insight

Jonathan Rowson

Awakening the Twelve Tribes of Transformation

Jonathan Rowson outlines a way to think about tribalism which will bring about a society focused on the right kind of unity, rather than the wrong kind of division.

Society
What was needed were not words and promises but the steady accumulation of small realities.  - Haruki Murakami
To be human is to be tribal, but being tribal is not what it used to be. Tribes live in evolving cultures where the nature of tribalism changes. We are going through such a change today.
The deep roots of tribal affiliation are still place and family and religion and other shared affiliations, interests and values, but what is emerging today is a kind of reflexive tribalism in which the nature and purpose of tribes has become an open question for all of us.
We are still born into tribes, through being part of a family within a culture. And we are often initiated into tribes through rituals without quite realising it, for instance through professional exams, voting at elections, funerals and marriages. And finding a tribe has become easier through the internet; we can literally search for one, or several. But there is something else going on.
We need our tribes to be less like self-serving interest groups and more like nourishing eco-systems learning how to help each other in a regenerative, awakening world.
In an ecologically imperilled, technologically imperious, economically volatile, politically fractured and culturally charged world, you can feel it: we need our tribes. We need our bonds, our alliances, our security, our missions, our rituals, even our traditions; we need to belong. And yet, we also know that tribalism is part of the problem, part of the narrow mindedness, dysfunctional competition and collective action failure at the root of the world’s problems. We need our tribes to be less like self-serving interest groups and more like nourishing eco-systems learning how to help each other in a regenerative, awakening world.
Today the creation of new ways of being tribal is part of what is emerging, and a design principle for viable and desirable futures.

“A world of almost eight billion people is never likely to feel or act like a single tribe."

The author Seth Godin says that “a group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate.” The case for rethinking tribalism arises from that minimalist conception in four main ways. 
First, on the matter of shared interest, it is not clear ‘Team Human’ exists, at least not yet. At the risk of disappointing Douglas Rushkoff who coined the term, a world of almost eight billion people is never likely to feel or act like a single tribe. That kind of homogenisation of worldview and harmonisation of action is not only politically naïve, but also potentially scary; we humans are much too impish and subversive and transgressive to ever be corralled in that way. But if we cannot or will not be a single tribe, let’s be sure our myriad tribes can cooperate in some kind of evolving dynamic equilibrium, where we work for integration rather than fusion.
Second, in terms of communication, the internet changes everything. Today we are caught up in new forms of tribal warfare at a cultural level, characterised by a sense-making battle that is often Manichean in nature –tending to divide the world into good and evil; friends and foes. In an extraordinary Medium article, Peter Limberg and Conor Barnes identify thirty-four such mimetic tribes as follows: “…A group of agents that directly or indirectly seeks to impose its distinct map of reality — along with its moral imperatives — on others. These tribes are on active duty in the new culture war. They possess a multiplicity of competing claims, interests, goals, and organizations…any claim to unity between memetic tribes is laughable.”
You are most likely to change culture in small groups; a place to learn new habits and to practice tolerance.
Third, the relationship between the interests we hold and the patterns of communication we share is critical because today’s tribes need to be able to hold the tension between the individual and collective, which is ultimately about tribes offering a form of paternalism through rules of engagement and an optimal balance between support and challenge. For instance, Richard D Bartlett argues that if we are going to create fundamentally different sets of behaviours and structures we need to accept this is a cultural challenge at heart, and you are most likely to change culture in small groups; a place to learn new habits, to practice tolerance, a place for amateur therapy, to produce living proof, and to prepare for the worst. 
A minimal condition for what makes a functional tribe is that people can fit in the same room, maintain eye contact and know each other’s names. The anthropological heuristic here – the Dunbar number - is 150; beyond that level trust is harder to maintain and self-organisation is likely to start breaking down, but of course the numbers can be much smaller. As Anthropologist Margaret Mead famously put it: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; in- deed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Fourth, tribes often coalesce around shared interests or expertise but become so encultured within their domain of expertise that they struggle to communicate with other tribes – the academic world is awash with this problem. What we seem to need today are expert generalists, which I have characterised as follows:
The social architecture of hope involves reimagining our tribal natures, in which tribes become learning organisms that help individuals and groups remain rooted to psyche, place, people and purpose.
“The idea of an expert generalist is paradoxical but not oxymoronic. In theory, our very best philosophers, civil servants, political leaders, and writers are expert generalists — their defining skill is inclusive synthesis and their defining qualities are epistemic acumen and agility: know-how with knowledge, having enough expertise in one domain to value different forms of understanding, and knowing how to integrate them while retaining curiosity towards whatever remains unfamiliar.”
The kinds of tribes we need today will help us to become expert generalists, because the tribal network should allow us both to acquire tribal expertise and the domain general dispositions required to eagerly learn from different bodies of knowledge and communities of practice.
To summarise the case made so far, we are living in a world of crisis in which any effective response will have to grapple with diverse interests, incommensurate values and burgeoning factions. The social architecture of hope involves reimagining our tribal natures, in which tribes become learning organisms that help individuals and groups remain rooted to psyche, place, people and purpose, while still expanding their circles of influence and belonging.

