Crushing Our Better Angels: How Tribalism & Self-Identity Force Us to Support Penn State, Herman Cain and Rick Perry
My first love, as a kid, was baseball. No, strike that, that’s not quite right.
My first love, as a kid, was the Los Angeles Dodgers.
I grew up in what was to be the last generation of sports teams that were controlled entirely by owners, before the player-rich days of free agency. So the Dodger players I started rooting for in the elementary school were still on the team when I was transitioning to junior high and high school. I can still recite the entire lineup of the Dodger team I grew up with with ease; I can recall it more easily than I can the names of all my college roommates. The entire infield, which featured such greats as Ron Cey, Davy Lopes and Bill Russell played together for almost nine years. But as great as all those Dodger infielders were, my hero was first baseman Steve Garvey.
In retrospect, my devotion to Garvey was based on little more than random chance. Our next-door neighbor had taken me to a sparsely attended game one summer afternoon, and we were sitting in the front row near first base. At one point Garvey caught a pop fly to end the inning, and on his way to the dugout made eye contact and held his hand up to give me a high five. I was in the fifth grade. At that point he could have been the worst hitter in major league history and I would have still followed him to the ends of the Earth.
One of the things about Garvey that made him a great sports icon for LA kids was his squeaky clean image. Hell, his nickname was Mr. Clean. The degree to which he loved and cherished his wife was a constant message he sent to his fans; his marriage seemed more important to him than his MVP trophy or batting stats. As I grew up and started to become a budding cynic, this just made me cherish Garvey more. As pro athletes in the late seventies and early eighties began to look like spoiled, overpaid, unfaithful cokeheads, having chosen Mr. Clean as my childhood hero became more than just a fan’s choice; it became part of my personal identity.
By 1983 I was living far from Los Angeles, in a city that had (and still has) no interest in baseball. This was before the days of MLB on ESPN, so by the time Garvey’s image started to unravel it had been a couple of years since I had watched a non-World Series baseball game. And unravel his reputation did. There were accusations of infidelity, followed by signs that the infidelity was wide spread and over his entire marriage, followed by claims that he had actually fathered children with multiple women and then abandoned them to fend for themselves. I refused to believe any of it, of course. And the more facts bubbled to the surface that irrefutably showed Garvey’s image was a fictional creation for business and PR reasons, the more my conviction that he was being hunted by opportunistic hussies grew.
Steve Garvey, as it turned out, was actually one of the worst, most manipulative human beings ever to play professional sports. And in 1983 – after having seen all the evidence that this was so – I would have defended him with my dying breath.
I’ve been thinking about Garvey a lot this week. More to the point, I’ve been thinking about my relationship with him: How I defended him even after deep down I knew he was rotten. How I chose to internally demonize the women and children he victimized rather than admit I had backed the wrong horse. How I had let the image of a guy that I had never actually even met become so deeply ingrained in my own self-identity, to the point where a blemish on Steve was a blemish on me.
Over the past week I’ve been feeling this tug in the back of my brain that the Cain and Clinton scandals, the shocking revelations from Penn State, and Perry’s cronyism were all the same thing. Which is of course ridiculous. They’re not, obviously; they’re not even close. Cronyism is horrid of course, but it isn’t quid pro quo sexual harassment, which in turn isn’t the raping of a child. Remembering my own journey with Garvey, though, it finally hit me what the common thread that was tickling my brain was. It isn’t that Herman Cain, Bill Clinton, Joe Paterno, Rick Perry, or for that matter Steve Garvey are the same.
It’s that we, their followers, are.
Part of what makes tribalism so hard to shake is that it is so deeply ingrained with the stories that we tell ourselves – not only of what the world around us is, but also of who we ourselves are. As Ryan stated so well, institutions such as political parties and colleges “are explicitly trading on an image and your or our membership in or ownership of that image.” It is what makes these institutions so powerful.
The common narrative today is that we have lost all faith in our institutions. This is wrong, of course. We have simply lost faith in those institutions that most bind us together as one, such as being a citizen or a local newspaper that everyone in town reads. Instead, we’ve doubled down on those institutions that allow us to believe we are better than our neighbors. GOP, DNC, Tea Parties, Occupy Wall Street, alma maters, libertarianism, even churches whose primary message is that We Are The Good and The Others Will Burn are all on the rise these days. What all of these institutions have in common is that they stroke the very core of our ego. Stick with us, they say, because by being one of us you will be a fundamentally better person than your neighbor.
