Over the past forty years Americans have increasingly sorted themselves into communities of closely like-minded people: churches, volunteer groups, clubs, lobbies, and political parties. The result is a polarization that has transformed our historic preference for civil discourse into a vast echo chamber of hostile assault.
We desperately need leaders who are persuadable, and can help challenge others in their own tribe.
As far back as we know, people have belonged to tribes. This is how the human race survived; our tribes protect us, provide stability and predictability within community, and help us interpret reality. It’s why we tend to be a part of tribes today.
We didn’t consciously choose many of our tribe’s beliefs and positions. We adopted those beliefs, not through careful analysis, but mainly because it was normal and acceptable within our tribe. To illustrate, I grew up in North Carolina where collegiate basketball stars like Larry Miller, Charlie Scott, and Eddie Biedenbach were idolized. Many people from other tribes don’t seem to understand my “Tobacco Road” tribe, but my conformity toward our shared beliefs led to feelings of attachment and solidarity within our members. This is a good thing.
Of course this conformity becomes problematic when it causes tribe members to develop more important beliefs without evaluating the reasons. And that’s not all. When everyone in the tribe shares the same beliefs, discussions and debates are often one-sided. So people in tribes, if left unchecked, can develop the perception that their views are the only ones that can possibly be true.
According to journalist Bill Bishop, Americans are sorting themselves into ever more tightly-knitted tribes to a staggering degree. In 1976, less than 25 percent of the US population lived in places where the presidential election was a landslide. By 2004, nearly half of all voters lived in landslide counties. And the trend seems to be growing. Bishop calls this an “epidemic of homophily.”
When this happens, it’s not likely that tribe members will listen to people of other tribes with whom they disagree. However, they will tend to listen to fellow members of their own tribe.
For such a time as this, the most powerful thing a leader can do is to listen to those with whom we disagree, adjust our perspectives for valid reasons, and help convince others similar to ourselves. We’re sorely in need of leaders who are courageously persuadable and persuading.
For the highest human ideal is to know the truth, because the truth will set us free.