Survivalism, Tribalism and Against-the-tide-alism

The mammoth is coming.

It’s big. It’s scary. Everything you have ever known in every fibre of your being is screaming this is it. You have two options. Fight or flight? The mammoth is getting closer. Do you run away and survive another day or take a stand for the tribe?

Then it occurs to you.

You could take a few steps up the hill and instacave it. You’ve got some ochre and some umber left over, you could ‘share’ it later. You could try to confuse it by imitating a mammoth call. You could climb that tree just there and throw yourself on top of the beast. You could be The Mammoth Rider.

Then you realise – it was always going to be The Mammoth Rider.

Better learn how to climb a tree.

Fast.

A dominant cultural theme from the post war period to the start of the millenium has been that everything is all about choice. People are categorised by the decisions they have made, not what they are or what they could be on an intrinsic level. Over the past sixty years there have been so many opportunities to choose, to be empowered, to be free agents making our way in the world. There are endless binary choices we navigate digitally, cognitively and emotionally. Where to go, what to eat, what to read, what to wear, what to think, what to believe, what to ‘like’. We are the consumers. There is nature we can’t avoid and the nurture we can make void through the choices we make. There are inescapable genetics on the one hand and unprecedented opportunities to mould and transform our culture on the other. You consume therefore you is.

There are all these choices but often it seems to come down to the same dichotomy. It’s all flight or fight. We are presented with an array of choices which will go on, we are told, to define us. At each junction we must choose either flight (rejection), or fight (assertion). Pressure is put on us at work, in our social life, in our communal and spiritual practices our holidays, our education – to make choices to choose to run away or stay and fight. It’s a very territorial way of thinking. Culturally we are told it’s Survivalism or Tribalism. Run away and survive or stay and fight for the tribe. If there’s a lifestyle we do not subscribe to we recoil from it, if there is a lifestyle we advocate – we defend it tribally. Despite the complex range of choice on offer the responses required of us seem facile. Yes/No – tick box. You are in that group or in that group. Either/or.

What about the mammoth riders?

It seems now in our post-postmodernism (soz, just bear with me) we are starting to rediscover what else we’ve got at our disposal. It’s not all survivalism and tribalism. The theologian Stanley Hauerwas argues that many of the most important decisions we have made were, in retrospect, fairly inevitable. When we look back it was always going to be that way, the alternative is impossible to imagine. It is heartening how many people of an older generation I speak to who say that if they were given the opportunitiy to change one thing in their life – they wouldn’t do it. There life is a tapestry that only makes sense because the thread went in a certain trajectory – you can’t unpick it now. The individual decisions weren’t always as important as the thread running through it. Maybe we can take the pressure off ourselves for a bit. What we consume does not and will not define us to those nearest and dearest. There is so much more give and take in the world. This is not saying – reject choice – be a liberal wishy washy or a fundamentalist – because to do that is to fall into the same trap. We can both choose to make choices and choose to not make to much of it. We can be both/and. Our brains can cope with cognitive dissonance. It’s just a passing thought but could humanity’s propensity for being able to hold two contradictary thoughts simultaneously been key to its flourishing?

For example I sort of want to be a vegetarian and I sort of want to eat meat. I can do that. I will have a richer, healthier diet for living in that tension. A friend of mine who is not herself Jewish or Muslim once told me she said she made a point of eating meat that was either kosher or halal as she appreciated that some thought had gone into it – a way of slaughtering and preparing meat with a bit of respect, a bit of reverence. That has always struck me. It feels on an intuitive level that some thought should go into the preperation of animals for eating (cue jokes about having a copy of the Racing Post to hand). It’s not something I have decided to do to mould my identity, it just kind of feels like the way things should always have been. Lewis Hyde talks in The Gift about hunters always offering a gift back to the forest at the end of the kill. This binary ‘be an earth-mother or a retrograde industrialist’ is unconstructive. We’ve always had a tug of war with nature. Because of this pull back and forth we have learned things about the planet and about ourselves. We need to take better care of the earth, that is without question, but we can also do it with the same creative, proactive mindset and pioneering spirit that our ancestors had. It’s not all gloom. Afterall we’re humanity.

We do adversity.

So you know what? We can be fruit loops, King Canutes with Pied Piper’s flutes. The next time someone says, that’s it survive or tribe, retreat or band together in a tight defensive unit’, remember against-the-tide-alism.

Remember the mammoth riders.

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One comment

  1. colin chaloner · · Reply

    yeah, i’m on board with this. i describe myself as a vegetarian, partly because I like the way the weight of other people’s expectations encourages me to eat better, and partly because i’m broadly on board with all the ethical arguments against meat. but sometimes i decide that it’s high time an animal was sacrificed in my honour and i have a massive roast. maybe i should be stripped of my vegetarian status because of this but, for me, being a meat-eating vegetarian works much better than the either / or option, however much of a contradiction it may be.

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