THE BLOG
12/24/2014 06:23 pm ET Updated Feb 23, 2015

Tribal America: How Do We Bridge the Gap Between 'Us' and 'Them'?

Within hours of the grand jury decisions in Ferguson and Staten Island, protests erupted across America. Sometimes peaceful, sometimes violent, they brought the issue of race and policing to the front burner once again. The heat has now ignited a man who assassinated two New York police officers in a fit of calculated retaliation. The peaceful protesters condemned those murders. The police condemned the protesters, and both condemn politicians. Welcome to tribal America.

In his provocative book, Moral Tribes, Joshua Greene argues that morality evolved to solve the problem of fighting among those who had to cooperate in order to survive. Shared moral rules were evolution's way of keeping "you" and "me" from mutual destructiveness. "You" and "me" became "we" in service to our shared needs. But when other groups showed up, "we" became "us," a tribe opposed to "them." Violence and destruction too often followed, and we still search for a shared morality that works across tribes.

Tribes today can be close geographically as well as virtually, aided in both cases by social media. Common values, customs and ways of thinking bind each "us" and separate it from "them." Widely dispersed Americans angry at racial injustice form a tribe, as do strong supporters of law enforcement - no matter where any of them live.

Tribes can be helpful or harmful, depending on whether their members work to bridge the "us-them" divide or deepen it. Unfortunately, what we are seeing as police and protesters square off is unproductive.

Ferguson and New York are brush strokes on a wider canvass of tribal behavior in America. On a host of social, political, economic, environmental, and educational issues, tribes abound. Like-minded people find each other and push their agendas. To a point, that is both appropriate and useful as well as consistent with American republican government. But when it goes too far, as it does on many issues, it frays the fabric of the very society it aims to fix. When protestors loot and burn, when an angry man kills police officers, when a mayor tries to distance himself from the police, when police officers turn their back on the mayor, when a former mayor blames the president, and when the chief of police tells the mayor he has blood on his hands, what good is served?

We rightly condemn destructive tribal behavior in places as far flung as the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe. Why don't we recognize and restrain it at home? If we want to cure our country, it's time for tribes - and those who wish to lead them - to have the courage to act differently.

Tribes need to listen. This means managing their emotions and practicing the art of dialogue. Listening (not talking) and understanding (not necessarily accepting) the values and views of others helps set angry advocacy aside. Such a respectful, open stance humanizes "them" as well as "us." When people listen to "them," it tells them that they have been heard. Until this happens in Ferguson and New York, where most people in both tribes still claim they have not been heard, collaborative solutions will be elusive.

Tribes need to learn. Their tendency is insular - to see from the vantage point of their own biases. They defend and rationalize rather than explore their core assumptions. They get information by cherry picking from sources that are "trusted" because they agree with tribal views. They have an ax to grind, but axes cut things down rather than build them up. Protesters need to learn what the police fear and understand how many are killed or injured in the line of duty. Police need to understand what a black man feels when a police officer approaches and how to alter their own behavior during those encounters. When tribes embrace learning, their views (and then their actions) will change.

Tribes need to focus on the purposes they share with other tribes. Citizens and police both want safe streets and communities. But right now, they are dug in around their positions - what they demand from others, not what they can do for each other and by working together.

Tribes need leadership - from within and without - that does not seek personal gain by showing how much anger they share but seeks to bridge the chasm between them and other tribes. Where is the protest leadership that asks its tribe to calm down, respect the great bulk of police who are doing their best under trying circumstances, and offers solutions that demonstrate not only their own needs but the rightful demands of others? Where are the police chiefs and mayors who are willing to acknowledge and admit that they sometimes make terrible mistakes, that they can and must do better, and that they are asking their communities for constructive suggestions?

Tribes also need supportive politicians and media. The former have been too quick to take sides and inflame. The latter have been too willing to hype the conflict. What percentage of news stories on the events since Michael Brown's death have focused on those seeking to foster better police-citizen cooperation and understanding? How much coverage have the media given to quiet healers as opposed to those whose anger makes a more enticing sound bite?

We will soon celebrate the birthday and life of Martin Luther King, Jr. Tribal behavior was rampant in his day as well, but King was a "crossover" figure. He urged his followers to love their opponents, and his goal went beyond desegregation to a universal brotherhood. Police and protestors today could learn a lot from this man, for whom there was only one tribe, the tribe of humanity.