"Finding a tribe has become easier through the internet; we can literally search for one, or several." Ithmus / Flickr

In that broader context, when we are asked about ‘theory of change’, what can we say?
To speak of ‘reaching target groups’ is clearly inadequate, if not absurd. We need to do more than ‘reach’ people; we need to transform, in which form is an active ingredient relating to formation, that shapes culture and is shaped by it. There are models of personal and cultural formation that describe form as an active ingredient, for instance Kegan’s subject-object relationship is that kind of form, but that discussion is beyond our scope. Moreover, tribes are not targets but antibodies; part of our planetary immune response is seeing them differently and connecting them with each other in ways that optimise the relationship between the active ingredients they are working with.
A richer of theory of change would try to answer a different kind of question. What is the deep code (Bonnitta Roy) or generator function (Daniel Schmachtenberger) of a new civilisation?
We are working with clusters of networks who want to develop new ways of living and working at scale that are informed by spiritual transformation
The truth is I don’t know. However, my organisation Perspectiva seeks to be a lighthouse for those seeking cultural transformation who feel figuratively at sea, wondering if there is dry land to be found. We are working with clusters of networks who want to develop new ways of living and working at scale that are informed by spiritual transformation broadly conceived. There is a sense in which these tribes do not exist yet, and we are wishing them and willing them into being in an attempt to create the social architecture of hope. In Marxist terms these are often groups in-themselves but not yet for themselves, or even for each other – that is the work to be done. 
Each cluster below focuses on a particular active ingredient that is important for societal transformation including its inner/outer and individual/collective aspects, and their interface. Distantly inspired by the twelve tribes of Israel, and mindful of twelve being the number for initiating order, here is an indicative list of the kinds of tribe we need to bring into being and connect with each other.
1.Attention Finders (attention)
In light of hand-held addictive devices and ambient advertising, many now view our capacity to control and direct our own attention as the key cultural and political question of our time. The mindfulness movement is increasingly influential, and Philosophers like Iain McGilchrist, James Williams and Matthew Crawford offer broader intellectual foundations relating to neurophilosophy, technology design and regulation and protecting ‘the attentional commons’ respectively.

“Many now view our capacity to control and direct our own attention as the key cultural and political question of our time." mrhayata / Flickr

2. Wounded Activists (will)
Concerted efforts to ‘save the planet’, ‘defend human rights’, ‘stamp out corruption’ and so forth have included big victories, but also many defeats. Many activists are disillusioned and burnt out and no longer convinced that campaigning strategies lead to lasting change. And yet, we have never had greater need of effective activism, so we need to transform the practise.
3. Cautious Futurists (technology) 
Many who look to the future don’t particularly like what they see. The combined effect of monopolistic data scraping and hoarding, artificial intelligence, machine learning, synthetic biology, virtual reality and robotics points towards a world that will be completely different. And many working in technology have no particular background or education relating to sociological imagination, so their instinctive reaction to emerging societal challenges is to think of how technology might fix it, which may be part of the problem. We need to work with designers to help connect our bio-psycho-social-spiritual natures to ever-shifting technology so that it remains our servant rather than our master.
If democracy is dying, it is because the animating idea of ‘government of the people, for the people by the people’ lacks cultural oxygen beyond election time.
4. Wise Businesses (purpose)
Disillusioned social entrepreneurs, informed by goal-directed practices devised by management consultant companies are beginning to doubt their capacity to effect change at scale. Meanwhile private sector organisations of all kinds are seeking purpose driven activity that goes beyond making profit. Capitalist logics make the tension between organisational purpose and societal purpose a living question.
5. Media Ecologists (truth)
The truth is in trouble, partly because our media is fragmented and most information we received is strategic and motivated rather than impartial. We need a new media ecology that is financially sound and works in the context of the emotional contagions and epistemic bubbles of social media.
6. Reflexive Investors (future)
Capital flows shape the future, and financiers often look to each other to predict how quickly the world is changing – money signals the direction of travel and thereby creates it. Particularly on energy, we need to help tell the story of why it makes sense to take money out of fossil fuels and towards alternative energy. We are also interested in working with reflective philanthropists on their theories of change and impact.

