More on tribalism and brand loyalty in public discourse
I got some great comments on the previous post and I wanted to dig a bit deeper on this. One comment from Dane questioned the superficiality of seeing disagreements on serious issues in terms of what you might call brand loyalty. This is really important.
What I'm talking about is this: two people who are arguing about Coke versus Pepsi are really arguing about a topic about which they have deep agreement. They both really care about cola. They both like cola. They just like different varieties of cola. So why is the conversation about what's different, rather than what they have in common?
Look at how this plays out in the political sphere. Take Bernie vs. Hillary. It's been nearly two years since the election, and I still see these really heartfelt posts from people who are still angry about what happened, who can't let it go, and who want satisfaction.
And there are certainly differences between the political views of Hillary and the political views of Bernie and Alexandria. But the people who are having these really heartfelt, painful fights with each other are much more the same than they are different. The core issues are issues that they really agree on. Yes, there are serious differences, but these are people who agree on many, many important issues, and whose disagreements are on things that are much less important, not only to the world, but to them.
So why are they arguing? Two reasons. First, they are in pain, and what happened in 2016 was profoundly invalidating. Seeing your hopes of the first woman president in U.S. history dashed is really hard. Seeing your hopes of the first progressive president in our lifetimes dashes is really hard too. And so on both sides, there's a feeling of injustice, and that feeling creates a need for comfort and validation.
The other reason? Because they see each other as being on opposite sides. And so they see the differences in what they believe in, not the similarities. When they argue, they don't talk about what they agree on: they talk about what they disagree about. And by communicating in this way, both sides drive each other farther and farther apart. They don't get the validation they are seeking, so that need goes unmet. And because they are divided, they also don't get what they really want, which is a decent government.
I use the Bernie versus Hillary divide because it's so obviously broken, but I've also talked to people who voted for Trump. It frustrates the hell out of me that they did it, but when I talk to them about core values, again, we have many more core values in common than we have values on which we differ.
By focusing on where we differ and not on where we agree, we get the impression that the world is a terrible place, full of really bad people. I mean, honestly, if Trump is the next Hitler, who would have voted for him? Nazis, of course. If Hillary is a crooked politician, who would have voted for her? Evil people. Bernie's a funny one—he's hard to hate. But there's still the story of the Bernie Bros and their misogyny and crypto-racism. What all these stories have in common is that they are Coke versus Pepsi, not cola. They focus on surface appearance and generalization, not on core beliefs and values.
This doesn't mean that there aren't bad people out there. But by and large, the people who voted in the election aren't bad people, and the people who didn't vote aren't bad people either. If we want to do better, we need to find what we have in common, not look for ways to stay divided.
What does this have to do with meditation? First of all, one of the basic tenets of the Buddhist practice of virtue is avoiding divisive speech, lying, gossip and harsh words. These are four of the "ten bad deeds," sort of the Buddhist equivalent of the Ten Commandments.
Why are these basic tenets of Buddhism? Simply because they don't work. They produce the opposite of what you want. They create turmoil where there could otherwise be peace. They drive us apart instead of bringing us together. They waste our time talking about things that don't matter, which prevents us from talking about what does matter.
And what does this have to do with meditation? First of all, the more time you spend doing the ten bad deeds, the more turmoil there will be in your mind. Being angry at people, treating people with contempt, creates echoes that reverberate in your mind. These feelings follow you to the cushion.
The more turmoil there is in your mind, the harder it is to reach a deep peace in meditation. It's not impossible, but it takes a lot longer. Where someone who practices virtue well might sit down and immediately feel at peace, and just get to the practice, someone who is in great internal turmoil might sit for an hour and only have five minutes of peace at the end.
And of course, there is another other side to this. If you manage to sit down and reach that deep peace, then when you get up off the cushion, you feel kind of stupid for having gotten into those arguments. This is really great: it weakens the habit. After a while, you start to notice that you're engaging in self-defeating arguments over Coke and Pepsi while it's happening, instead of later on, on the cushion.
So meditation and the practice of virtue feed each other. You don't practice virtue so that people will admire you. You do it because you can see that not doing it is causing you pain. And the more you do the practice of virtue, the deeper your meditation gets. It's a really wonderful feedback loop.