Bonnie Levine
Of ITP synagogues and Paramount's "Wife Swap"

Not my tribe: a different kind of snowflake

When Jews talk about tribes, it’s often to identify themselves as MOT, a “member of the [Jewish] tribe.” In the American two-party system, we are forced to squeeze ourselves into one of two other tribes as well. MOTs often wind up as liberals/Democrats and ground it in their Jewish values. MOTs who land in the right wing/Republican party often do so based on concern for survival of the Jewish people).

To the 3/4 of American Jews who voted against Trump this year: the GOP is not our tribe. What happened yesterday–Betsy DeVos’s confirmation despite lack of qualification and overwhelming public opposition, and Elizabeth Warren’s outrageous silencing after speaking out against Sessions’ nomination for Attorney General–should be proof positive that “reachouts” to Republican legislators are likely to go exactly how they’ve gone for the past 8 years.

I will elaborate, based in part on a book I am really digging right now and recommend everyone read: Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them. (Google suggests Greene is MOT, for the record.)

In Moral Tribes, Greene sets up an illustration loosely describing the U.S. GOP as the individualist “northerners,” purposefully sidestepping terms that would suggest American political alignment. Individualists tend to prefer a society with fewer regulations, believing that a social safety net incentivizes laziness. But in today’s America, there is another important aspect to this moral tribe, not fully captured in Greene’s formulation. Specifically, Republicans are hard-core tribalists who have shown time and time again that they shamelessly, stubbornly, care more about sticking with their tribe than anything else. They are willing to make many internal compromises on values and differences to align with their tribe (see, e.g., white Christian evangelicals supporting Trump by a large margin)–but are not willing to compromise at all outside the tribe. They also lean Machiavellian, so otherwise immoral actions become moral when undertaken in pursuit of their own moral goals. Republicans love to point out hypocrisy in others, but it’s pointless to point out theirs because they don’t care. Conservatives are proud of their philosophy of “party before country” regardless of whether they would cop to that formulation.

The liberal tribe (collectivist “southerners” in Moral Tribes) is different and less tribalistic in a way. We consider compromise a virtue and prioritize the collective good over the individual good, advocating policies that make some individual sacrifices for the sake of the collective. We  believe that a system that cements the current wealth and social classes is wrong (particularly when it ignores past oppression), and want to create a fairer system to give everyone a real chance at wealth and prosperity. In that vein, we think it is only just that the overly prosperous pay a bit extra to ensure this fairness. Today’s American liberals often identify as intellectuals who value evidence-based arguments, though confirmation bias traps us into #fakenews just like anyone else. When someone points out our hypocrisy, this actually hurts us, because we are most proud of our rationality. When someone uses our own arguments against us, it strikes us as such nonsense we find ourselves speechless. We are relatively unwilling to overlook moral shortcomings to support an imperfect candidate, even one who shares our core values. This package leads to a perception of liberals as elitist, “triggered snowflakes” – we think facts are really important, we think we have a slam-dunk argument on the facts, and we care deeply about what we care about–often more than we care about winning. We succumb to moral outrage easily on those things, and often suffer “noble defeats” as a result.

Liberals are not the only snowflakes in the room–everyone succumbs to moral outrage when their tribal triggers are invoked. Both sides are currently in a social media war about who is the biggest snowflake. When you see Republicans acting like snowflakes, it’s usually because they or someone from their tribe is being “impugned”–however inappropriate this may seem (particularly when the same Republicans do not hesitate to “impugn” us), it is consistent with their priority of loyalty to tribe. Yesterday’s Warren shenanigans are a great example of how “snowflake” is just a smokescreen for different moralities.  Liberals accused Republicans of snowflake status for needing a “safe space” away from Warren’s biting (but fair) criticism of Sessions, but in typical fashion, Republicans could not care less–they are just advancing loyalty to tribe, and calling them snowflakes will never make them second-guess that.

Over the past 8 years, the Republican tribe has deployed its snowflakes effectively. In the 2016 election, Trump successfully cast as victims Christians, policemen, himself, racists (!), and others he wants to stir up. He peppered his campaign with petty insults and brazen lies, still managing to convince enough Americans to overlook some rather obvious issues to rally behind him. Clinton, on the other hand, unsuccessfully rallied the liberal tribe when she advised writing off the “basket of deplorables.” Even though the literal next words out of her mouth were about listening to Trump supporters, the “deplorables” term overtook headlines as a scandal. This was not because it was objectively immoral to make that comment (a significant chunk of Trump’s base supported him for reasons fairly described as deplorable), but because her tribe completely abandoned her for making it. The comment remained a penetrating conservative talking point because her tribe did not stand behind it. This pattern was pandemic in the 2016 election narrative. Pence repeatedly shook his head and denied that Trump had ever done or said anything objectionable (sometimes defying the factual record); liberals routinely caveated every argument with “I don’t like Hillary Clinton but…”

I am not saying (or thinking) that liberal morality is objectively superior to conservative morality — just that a compromising, collectivist, kumbaya morality pitted against something so unyieldingly tribal cannot easily win. And when the stakes are this high, we should consider elevating winning in our list of priorities.

It’s time to take a page from the Republican playbook, something we can do without compromising our morality or our Jewish values. I struggle in my activism with the competing Jewish imperatives of tzedek (righteousness and justice) and shalom bayit (a peaceful home). In my case for tribalism, however, I believe the two align quite nicely when we realize that at this moment in history, the “bayit” in shalom bayit is our liberal tribe.

So just like the Republicans, we need not be threatened by our snowflake status, it’s just our tribal values (what Moral Tribes refers to as default setting)–when obstructionism, attacks, cheating, lying, fearmongering, scapegoating, racism, sexism, and injustices make us feel bad, we aren’t being snowflakes, we’re reacting morally. As Lauren Duca said in response to an online harassment campaign against her: “I don’t know if this means I’m a ‘triggered snowflake,’ but I’m not embarrassed that mean things make me feel bad.” Nor is identifying racism and Nazism as “deplorable” necessarily a moral transgression.

Moral outrage is a tool–deploy it in one voice with unwavering strength and conviction, not as an emotional reaction when Republicans inevitably act like Republicans.  Instead of being the traumatized snowflakes they want you to be, write it off with a “not my tribe.” Trust me, this is a great relief. GOP leaders will either come to their senses that our president is dangerously unhinged or they won’t. Until the GOP decides it is in their own self interest to throw Trump under the bus – which if at all, will be after they ram an extremist conservative agenda down our throats – our tribe’s precious resources are wasted on trying to convince them.

Keep blowing up your GOP legislators’ pagers.  Express gratitude to the handful that have shown a semblance of recognition of the terrible things their leader is capable of (as one example, support Evan McMullin’s Stand Up Republic). Engage respectfully with the conservatives in your daily life–Moral Tribes has some great ideas for how to do this effectively.  Be the improvement you wish to see in the narrative.  But let go of persuading the unpersuadable–it’s not an achievable goal in this culture.

Despite their skill in tribal obstructionism, the GOP may have unwittingly amplified Warren’s message yesterday.  Perhaps this incident can rally us, to find the shalom in our liberal bayit, energizing our own snowflakes into a unified blizzard to blanket the land in tzedek.

About the Author
Bonnie Levine is an attorney and musician, as well as a wife and mom of a three-year old son and a five-year old daughter. She writes about Jewish spirituality and observance, parenting, intersectionality, and the U.S. and Atlanta Jewish communities. Views are her own and not those of her employer, synagogues, or any other organization.