Bruce Maiman is a former radio show host who lives in Rocklin. Reach him at brucemaiman@gmail.com.

Viewpoints: Our basic instincts and the need to yield to our better angels

Published: Tuesday, Jul. 23, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 9A

Hopefully you're as sick of the Zimmerman contretemps as I am, and perhaps interested in pondering what that case truly represents.

It's not racism. That's just a subset of the larger issue. Racism is merely low-hanging fruit, which is why – like Oscar Grant before this, O.J. Simpson before that, and incidents yet to come – the media enthusiastically lunge for it: It's profitable and sensational, and we take the bait every time to embroil ourselves in it.

What I see in this case – and what I see all too often in the United States – is a reminder of our suspicion, our animosity, our hostility toward anything different from us. It's about the powerful instinct of tribalism, or more to the point, the sense of threatened tribalism that lies at the root of resistance to change or to what's different, be it racial, religious, political, demographic, economic, social, sexual, cultural, domestic or international.

We define ourselves more than ever by our disagreements than our agreements. Our digital, more mobile world enables that divide, widens it. We move to communities more like us; online, we seek only what reinforces rather than challenges our beliefs, quarantining ourselves in political, intellectual and social ghettos.

Mingling only with the like-minded reinforces a companion belief that we – "us" – are good and pure, yet subjected to systematic unfairness and threatened by "them," that lurking Evil Other against whom resistance, even war, must be waged. The Muslim, the Terrorist, the Immigrant, Communist or Liberal; the Gay Agenda, the Tea Party, the Rich, the Capitalist, Christian Conservatives, and in the ultimate divide, Secessionists.

With incredible irony, we claim our side intelligent, therefore right, while closing our minds or denying empathy to opposing views. The more challenged our views are, the more we defend them, the more dogmatic and closed-minded we become – a reptilian "circle-the-wagons" defense, an ideal metaphor for tribalism overruling reason.

This is hardly a path toward greater enlightenment like that which inspired our Founding Fathers. Instead, we vindictively pursue punitive methods, like state Assemblyman Chris Holden, D-Pasadena, calling on Californians to boycott Florida over its "stand your ground" law. This isn't just a bad idea; it's a stupid, childish one.

Should Florida boycott California over gay marriage? Shall we find advocates for boycotts of everything black? Would that have been acceptable had Zimmerman been found guilty? Or is it just typical of the way we all behave? How many people want California to fail because they hate its predominant political leanings? How many people are cheering Detroit's collapse because it represents so many things attached to Democrats?

How is that any different than Holden's idea? Is Holden being idiotic, or is he just like us? Or them? How could he not be? We elected him. I know, not "us"; "them."

In Florida, tea partyers want to recall Sen. Marco Rubio, angered by his support for the immigration bill. When is the tea party not angry about something? When are any of us not angry at something? And why do we always have to show it by saying, "I'm taking my toys and going home." Because somewhere, someone associated, cooperated or compromised with someone who was different. What an outrage!

I don't believe this behavior represents all of us, or even a lot of us, but just the noisiest of us. Like racism, media loves the noisy people. It's profitable and sensational, but last week's Gallup Poll showed 85 percent disapprove of Congress largely because its members refuse to cooperate, refuse to get along. Maybe the other 15 percent are the noisy dividers among us.

Each day, with a sense of community and powers of reason, Americans nationwide defy their tribal instincts. Individuals of widely divergent backgrounds work together, at their jobs, in their neighborhoods, striving to make for a better society. We've done it before on some of the grandest of scales. In 1861-65, half the nation devoted itself to killing the other half; in the early 1930s, many sage observers saw the nation poised on the verge of open, violent class warfare. In the 1960s we were torn asunder again. We say now the country has never been more divided. We've always managed to muddle through. "We all breathe the same air," as John Kennedy famously said.

But random incidents here or there remind us that we've still a long way to go, more perhaps than we thought because the things we assumed had been exorcised from our thinking haven't left us at all, and we're surprised or angered when they manifest themselves. Or perhaps somewhere in our psyche, deep down we know we are simply not civilized enough to completely yield, as Abraham Lincoln said, to the better angels of our nature.

Not yet, anyway.

Bruce Maiman is a former radio host who lives in Rocklin. Reach him at brucemaiman@gmail.com.

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