And so we join up, and by doing so are rewarded with constant reassurance that despite whatever our shortcomings may be, We are better, smarter, and more pure than Them. It’s hard for a message that powerful and self-affirming not to become a cornerstone of our self-identity. And in many ways, this message creates positive outcomes for us. Feeling like you have a grip on life is no small part of being successful in it. If nothing else, it allows us to feel part of a community in these days of everything and everyone being so plugged in and divergent.
The problem is that we humans will go to great lengths of denial to preserve our own self-identity. And if we have allowed our self-identity to be wrapped up in the success of people we have never met, we tend to close our eyes, cover our ears and go “LALALALALA” when those people slip and fail us.
The ever-breaking news at Penn State is an example of the very worst way this phenomenon can play itself out. It will be a long time, if ever, before all the details finally come out. But it certainly appears that someone in the University’s athletic department has been sexually abusing children over a prolonged period of time. Worse, it appears that to an as-of-yet-unknown degree the department and the University have been aware of this, and have chosen to look the other way. There are probably many reasons for this; read the previously mentioned post by Ryan or this post by Erik (both excellent) on how and why these things can and do occur in institutions. What I find myself staring at in wonder today, however, is the reaction by students and alumni to the various firings the University’s trustees felt they needed to execute to protect the organization’s central mission.
By now probably everyone knows that students at Penn State rioted last night, overturning a news van. Depressingly, they were not rioting over the fact that these horrific crimes had been allowed to take place, but rather that people they looked to as Heroes of their Tribe were being held accountable. In his post Ryan voiced his hope that those students “wake up this morning and think pretty seriously about the message they sent.” I second his hope; I also know they won’t. The best we can hope for, I think, is that they look back sometime in the future with a clearer head. The same can be said of Penn State’s grown-up alumni, who appear to be taking to the Internet and talk radio stations this morning to savage the Trustees, lashing out the same message with words what their younger counterparts did with actions last night.
When you see these kinds of reactions in the face of such a horrific crime, it’s easy to see how this tribalism-based denial can lead to the circumstances that allowed the crimes to occur in the first place. In his book Losing My Religion, William Lobdell writes about his experience covering a local Catholic Church child abuse scandal for the LA Times. One of the most fascinating – and terrifying – parts of his account is the meetings of parishioners once the Church had confirmed that the abuse had happened, that it had been going on for a long time, and that the Church leaders had known and hidden it from the congregation. (In fact, if I recall correctly, the abuser was sent to their church after having been caught abusing children in his previous church.) The outraged parents rose up – but not how you might think. The people they blamed for the travesty were not the leaders of the church, or even the priest that abused their children – who was quite popular. Instead, they blamed the media. Given the choice between crucifying the reporters who were writing about a very serious crime or getting rid of a priest that betrayed their community in the worst way possible, they rallied around the priest.
I saw the very same dynamic with Democrats, those self-proclaimed protectors of women’s rights, and Clinton. And I see the exact same thing happening right now with the GOP.
I watched the Republican debate last night, of course. The image of Perry floundering – so wrenching to see in real time – felt like it should have been the lasting image as I lay in bed. Instead, the moment I kept going back to was Herman Cain being asked about the accusations against him. The audience booed the media for covering the scandal, and when Cain casually dismissed the alleged victims he received the loudest, most heart-felt and raucous cheer of the entire evening. Which, as an outside observer, is utterly bizarre.
Not that a recap is needed, but at each stage of this scandal breaking Cain has been caught in a lie. First he swore he have never been formally accused by anyone, ever. Then he claimed that he had been accused but had not known the outcome – yet still somehow knew no money had been paid out. Then he admitted there had been money paid out, but he had no idea how much. Then he admitted to having known that they got a very, very small amount. Then he bizarrely told his followers that there were going to be more of these allegations coming to light, and that they should ignore them. The Republicans have rallied around him every step of the way, telling themselves that each new story from Cain is the God’s truth, and then quickly forgetting that the story they clung to even existed when it was shown to be a fabrication.
