Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Accentuate the Positive (Tribalism)

People dress and groom themselves for their own social group.   Accents are a prime example of how we identify ourselves to our own group or tribe.

Traveling in Western Georgia, it isn't hard for the locals to tell "you ain't from around here arya, boy?" as we talk with what we think of as a "normal" accent - the sort of midwestern flat nasal voice favored by television anchors.    But in the South, of course, people have accents, and after a while, you can fine-tune your ear to tell if someone is from Georgia (and what part of it) or North or South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, or Florida.    Throughout the United States, people have accents, from the thick South Boston to the laid-back Californian.   And the question of course, is why?

In this day and age of global communications, one wonders why there are different languages at all - although English seems to dominate international commerce, aviation, the Internet, and so on.   The 26-character keyboard, at first, forced a lot of people to accept English, but of course, technology has changed that to some extent.

But people living in the South or South Boston (both can be racist, guess which one is more?) must realize that they have an accent when they watch television and realize that few, if any, people on the telly speak as they do.   Does this go right over their heads?  Or do they just assume those "other people" on TeeVee talk funny, much as many movie stars adopted the "mid-Atlantic" accent in the 1930's - that sounded patrician and elegant, even if it was largely made-up.

The answer, of course, is tribalism.   It is easily possible to detect someone who "ain't from around here" by their accent, dress, mannerisms, and whatnot.   And that's the whole point - to be able to readily distinguish between "us" and "them" from a distance.  It goes back to our caveman ancestors, who needed to know who was a friend and who was a potential enemy.

Today, of course, there is less a need for this sort of thing, right?  Or is there?  Maybe today, people feel more threatened than before by "outside forces" or migrants, or people who think differently than they do.  Maybe these tribal markings are now deemed more important than ever - to paper-over the idea that fundamentally, we are all human beings.

So we travel to this gay campground to test out the modifications we made to the camper (already!) which I will do a video of soon.  There, we are confronted with more tribalism - and tribes as alien to us as those in Western Georgia - home of dry counties, Baptists, and covert Klansmen (but not as many as you might think).   Here, there is a distinct demarcation between generations and classes.  The younger gays (under 50) all have tattoos, for example - but that is just an age thing, I think.   The older folks (such as ourselves) are plain-skinned, and dress pretty conservatively (and cheaply).   The city gays, it is a whole 'nuther deal.

We too, were once mocked for wearing our country fashions.

We once visited a friend in Atlanta (pronounced without the t's or at least without the second one) and was mocked by our host (and friend, or so we thought) for wearing our country fashions.  "No one wears pleated shorts anymore!" he cried - which explains, I guess, why we got them so cheaply at the thrift store.  He was aghast that we wore used clothing and what's more, didn't have a designer label on it.   We don't hang out with him anymore.  Shallow people have shallow values.

But the same was true at the campground.  The younger generation from the city spent a lot of time and money on wardrobe and grooming - sometimes with mixed results.   Yes, there is such as thing as too gay.  One fellow had blue hair.  Another had his tied with a rubber scrunchie into a flowering top-knot like Pebbles Flintstone.   I am not sure why.   It was a "look" - just not a good look.

What was clear, however, was that we were not one of them and they were not one of us, even though we got along (Thank God for young men with "Daddy issues" - just kidding).   In fact, it is one place where people seem to be able to reach across these tribal divides of age, gender, race, and whatnot and get along, at least nominally.

It is also interesting to see how these cultural tags can overlap. For example, a young man with purple dyed hair, piercing and tattoos, wearing clothing that you can't find in regular stores, is exuding gayness.  But then he opens his mouth and exudes a rural Georgia accent.   The combination can be jarring.  So it is possible to belong to two tribes at once - or at least carry the markings of both.  Not sure if this works for street gangs, though - you can't be both a Crip and a Blood.

I am not sure where I am going with this, only that it seems tribalism is growing in our world, not receding.  If you look at the images from 50 years ago, you see that the dress and behavior of people was much more toward a common norm.   Martin Luther King and Malcom X wore a suit and tie - as did most people of the era.  We all wanted to be part of the same social group.  We wanted in, not out, and "do your own thing" only came later, when we assumed the costumes and trappings of the roles we chose to play.

Back then, a Republican and a Democrat looked the same, at least on the outside.  Today, it isn't hard to tell one from the other.  People even have costumes to wear - read MAGA hats or various flags and stickers affixed to their vehicles.  It seems that politics and religion are more a core of our identity than ever before - as opposed to merely a brand we chose, as it seemed back in the day.

Or maybe this tribalism has always been with us, and is just more noticeable now.  Now that we are a global village, with television and the Internet, maybe we need to cling to these tribal values more than ever, to differentiate ourselves from one another.

Maybe that is a good thing, maybe not.  It does tend to make one feel "different" and apart from other tribes, however, whether you are wearing the costume of one tribe or not wearing a costume at all (or so you think).  When people posit themselves as "other" and different from society, it is easier for society to marginalize them.  It is a lot harder to persecute or abuse someone you view as just like you and thus you.  It is a lot easier, however, to annihilate a group of people you can characterize as other or perhaps even as less-than-human, as history suggests.

So that's maybe where I am going with this.  As I saw these displays of tribalism, something in me worried that perhaps making yourself too far outside the norm could backfire in a big way.  It is one thing to push the edges of society, another thing to be separate from it, entirely.

Just a thought.