Miles Law: “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” — Miles, of course (first name Rufus), and thanks to Phil (last name withheld) for bringing it to our attention.
When I was a kid, my brother Mike and I were playing Cowboys and Indians one day. Another kid shot brother Mike, who went down with a convincing death scene.
So convincing that Mr. Peepers, our loyal half sheep dog and half lots of other breeds sank his teeth into the shooter’s ankle.
Mr. Peepers understood something profound. It starts here: We knew who the good and bad guys were without having ever once met either a cowboy or a Native American, just as when we played Cops and Robbers.
Mr. Peepers understood who the good and bad guys were, too, only his perspective had nothing to do with cowboys, Indians, cops, or robbers.
Happily, brother Mike’s killer didn’t end up with rabies, nor did any of us end up infected with animosity toward Native Americans, or, for that matter, toward robbers. But playing Cowboys and Indians probably did give each of us a bit of a cognitive hill to climb when the ’60s came along and exposed us to, in addition to the occasional doobie, a less one-sided view of who did what to whom in American history.
Back to Mr. Peepers.
As has been pointed out in this space from time to time, most of us, most of the time, divide the world into us and them. We are the source of all that’s good and right with the world, they cause everything and anything we dislike. That’s true whether we consider “us” (or them) to be: Democrats, Republicans, Unix jockeys, mainframe dinosaurs, scientists and engineers, pointy-haired bosses, whistleblowers, loyalists, mavericks, bureaucrats, ELCA Lutherans, Missouri Synod Lutherans, or …
You get the picture. Now paste in Mr. Peepers. As the rest of us divided into two tribes — cowboys and Indians — Mr. Peepers knew which tribe he belonged to, and it was neither of the above.
He was a Lewis.
We’ve talked about culture from time to time in this space, defining culture as how we do things around here.
Or perhaps it should be how WE do things around here, because how, and for that matter what we do around here is dictated by relentlessly enforcing peer pressure. Every affinity group has its own approved narratives, which means all of us … not most of us, all of us … are subject to starting our thinking about whatever issue floats into our view by matching it to one of these approved narratives.
The narrative supplies the logic. Evidence? We might find it interesting, but mostly to the extent it provides ammunition, not illumination.
Our thinking works this way whether we’re evaluating our employer’s decision to lay off staff due to COVID-19-driven revenue shortfalls or we’re deciding whether to wear face masks in public places.
And while there’s a glimmer of hope for developing a COVID-19 vaccine, there’s no such outlook for immunizing us from tribal thinking.
The best I can do is offer a palliative: Whatever the controversy at hand, join a non-combatant tribe and follow its narratives. Ideally it would be a tribe that has a legitimate stake in the subject and isn’t one of the major current combatants.
When I find myself falling into a tribal trap my go-to is trying to climb out of it by self-identifying with the tribe of engineers, where I define “engineer” as someone who, faced with a problem, sees it as something to solve, as opposed to non-engineers, who respond to problems with “Oh, no!”
But it depends on the situation: If the question at hand is, for example, the aforementioned round of layoffs I might instead choose the tribe of Bloomberg opinion-writer, where I’d be deeply interested — it is, after all, my beat — but not predisposed to a particular opinion as to whether any specific layoff decision is a good or bad idea.
The great thing about conscious tribal choice (should we make this an acronym? CTC?) is that we don’t have to pass any tests or otherwise get anyone’s approval to join.
In fact, this would defeat the whole purpose, which is to drain as much hero/villain thinking from our brains as possible.
Maybe we should all make one of our alternatives the canine clan.
Because I don’t remember whether Mike was a cowboy or Indian on that fated day, so I don’t know if his killer was a hero or a villain. Mr. Peepers, on the other paw, knew the killer wasn’t a Lewis.
That’s all he needed to know.