This has little to do with how much people like Herman Cain. Most of those defending him didn’t even know who he was until recently. Rather, on some level an attack on Cain’s integrity is an attack on each person’s own self-identity. These people would never sexually assault a woman, nor would they approve of anyone doing so. So when faced with evidence that they are enthusiastically supporting a candidate who may have in fact done just that, it is simply easier to create a blind spot that allows the evidence to have never existed.
Perry’s cronyism is a far less serious breach of trust than those discussed above, but the same dynamic plays out in his followers. I bring it up only because it was also discussed briefly and then swept under the rug by the GOP faithful last night, and because I think it acts as a great microcosm of party politics. As has been much reported,
much of Texas’s recent economic successes have come from massive government spending and the cheap cost of illegal immigration. [Edit: See update below.] As Erik reported last August, Perry also has a history of trading large donations to Perry for much, much larger awards of taxpayer money.
In theory, this should make Perry a pariah of the right wing; the GOP faithful should have booed him off stage last night. Instead, he was cheered every time he talked about being anti-government spending, or how passionately he fought against crony capitalism. My first reaction, last night, was that the rank and file Republicans clearly don’t care about either subject. But in the cold light of this morning, I’m not so sure. Instead, I think the tribalism that allows Cain to get a pass for being a class-A creep and Penn State students and alumni to think of themselves as media victims allows Perry to be cheered for being a government spending crony capitalist.
Republicans already have a lot of their self-identity wrapped up in their image of Perry being a straight shooting, anti-Government man of God. Facts to the contrary get filtered out quickly, usually discarded as some kind of nefarious media plot. Given the choice between holding Perry accountable or thinking better of themselves, they choose the latter. Not, and I want to be very clear about this, because they are Republicans. Because they are human.
Clearly, this kind of tribalism is destructive. It keeps us from getting to the best solutions for our children, our country and ourselves. Worse, it forces us to become champions of the very things we most despise, things such as child abuse, sexual harassment and crony capitalism. So what, then, is the answer?
There is no easy answer, of course – or if there is I have no idea what it might be. The best I can manage is two very small pieces of advice to people of all political, religious and alma mater stripes.
The first is to always be willing to take a step back and audit your beliefs. When someone you are supporting is being “unfairly crucified” by FOX or the lame stream media, take a step back and ask yourself: If this was happening to the other tribe’s team, how would I be reacting right now? If the honest answer is anything other than “the same,” it might be wise to go back through all of the facts you had previously dismissed to see if perhaps you’ve let yourself miss something. More important, though, is this:
Be an advocate for what your tribe stands for, not an advocate for your tribe.
I simply don’t believe that there aren’t a ton of Republicans out there that are very disturbed by what has transpired with Herman Cain this week. Similarly, I am sure there are more than a few (maybe a large majority?) of Penn State students and alum that know that people have to be held accountable for their school’s horrible scandal. And since it is my understanding that a lot of Rick Perry’s own GOP brethren actually can’t stand the guy, I am very certain that there are a lot of Republicans that pay close attention to his cronyism.
These people need to speak up; not to the world at large, but to the members of their tribe. I’m not a Republican, so I can point to the myriad of things that don’t add up about Cain’s denials all day long and it’s going to fall on deaf ears. The same way, not incidentally, that Democrats shrugged off all evidence of Clinton’s pattern of sexual harassment fifteen years ago. People don’t listen to those outside their tribe when their self-identity is on the line. But they might be open to peeking at reality when it’s being presented by one of their own.
These two bits of advice aren’t much, I’ll be the first to admit. But they’re a start.
UPDATE: Glen Reynolds unpacks a bit of what I was discussing here from the other end, and says two things that are 100% spot on, and deserve a voice here:
“See, though, the thing about tribalism is that it often works. The reason why people are hardwired for tribalism is that our predecessors who didn’t have those instincts were wiped out by the people who did. That doesn’t mean that tribalism is necessarily good of course, any more than other hardwired instincts are necessarily good. But it’s not just an example of stupidity. It’s there for a reason.
Note, too, that people who purport to decry tribalism are often just engaging in propaganda on behalf of their own tribe.”
UPDATE II: The claims I cited that Perry had used government growth to stimulate the economy, widely reported in the late Summer, turn out are not correct; it appears they are based on real but lying statistics. Factcheck.org can explain this better than I here. I was, in short, very wrong. Thanks to reba for emailing me this link. Apologies to readers, and to Perry.