“Many activists are disillusioned and burnt out and no longer convinced that campaigning strategies lead to lasting change. We need to reform the practice" Fibonacci Blue / Flickr

7. Renegade Scholars (epistemology)
In 1999 Garry Brewer famously said: “The world has problems, universities have departments.” Alas, that is still the case. The academic model based on disciplinary allegiance and peer reviewed publication for journal articles that are rarely read is arguably in its twilight years We need intellectual rigour and vision, but beyond the institutional sclerosis there are also epistemological challenges relating to what counts of true and useful knowledge. What is responsible scholarship today?
8. Political Revisionists (ideology)
Each of the three main political ideologies we inherited from the twentieth century - liberalism, conservatism and socialism/social democracy - are imploding for different reasons. What is fascinating today is that that those who are trying to renew their traditions are likely to have more in common with each other that those who share the tradition but are blind to its problematic mutations. Within the three main western ethical traditions - utilitarianism, deontology and virtue ethics; it is the latter that has been neglected and overlooked and that needs to be revived to create a politics of the common good.
9. Cultural Democrats (civic virtue)
If democracy is dying, it is because the animating idea of ‘government of the people, for the people by the people’ lacks cultural oxygen beyond election time when people briefly pay attention without having particularly informed views and vote in electoral systems that don’t reflect their preferences. How do we refashion qualities of citizenship, disinterested commitment to public good and learn to live and disagree together better.
Metamodernism is a way of thinking and being that tries to integrate indigenous, traditional, modern and postmodern ways of knowing.
10. Integral Facilitators (interaction)
What do you do with people who share passions or interest or concerns when they are together in a room? Millions of pounds are spent every year on ‘meetings’ and ‘workshops’ which are often not very enlightening of productive. We need to get better at unlocking the emergent properties of groups, which recognises epistemic diversity, emotional data, and involve creative forms of inquiry.
11. Metamodern pioneers (integration)
Metamodernism is a way of thinking and being that tries to integrate indigenous, traditional, modern and postmodern ways of knowing. As a way of thinking, it insists on reconstruction after deconstruction and helps move society beyond critique towards vision. Metamodernism values dialogue rather than dialectic because the diversity that matters most is epistemic diversity - different ways of truthfully seeing and knowing the world, but we do not yet have the cultural maturity to host this kind of dialogue at scale.
12. Spiritually Capacious (love)
In some ways this 'tribe' is the meta-tribe; the one we hope encapsulates and lives within all the others. However, if love is the answer, power is the question. While it might be true that ‘all you need is love', at a societal level that is not the whole truth. There are other spiritual touchstones like death, self and soul, but love offers a grounding in reality that is fundamental and offers a way for people at different levels of spiritual interest and commitment to work together on a deeper inquiry into human meaning and purpose.
We need somehow to accept that we are tribal while remaining free of tribalism.
If the analysis above makes sense, we will recognise ourselves in some of these tribes more than others. Each of them is an important part of the emerging story. ‘The work’ is for the tribes to begin to wake up to themselves, and come together to create a new social imaginary, a wise political system, a fairer economy that is ecologically sane, and a relationship to technology that serves our highest ends.
Building a social architecture of hope will not be easy. Tribes come and go, and are sometimes exterminated. They can reject us as well as accept us, and sometimes we have to create our own tribes. We need somehow to accept that we are tribal while remaining free of tribalism. As Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron put it: “To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest.”
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Words by Jonathan Rowson
Jonathan Rowson is Director of Perspectiva.