-patriarchy and decolonization (which threaten the identity and values they grew up with). It serves no purpose to “take a stand” in a one-on-one conversation. What can serve a purpose is to hear their concerns so well that they become more open to hearing ours, so we can have a respectful open-ended conversation rather than a debate.
Ken Wilber says, “Everybody has a piece of the truth.” This Integral perspective arises when we expand our focus beyond our own “enlightened,” “woke,” “politically correct” perspectives and positions, and see human society as an evolving whole. This complex mix of people naturally includes contradictions and conflicts, but this is a necessary part of the evolutionary process. An Integral worldview recognizes that each stage of human culture has evolved out of the preceding one, and has its own gifts as well as blindnesses. It also has the insight that each worldview, motive and emotion lives inside us all. So, rather than distancing itself from “less evolved” worldviews, the Integral perspective includes and transcends them by incorporating the best of each perspective into a more complete whole. Tribalism emerged to help groups of humans survive by providing a high degree of social cohesion. We can help Tribalists evolve by providing experiences where their sense of “us” can broaden to contain more of the “them” they project their fears on and attack.
This Integral perspective challenges us to see “those people,” not as adversaries to defeat (though we can certainly vote against them and prevent their abuse of power), but as part of the fabric of humanity whose basic needs should be recognized. We are all part of the same circle. We can protect everyone’s right to freedom of speech, while protecting the internet from manufactured misinformation that is algorithmically disseminated to trigger people's fears for the sake of corporate profit. We can champion our highest principles, while remembering that it is positions, not people, that we oppose. And when their or our positions are fueled by fear, maybe we can build our empathy and look for more creative ways to assuage the fear than trying to solve the problem simply by crushing the opposition.
Conflicts are an inevitable part of our human life together. And differences of opinion may be an inevitable part of our holiday family gatherings. But if we hold those conflicts and differences within an inner space of understanding and wholeness, we can create the space where the threads of our torn society can find each other, touch, and even connect. Then we might not think, “What’s wrong with those people,” but rather, “What’s been wrong with us that we haven’t recognized each other’s humanity and each other’s place in our complex, conflicted world?” Truly, isn’t that the only way to help our society evolve?