On Loyalty to Our Tribe

I’m thinking about sports teams, and loyalties to them. Imagine a Philadelphia Eagles fan and a Pittsburgh Steelers fan talking about football. Imagine them trying to convince each other that their own team is the best team in the NFL. That debate would go nowhere. If beer were involved, it might just turn nasty or even violent. But even if it remained civil and cordial, neither fan would ever, ever convince the other to change their mind. Ever. Because that’s not the way sports works. We don’t rationally choose what team to root for. Often it’s because we live in the “territory” of a certain team. Or maybe there’s a certain “ethos” or “personality” to a certain team that we just love. Or it’s something passed down in the family. We just like the teams we do, and we develop a loyalty to those teams. And those teams are #1 to us, no matter what they do. No matter what anyone says. Sure, some people change sports team loyalty in their lives, but I’d be quite surprised if that’s because someone else laid out a rational case that convinced them. It just doesn’t work like that. Sports teams are about loyalty. That’s part of what makes it fun. That’s how we can get so worked up, scream at the television, refer to teams as “we,” as though we as fans had anything at all to do with a play.

I can remember the very first time I met someone from Canada. It was Saturday, October 23, 1993. How do I remember that date? I don’t. But I distinctly remember that it was the date of Game 6 of the World Series, and google helped me find the date. I remember that a group of college friends were bowling, and someone had a friend who lived in Toronto. It was a very uncomfortable evening, because we were watching the game while we bowled. We saw the ninth inning. That was the inning that Philadelphia Phillies fans will never forget, the inning that turned Mitch Williams into a pariah, the inning when the Toronto Blue Jays obliterated Philadelphia’s 6-5 lead, and won. I went to college in Phillie territory. I was a mild Phillie fan myself. None of us wanted to be around this Canadian that night.

Had I met him any other day, it wouldn’t have mattered. Had he joined us again a week later, it wouldn’t have mattered. Because that’s the other nice thing about sports (at least for the vast majority of us): we know that it really doesn’t matter. It’s fun, it’s great to talk trash in the moment, but none of us really hate our coworkers or family members because they support a different team. Sure, we might tease and pick on each other, but it doesn’t turn into hatred. And we can still talk to one another about how much we love the game itself.

I have a theory that political affiliation has become like a nasty, nasty version of sports fandom. At this point, being a member of a political party has become like being a fan of a sports team. Loyalty has become far, far more important than anything else. You’re either loyal to the GOP, or loyal to the Democrats. Even if you’re technically an Independent, you probably have a loyalty to one side or the other. I think that most of us, even while we want to hate the screeds on both sides of the aisle, do tend to think that one side has a point. Maybe we wish that Maxine Walters would tone it down a bit, but in the end, it’s Fox News and InfoWars that are doing nothing but stirring up fear and hatred. Or maybe we wish that President Trump would think a bit more before tweeting, but in the end, the mainstream media does nothing but twist every word he says anyway. We are loyal to our side. Yes, the Democrats aren’t perfect, but at least they’re not condoning fascism and breaking up families and evil. Or, yes, the Republicans aren’t perfect, but at least they’re not condoning socialism, stealing the hard-earned money from every honest citizen, and turning this country into a lawless refuge for the whole world.

And unlike in sports, this doesn’t go away at the end of the day, or the end of the season. Our loyalty to one side or the other stays with us constantly. We can’t, we simply can’t understand how someone would view things the other way. “How can you possibly, possibly think that this is all right?” “How can someone who claims to be a Christian say such things?” “You’re just being brainwashed by the MSM/Fox News.” And I think we all honestly believe that. We believe that those who disagree with us, those in the other tribe, are somehow deluded in a deep, deep way. I can say, “Well, Jane’s a Red Sox fan. Makes sense, because she grew up in Massachusetts,” without any hint of derision or condescension. But what if I said, “Well, Jane’s a liberal. Makes sense, because she grew up in Massachusetts,” or, “Well, Bob’s a conservative. Makes sense, he grew up in Alabama.” Both statements would drip with bile and stereotypes. Massachusetts people are all elite, stuck-up, godless, and don’t understand real life. And folks from Alabama are unwashed uneducated hicks with more broken trucks than teeth. I know that this is a generalization; just as those stereotypes obviously aren’t true, neither does every conservative or liberal feel this way. But I think there’s truth in the hyperbole. We just don’t understand one another. We just don’t trust one another.

And this partisan loyalty is thicker than blood. How hard has Thanksgiving gotten since 2016? And it’s thicker than baptismal water. How many church bodies and congregations have been wrenched apart by disagreements on political issues, particularly over LGBT concerns? (Yes, there are various ways to interpret scripture: one can interpret it to support the full inclusion and acceptance of people of all gender identities and orientations. One can also interpret it to view certain sexual behaviors and identities as sinful. But isn’t it fascinating that the scriptural interpretation that resonates with us so often matches what we believed going in? It’s almost like we’re really not concerned with the Bible, on either side. But I digress.)

And people in both tribes like to say to others, “Well, if you don’t like it, you can always leave.” And honestly, don’t we wish they would do just that? Don’t we wish all the liberals and Democrats would just move to Canada? And don’t we wish all the conservatives and Trump supporters would just move to Texas and declare independence? We’d let them go! Wouldn’t that make life so much easier? Don’t we all feel like victims, just because the other side keeps on talking? Don’t we just want to be left alone, and pretend they don’t exist?

I wish I had an answer for this. I wish I could write a paragraph in purple. But I honestly have no idea. I am in one of these tribes, and I admit that I simply can’t understand the other side at all. And I admit that I really don’t want to. I just wish there was a way for this to end. A way that we could let go of our tribal loyalty, and just be American, or better yet, just be people. But right now, I really don’t see how that’s possible.

Happy Independence Day, I guess.

2 thoughts on “On Loyalty to Our Tribe

  1. I didn’t read your whole column, but your theory is spot on. There is no question that politics has become sports. There is also no question that it shouldn’t be. I would also go on to say that like sports, politics is passed down. Not just from watching and listening to out parents and families, but think about it – How many 18 year old’s actually have a clue about politics? Yes, some do, but not many. If you are like me, when you registered to vote, you had no clue and registered for the party that your parents told you to. I remember when I was that young, I always said I needed a list of what both parties stood for as to decide which would better suit me. Perhaps in 1988 both parties were more centered, but it is quite obvious the differences today. As a sports fan, I know how to be a fan and love my team, but I am also quite logical. When my team sucks, I will tell you. I can offer my opinions and insight as to what is necessary. I’m a Nats fan. They piss me off so much I barely watch them this year. But I go on Facebook and every time they win, people post silly little Yeah WS! comments. and every time they lose it’s fire and trade everyone. No logic. The same in politics. If some people could just take a step back and see how illogical they are and that their reasoning makes no sense, it would be helpful. Just because you are pro-abortion, doesn’t mean you can’t like how the tax cuts have helped. But apparently that’s how some folks think. If just a few pundits or politicians, or average Joe’s could actually say “Yeah, he’s an ass, but F$%$ he’s done some good stuff.” They would be happier, calmer, and just better. But they can’t. Because they have to take one for the team.


    1. Thanks for the comment. Glad you resonated with it. I really like your final line, “Because they have to take one for the team.” I think there are far too many people taking one for the team right now!


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