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From This Perch: Seeing through a tribal lens

Got tribal lens?

What's that, you ask? It's the idea that most of us tend to fall into a variety of "tribes," or social divisions, that create tribal unity around things like sports, family, friends, religion, and of course, politics.

I refer to it as a lens because a lens can distort what is actually taking place right before our eyes.

Tribal lenses result from various influences that have affected our lives.

As the writer Anais Nin put it, "We don't see how things are, we see how we are."

Some examples of tribal lenses you may recognize:


I am a Green Bay Packer fan so call that my "Green and Gold" lens.

Star Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was injured back in mid-October while attempting a pass. Just after he had released the ball he was suspended in mid-air, only his right tip-toe touching turf. At that moment he was tackled by a 250 pound opponent. They fell toward the ground as one unit, the opponent's arms wrapped firmly around Rodgers. When they landed, the full weight of the opponent landed on Rodgers. Viewing the play through my Packers lens, the opponent intentionally drove Rodgers to the ground.

Broken collarbone = end of play-off hopes for Packers.

As I watched all of this, I couldn't believe a flag was not thrown by the refs. Oh well, I thought, just wait a few days when the League reviews the play and fines the other guy ... a guy wearing the color purple, of all things!

But the League didn't do anything either.

So through my Packer lens, everyone with the responsibility to fix this injustice "just didn't get it."

A few days later I spoke with a good friend who is a fan of that opposing team. Viewing that play through his purple tribal lens, he was amazed that I was upset. "Hey, it's football man!" He saw nothing wrong with the play at all, and teased me for getting so upset. "Maybe you've gotten too soft for the game," he said with a laugh.

As Charlie Brown would say: "AAUGH!"

But the thing is, I can't be objective because my Packer tribal lens is too strong. Everything I see through it is distorted.

In theory at least, the only people trying not to see things through a distorting lens were the refs, who did not throw a flag, and the League honchos, who did not issue a fine.


When my religious tribal lens is so strong that I believe my spiritual orientation is the one and only way and that anybody who doesn't line up with my religion is a lesser human being, problems surface.

This kind of thinking has given us radical Islam. Radical because it strays from the original intent of the religion.

This tribal religious lens has also given us radical Christianity. Like in Alabama, where 70-year-old Senate candidate Roy Moore is accused of having sexually pursued a number of teenage girls back when he was a 32-year-old prosecutor.

One of the girls was 14 at the time she says Mr. Moore initiated sexual activity with her.

Mr. Moore denies the allegations.

Coming to his defense was Alabama's state auditor, Jim Ziegler. He observed that even if the allegations are completely true, it was much ado about very little.

"Take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus," Mr. Ziegler said.

For my money, that's a tribal lens so strong that it has caused moral blindness.


A news event occurs and by the time the dust settles, those of us with a tribal lens ("Blue" lens, "Red" lens) can see that single event in vastly different ways. Like an eye doc dialing up a phoropter, many of us dial up a tribal lens in the form of a news source that allows us to interpret news events in a way that fits our pre-existing political view.

I'm referring to the echo-chambers we live with today. TV, radio, newspapers, internet sources. You name it, we have available to us a distorting lens that fits our particular tribal view.

If a person wants to take in the news without a tribal lens, what to do?

It takes some effort, but I'm pretty sure we are each capable of keeping a watch out for our distorting partisan lens—even if just for awhile. And when we see that it's at work, we then have the opportunity to more openly examine the political issues of the day. Maybe we can then allow new information to come in, guided by a spirit of curiosity.

Why go to this trouble? I think it's about vigilance: keeping a careful watch on our fragile democracy. Without that, the freedoms we tend to take for granted are jeopardized.

Thomas Jefferson said "Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom." (I don't know if he actually said it; it's been attributed to others, but it accurately describes our responsibility as citizen-stewards.)

I have an idea on how to get started with some vigilance practice. For a few days or even a week or two, go on what Dr. Andrew Weil calls a "news fast": Opting out of watching the news on television, listening to it on the radio, reading newspapers, or following the news on the Internet.

You could treat it as a sort of cleanse. Good for the brain, really good for the nervous system, and when the fast is over, it's a way to begin the practice of taking in the news free from a distorting lens and instead as a vigilant steward of our country's experiment in self-government.

And that's all our fragile democracy is — an experiment.