The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


April 22, 2014

Herb Van Fleet, columnist: How would you save a drowning man?

TULSA, Okla. — I recently recalled an old joke about how to tell a Republican from a Democrat. It goes like this: There is a drowning man 100 feet off shore. The Republican would throw the man 50 feet of rope and make him swim half way to safety. But the Democrat would throw the man 200 feet of rope so he would have more than enough to save himself.

Of course, this little joke could be expanded to include other groups. For example, the difference between liberals and libertarians is that the liberal would go to a bank, borrow money, buy a boat to go out and rescue the man, then forget to repay the loan. The libertarian would just send him some materials so he could make his own rope.

As between a capitalist and an environmentalist, the capitalist would save the man, then send him a bill for doing it. The environmentalist, having few resources, would ask others for help. But not being able to see the drowning man, the others think the environmentalist is just making the whole thing up to get another government grant.

I could go on, but you clever devils can make up your own satirical jibes.

The point is that we tend to think of certain characteristics of a particular group and the stereotypical behavior of the group’s members when we envision a particular entity. But instead of calling them groups, or parties, or organizations, or unions, or associations, I’m just calling them “tribes.”

Of course, we are members of lots of different tribes, including our family, our community, our nation, our political affiliations, our religious institutions, our fellow workers, our classmates, and the list goes on.

Even so, today’s tribalism is much like it was back in the Paleolithic era. Tribes are protective of their own, and suspicious of outsiders. This tribal loyalty gives rise to the mistrust of others, sometimes intolerance, and even war. Our identity, our history, our values, are all derived from our tribe.

We will fight for our tribe, conform to its beliefs, become invested in its world view. But we are social animals and we have evolved to depend on our tribes for safety and survival. So the success of any tribe thriving depends on cooperation and coordination — the Golden Rule.

All of these factors create an emotional investment in our tribe and we are not apt to criticize or challenge it, much less think about it. Interaction with members of other tribes is often limited by misperceptions and biases without regard for objectivity. The messenger is shot before the message is even heard. Critical thinking is checked at the door.

But this allegiance sometimes drives our behavior beyond reason, resulting in irrational acts and even immorality. Racism that lets us feel that our tribe is better than theirs, religions that create zealots who fly planes into tall buildings, politicians who ferment divisiveness, the denial of evolution or other basic scientific truths when they challenge tribal beliefs, are all examples.

Tribalism is powerful and pervasive. It is an inherent part of who we are as human beings and an imperative for our survival. In fact, it is our own tribe that informs our decision-making and the choices we make in life.

Of course, we’re not in the Paleolithic era any more. We’ve stopped hunting and gathering and learned to domesticate plants and animals. We’ve moved out of the caves and into three bedroom homes. We’ve traded out spears for nuclear bombs.

But technology has not replaced tribalism. Those fundamental characteristics of the tribe are deeply rooted; they are in our genes. You can see that fact play out every day in your own life, and in every report from the news media.

Maybe if we got out of our bubbles, climbed out of our boxes, took a little risk, and considered what good other tribes are doing, there might be some common ground, a common cause, that would help propel each tribe forward to the benefit of all tribes. Something, anything, that would help put the civil back in civilization. We shouldn’t have to wait for another terrorist bombing, or a massive hurricane, or a life-threatening fire to rally in support of each other.

So the question is, how can we use the best attributes of our own tribe and join with other tribes to coordinate, to cooperate, to save the drowning man — or more importantly, to keep him from drowning in the first place?

HERB VAN FLEET, a former Joplin resident, lives in Tulsa, Okla. Contact him at

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