William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was required reading for me in high school. In addition to reading the book, we watched the movie and I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t emotionally scarred from some of the scenes in both the novel and the movie and the imprint they left on my mind.
The point of the book, it seemed to me at the time, was how quickly humanity digresses into chaos when a lack of structure and civility and law and order is in place. It also seemed to portray in startling clarity the deeply engrained scapegoat mentality we employ when looking to protect ourselves at the expense of someone else. (A moment of silence for Piggy.)
I’m looking at the book differently these days.
I am about halfway through Amy Chua’s book Political Tribes and I’ve tweeted about it, recommended it to friends and written down quotes from it. And because of it, I am starting to see another theme from Lord of the Flies, perhaps even more terrifying than what I first thought.
It’s the idea Chua has based most of her book on. The power of tribes. Of groups. Of us versus them. Of cultural/ethnic/racial/familial/ thinking and how neglecting to give proper attention to the power a shared identity within these groups offers, we will undoubtedly find ourselves in a precarious situation, no matter how civilized our country or our culture.
See, it might be that the boys on the stranded island didn’t just turn on Piggy because they lacked adult supervision, but because humans are evolutionarily wired to put ourselves into groups, and in doing so identify why our group is better and more superior to the other. Because it’s in us to find what links us to some and separates us from others. But we don’t just stop there. In extreme cases we elevate the positive qualities of our group, while dehumanizing those belonging to the other group. Our brains make chemicals creating an emotionally positive response when good things happen to those who are like “us” and also—let this sink in for a moment—when bad things happen to “them”.
Even worse, when we become so deeply involved in our group and tribal in our thinking, we lose the ability to accurately judge truth and untruth, right and wrong, facts and myths. We begin to behave in such a way that elevates the preservation of the group at all costs, even, at the expense of reason, perspective and sanity.
I read Lord of the Flies (and later in life watched the TV show Lost) and prayed to God I was never in a plane crash where I survived on a tiny swath of land in a huge expanse of water, for fear of what might happen to me and the others and our spiral into primitive survival.
But now, 20 years later, I’m worried I’ve feared the wrong thing. It wasn’t about the island or the boys or law. Because I live in a civilized country and culture and I’m starting to see a sort of Lord of the Flies-esque mentality take over in our religious groups and our political groups and every other highly charged tribe we are a part of. It has nothing to do with the island and everything to do with the delusions we allow ourselves to believe when part of powerful groupthink we can’t see our way out of.
Two weeks ago I wrote about the Southern Baptist Convention and the unwillingness of some in the denomination to call out the deeply embedded harmful thinking, believing and behaving that has surfaced in the treatment of women and their stories when coming forward about abuse. But the truth is, this isn’t simply a Southern Baptist problem.
And it’s not an Evangelical problem.
It’s not a Catholic problem.
Or a Republican problem.
Or a Democrat problem.
It’s a potential problem any time we so deeply associate ourselves with a group, so intrinsically align with a tribe, that we lose our perspective, we lose our North Star, we lose the plot, because we would rather the survival of our group than the survival of what’s right. Of the truth. Of justice. Of reason.
I think it’s gotten that bad. I think we are living in a deeply divided time and it is doing more than causing troublingly widening factions between us. It’s keeping us from seeing the humanity in the other, and the faults in ourselves.
And what makes it even more complicated is that no group starts out this misguided. That there is good in our groups and the causes our groups represent. I am a Christian. I believe so deeply in the message of Jesus. But I can’t be so aligned in Christian group think that I am unable to see the wrongs Christians commit—be that their involvement in the Crusades, their silence on slavery or their belittling and mistreatment of women. We are not called to throw ourselves on the blade for the sake of the group. We are not called to hurt or dehumanize or destroy the other, for the preservation of the group. We are called to causes and messages and higher ideals than that.
And sometimes that means we distance ourselves from the group because we realize the group itself has become more sacred than what the group represents. And by speaking out, it’s possible we might right the ship. But it’s likely we become the scapegoat. Like Piggy on the island of lost boys.
Amy Chua’s book is a sobering look at what we can become, what we are well on our way to becoming, not due to an evil in our cause, but a wiring in our DNA. We need people in all groups willing to speak up and speak out. Willing to risk alienation from the in group, for the sake of the humanity in the out group, willing to risk being martyred by our tribe, because we spoke a truth about them they didn’t want to hear.
Whatever your religion, whatever your politics, the danger is the same. Presently, some of our groups have wandered farther of the reservation than others. But none of us is exempt from finding ourselves here. And when we do, the question will be, what do we cherish more?
Our group identity or the cause our groups claim to represent? Because sometimes for the sake of the cause, you forsake the group. For some of us, in some groups, our time is up.
What will do?