Tribalism: A Major Obstacle for Building Bridges

Posted on April 17, 2018 By

by Rachel MacNair


Rachel MacNair

Two media personalities, one right-wing, the other left-wing, have recently been in the public eye for their comments on abortion. Writer Kevin Williamson has been in the news because he was hired by The Atlantic and then, before starting, was dismissed because of abortion-related comments. Also, John Oliver in his comedy show, Last Week Tonight, did a segment on crisis pregnancy centers. Coming from differing views on abortion, both men’s behavior illustrates what David Brooks has called tribalism. In psychology we refer to this as ingroup/outgroup dynamics.


Right-Wing: Hanging Mothers?

Kevin Williamson, a long-time columnist for the National Review, recently lost an opportunity to be a regular columnist for The Atlantic because of his views on women who have abortions. In a Tweet, now deleted, Williamson apparently said that both doctors involved in abortion and women who had abortions should be hanged. He said something similar in a podcast.

Williamson was placed for adoption, so he’s one of the millions of people who could have been aborted and weren’t. Abortion survivors of this kind might well have emotional reactions as they identify with the baby they once were – that’s one of the many horrific outcomes of mass feticide. But it contradicts the general view of pro-life activists, and thereby misrepresents the movement to outsiders who don’t know this. The title of the podcast episode, after all, is “Everyone Hates Kevin – Again.”

I wrote a blog post about why it is that we pro-lifers in general don’t favor punishing women for getting abortions, with added consistent life insight (Who the Law Targets).

This recent news brought to my mind my personal experience when I met Kevin Williamson, which illustrates the point of how “tribalism” works as an obstacle.

Immediately after the 2016 election, I went on two seminar cruises, each one of an opposing “side” – one with liberal The Nation magazine and the other with conservative National Review. A story I haven’t before told about the National Review cruise concerns the session they had on abortion. Here, only pro-life views were presented. Unlike every other session, the introducer did mention a caveat that they knew not everyone in the audience agreed with the pro-life perspective. Indeed, my assigned roommate was pro-abortion and argued the issue with me.

They had originally had a panel of three that included Charmaine Yoest of Americans United for Life. But she was offered work on the Trump transition team that was meeting right then, so they needed a substitute.

Well before the session, I saw Ramesh Ponnuru, who’s a writer and senior editor on their staff. He was delighted to see me again; he remembered having invited me to speak many years before at Princeton University when he was a student there and I was president of Feminists for Life of America. I offered to take Charmaine’s place on the panel for the session. Ponnuru said that seemed like an excellent idea to him, and he would ask other staff about it.

They didn’t take me up on the offer. With an all-male panel, they used Kevin Williamson instead.


Top left: Kevin Williamson. Top right: Ramesh Ponnuru. Bottom: Charmaine Yoest

As I sat in the audience, I was antsy, knowing the answers I would have given had I been up there. Answers I knew were more effective with the audiences I speak to. Given that not everyone in the audience was pro-life, and that many who were pro-life weren’t well-versed on the topic and needed those better arguments for their own discussions with friends, a good presentation was really needed.

Here we have a case where a woman with expertise, who could have been replaced with another woman with expertise, was instead replaced by a man who is not as well versed in the usual pro-life arguments. While I may be in the pro-life “ingroup,” which is why I hoped my offer would be accepted, I’m not in the conservative “ingroup.”

 Left-Wing: Let ‘em Lie!

 I like watching John Oliver. I normally watch every segment of his I can on the web (I don’t have cable). But I must admit I didn’t watch the segment on crisis pregnancy centers, broadcast April 8, 2018. I had read a news story on it, and I knew I’d never be able to enjoy watching Oliver again if I saw that segment. The premise of it was that Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs) are allowed to lie, and do lie. If they say something, such as that there’s a link between abortion and women later developing breast cancer, then to Oliver’s mind, the fact that they said it must mean it’s a lie. Some “pro-choice” organizations, after all, have said that the abortion/breast cancer link is not so, and therefore, to Oliver, it’s not so.

John Oliver

John Oliver normally goes after the people who are dishonorably making money or are otherwise callous or violent to vulnerable people. This is why I like watching him. The idea that he has flipped that ethic upside down in this CPC segment has clearly not occurred to him. This is another example of ingroup/outgroup tribalism at work.

I keep up with several late-night comedians; it helps me deal with political stresses, as long as they stay away from the topic of abortion. But I do observe that they make frequent use of cuss words. John Oliver especially has a constant stream of such words in his monologues, at least one per paragraph, even when there’s no connection with what he’s saying. Indeed, there are times when the simple use of such a word brings a round of laughter.

Being someone who’s been known to privately use cuss words myself – especially at my misbehaving computer – I don’t really have an ethical objection. And of course the Consistent Life Network wouldn’t even think of having a position on merely vulgar (not violent or bigoted) language.

But it does strike me that his frequent use of such words further shows this problem: he’s not trying to persuade anybody that doesn’t already agree with him. Even if only a small portion of people he’s talking to find such words offensive, if he’s trying to persuade these people, why use such words?  Their very use implies he has contempt for them. Trump voters, especially evangelicals, have noticed this sense of contempt aimed at them, and have responded accordingly.

I think one reason the words are used so much is that the cuss words help define the ingroup. Just using them, even out of any context, is seen as funny for that very reason – giggling in the camaraderie of being us rather than them.

This goes with the prejudicial remarks Oliver made about good people trying to help pregnant women, people who aren’t merely talking but putting in the hard work that’s called for by their principles. From the perspective of Oliver and much of his audience, such people are them, not us.

The Dove Needs Two Wings to Fly

This all goes to illustrate two points we in the consistent-life-ethic movement have been making for years:

  1. The us/them view (or ingroup/outgroup dynamic) has to be taken into account when figuring out strategy, because it’s always been one of our major obstacles – the very concept of bridge-building is meant to counter it.


  1. As I explain above for both the right and left, the groups who regard themselves as being on different “sides” are hurting their own causes by insisting on sticking only with their own ingroups. Persuasion of other groups suffers.

Fortunately, that problem can be lessened over time. After all, Ramesh Ponnuru expressed that he would have been happy to have me present to the National Review audience. And some of those late-night comedians do occasionally treat unborn children as humans (see, for example, Conan O’Brien “Fetus at Large,” Part 1 and Part 2; Seth Meyers as we mentioned on his current show and on Saturday Night Live, videos unfortunately no longer up).

So, while we’ve known all along that this us/them mentality is a major problem, we’ve also seen over and over again that it’s an obstacle that can be surmounted.




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