Increasingly, we are under siege from the inversion of those values accepted, until recently, by every culture the world over — from the classical Chinese to the Arabic, and from dharmic Asia to Europe. Instead of health, we see the promotion of unhealthy lifestyles, diets, fast food, and obesity. Instead of inner and outer strength, we are taught to respect hurt feelings and to regard them as representing inner truth. Instead of tribe, community, and strong bonds between those in the physical world, we are offered only the abstraction of identity politics, virtual communities, and the promise of one day uploading our consciousnesses.
Some groups remain, attached to a way of looking at the world that is shared by the traditions of all developed cultures, derived from such roots as the classical Buddhism of China to the trade guilds of Europe, with their rituals, ethics, religion, and way of life. However, below I have attempted to sketch out a few basic elements that I believe any non-conformist group will need to survive in the modern age, and a few threats posed to them.
Every individual person and every group or organization needs a purpose, and to remain conscious of what it is. As such, the group’s reason for existing has to be clear, but it also needs to be one that will uplift, and that will improve the lives of, its members. Such groups might include those practicing a particular spiritual path or religion; a martial arts school, or a fraternity or Brotherhood (or sorority or Sisterhood) with its own rituals, esoteric knowledge, and philosophy of life and how to act in the world.
However, there will always be detractors, malcontents, and jealous individuals outside of the group who feel, deep down, that its aims or even its very existence threatens to expose their petty nature. Once the group reaches a certain size, and a certain prestige, it will, then, come under suspicion. There is virtually no group, organization, religion, etc., that has not been attacked in the media or on the net, for good or bad reasons.
If this occurs, well meaning members of the group may begin to think about how to dispell the falsehoods claimed about their group. If the organization has esoteric secrets, then the press may be invited in to hear that there are “no secrets” and shown what the group had, up ’til then, regarded as sacred and private. If the group is regarded as dangerous, it may go out of its way to show that it is harmless. This may occur even the allure of secrets and the veneer of danger is precisely what intrigues potential members.
Trying to appease critics is a losing game. Critics cannot be met half way, especially if they are driven by political or religious ideology. Although acts of appeasement will be praised (as a way of enticing the group into further dismantling itself, and to use the group as a comparison when attacking other similar groups that have made no such overtures), no self-appointed moral elite will be willing accept as legitimate any group that embodies significant differences — the mere existence of which may challenge its moral authority.
Hierarchy and Membership:
There will always be hierarchy. It is found in primates, and — with the possible exception of very small, insular communities — it is found in every culture the across the world — including in socialist societies where that ideology became the official state ideology and reason for existing.
Hierarchy is functional when it reflects the different interests of members of the society, and when risks and rewards for each position are aligned. Especially in relation to smaller societies, it makes sense to reward those who carry out vital functions and leadership roles, rather than those that only perform menial services. Hierarchy should enable members of the group to rise up through the ranks to take on roles that suit their personalities and interests.
Nevertheless, regardless of where they might fall in the hierarchy, a group, tribe, or organization with a desire to outlive its current members must invest not only in protecting itself from threats (e.g., financial collapse, sabotage, political subversion or prohibition, and possibly even physical attack), it must invest in cultivating both its members (ensuring they have the most suitable roles for them, and can develop those roles and themselves) and their material culture.
As such, there must be a distinction between managers and leaders.
Leaders are those that inspire, and that do things to promote the growth of their society, whether that is hosting a national event that reinvigorates those attending, or writing or creating art, etc. A group, tribe, or society needs to turn cultivate its members so that each is a leader, at least in potential. Leaders are self-starters who see how to apply their expertise or vision, which is in harmony with the membership and aims of the group. Moreover, leaders may sometimes need to be rebels against the managerial class of the group, the latter of which may start to focus on expenses, income, size (but not quality) of membership, and protocol, etc. (Finance may be an important issue, but it cannot become the center or the essence of the group.)
Managers are necessary for general organization and making some decisions related to the organization. However, social climbers often get themselves into managerial roles (especially in voluntary societies) with the aim of winning some prestige. Such individuals are usually dull-minded, and sometimes the failures of society outside of the group. Occasionally, they will not truly grasp what the group is for.
Those interested in personal prestige may attempt to enlarge the group’s membership as much as possible, believing they will be praised for the sudden growth in “popularity,” and that new members will feel indebted to them. If this occurs, the ability of potential members to contribute to the group, and their reasons for wanting to join, will be greatly reduced in importance and may simply be overlooked. Inductions will occur regardless of the compatibility and quality of inductees.
Although mass inductions may be proposed as desirable in themselves, it is also possible that the commissars of the group will seek to enlarge membership by appealing to the latest social and political beliefs. The prospect of appearing morally and intellectually “up to date” will prove highly alluring to the dull-minded.
I have heard, for example, of one college pagan group debating whether to allow Muslims to join since they felt it necessary to be “inclusive.” It is unclear to me why a strict monotheist (of a religion that regards paganism or polytheism as practicing the sin of shirk (idolatry)) would want to join such a group. Indeed, it makes about as much sense as Satanists debating whether their group should be “inclusive” of Christians (though I don’t think that has happened yet). But, again, the point is to win praise for individual proposing the measure. It has little to do with doing what is best for the group and (in this case) nothing to do with the wishes or beliefs of those outside of it.
Appreciation of Beauty:
This applies both to the physical body and to the arts. Members of a tribe or group should present themselves in a way that reflects well on the group as a whole. Male Mormon missionaries dress in a smart (if slightly old fashioned) style of shirt, tie, and pants when going abroad to try to spread their faith. Male members of the Nation of Islam wear suits, shirts, and bowties. The look of something affects the way we think about it. The appearance of a group will shape what we think about the group.
When it comes to clothing, aesthetics should be developed, whether that’s a suit and tie, biker jacket and jeans, or something else. Members should also understand posture and body language. (This is something that martial artists and public speakers understand.) Posture and body language can betray fear, project confidence, can prevent — or help to fend off — physical attack or can make it more likely. If members of the group appear sluggish, downcast, lacking in confidence, shifty, etc., or overbearing and obnoxious, then they are sending the wrong message.
Styles of clothing, art, architecture, and, indeed, symbolism should reflect the purpose of the group. Literature, too, must be created. The continual creation of art, writing, and so on, will help to ensure the survival and even growth of the community. A group that believes in itself creates for itself. (A good example of this is the Mormons, which, in 150 years, has created not only many beautiful temples, but has its own museum in Salt Lake City. The Hare Krishnas, likewise, are known for their restaurants and for the food they offer free to anyone visiting one of their temples. Freemasons have not only built numerous impressive temples around the world, but have created art, regalia, woodwork objects, journals, and more — and these can be seen in its museums.)
Iconic art — whether Buddhist, Tantric Hindu, Christian, etc. — often uses symmetry. The bodies of deities are well proportioned, smooth, muscular, and so on, and are rarely presented as ugly, and never as ill-proportioned. We are hard wired, it seems, to be attracted to facial symmetry, as well as to health, strength, and a sense of aliveness. Beauty is transcendental. It is expressed through paintings of the Virgin Mary, the Buddhist deity Tara, the Buddha, Krishna, and so on. Everyone knows that seeing a beautiful person, full of life, can uplift their spirits.
The representation of ugliness has found its home in modernity, especially among establishment art galleries and museums, and in sadistic horror movies, released just before Halloween each year. Ugliness is often incorrectly associated with intelligence. To create something ugly is, it is often believed, to challenge the “status quo.” In reality, in most cases, ugliness fascinates or appeals to those whose lives are boring.
It is important that the group’s artists and designers do not create things that are ugly or depressing for the mere sake of “making their mark” or doing something unique. Ugliness relies on shock value, and we are less and less shocked by it. Hence every horror movie and headline must be more sensational and ugly than the previous one.
“Only your own deep need to salvage something from the void — to act or to write or to create — can keep you from the commonplace,” said Stella Adler. The group’s artists must express, visually, the purpose, ideas, beliefs, and experiences of the group, especially those that show it overcoming adversity.
Note: once the group has established itself, has a history, and is recognizable, caution should be exercised in altering or getting rid of established logos and symbols. The desire to appear “with the times” may mean that the group’s unique identity is erased in favor of unoriginal imagery that looks like that of any other mediocre organization, and suggests that it wants to avoid standing out. (Compare these Masonic tattoos to the new logo of the United Grand Lodge of England, for example. Which group would you rather belong to?) The desire to “rebrand” can easily turn into an exercise in apologizing for one’s existence.
Activity and Action:
Membership of the group should spur activity on both a personal and a group level. The individual should feel inspired to create, read, write, deliver talks, train, etc., and, more than anything, to develop himself along the lines of the group’s principles and beliefs. On a group level, there will need to be events that bond the members together. These might include rites of passage, feasts, ritual celebrations marking a time of year or an event in the history of the group or recognizing those that have gone beyond merely fulfilling their function. Such events should provide new inspiration, giving new life and energy to the group and to its members.
If the drinking of alcohol is customary to the group, drunkenness should be avoided. Drunkenness only makes the group — and the individual within it — vulnerable to conflict. Unwise things are more likely to be said and done when intoxicated. The group should be high on life, and high on its purpose, and on being in the presence of comrades. And it should encourage members to ween themselves off of the unhealthy aspects of mainstream culture.
To sum up:
- Know what the group is for, and who it is for. Purpose has pinpoint-like focus. When it comes to membership, the question is not, who should we let in? but what is our purpose? Who and what are we for?
- Enable hierarchy to arise based on natural ability and inclinations. Though, technically, one may be above the other in the group administrative hierarchy, an artist doesn’t necessarily want to be a treasurer, and a treasurer doesn’t necessarily want to be an artist. Distinguish between managers and leaders, however. Limit the managerial class and inpulse, and empower every member to be a leader.
- Create a material culture of writing, art, music, symbolism, etc. The style of the material culture should reflect the purpose, philosophy, and history of the group. Styles that are ugly, depressing, present the group in a poor light, or go against its history should be avoided and not promoted. If such works are promoted by management, members should continue to create their own art, etc., that represents the true spirit of the group. Avoid dismantling recognizable logos and symbolism to fit in with whatever style is en vogue. Members of the group should also present themselves in the best possible light, holding themselves with confidence, and dressing appropriately.
- Establish activities and events that uplift the membership. Do not allow them to become an excuse for drunkenness and stupidity.
5 thoughts on “Creating a Tribal Culture: Principles and Pitfalls”
There are actually plenty of religious icons that do not display the qualities you describe. Mesoamerican and Norse both come to mind. To our eyes they look primitive and “blocky.” Obviously the people who fashioned them thought otherwise. My experience with proclaiming human “universals” is that they usually end up being not so universal after all.
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Good point, Anna.
Excellent piece, Angel.
Thank you, Michael! 🙂