Anzac Day and football and what is happening in the Ukraine made me think again about the tribal nature of human societies, ours especially. ‘What holds us together?’ asked someone in a letter to the editor recently, and deplored the decline of organised Christianity. I’m not at all sure that organised Christianity ever did hold us together, but the sights of an ecstatic football crowd on television, then of the young people out there at dawn on Anzac Day, and then of the insurgents in the Ukraine with their girlfriends on the tank or armoured personnel-carrier — all that points to the tribal instinct, and more basically, the need to belong.
We human beings need to be with and near one another for all sorts of functional reasons — work, friends, mating, protection, support, even the perceived energy of a large city. Our preferred environment, I think, is a human ant-heap. But to gain the benefits of the environment we need to ‘belong’, to be accepted by others as part of them, and to feel emotionally secure because of their acceptance. Sometimes the price demanded by others is too high, and we leave, to find another possible environment. And there is always a price: there is no such thing as free membership of a human society.
We start as infant members of a family, then, for many, of an extended family. We progress to being members of a tribe, or a village. Above that there is the region or province, identified by geography, political economy, language, religion, or all of these. Above that there is membership of the nation-state. A few, internationalists and some religious, see a common membership of the human species as being the most important form of belonging. I’m not one of them.
We need to belong, but sometimes we want to go somewhere else, not just because the current price of belonging is too high, but because we want to look around. So we head off overseas, or to the big city, or to marriage (relationship), or to work. And worse, sometimes people don’t want us to belong, or we feel that no one wants us, or that we wouldn’t want to belong to such a lot — like Groucho Marx’s quip about not wanting to belong to any club that would have him as a member. Camus’s L’Etranger and Colin Wilson’s The Outsider express variants of that feeling of dissociation or dislocation.
I mentioned graffiti in a post the other day about trains, and it seems to me that graffiti daubers, taggers, and those who rip seats in trains or set fire to schools are expressing, among other things,a feeling that they have no place in the society in which they live — they don’t belong, or want to belong. Three adolescents broke into our coast house the other day, stole a few things, did no other damage, were apprehended, pleaded guilty and will face sentence next month. Two were on bail already for other offences.
What were they about? School doesn’t work for them, and there is high youth unemployment in that area. Thieving from another house provided excitement, and perhaps some money (there was not much to steal in ours). Who should do what for them? Where are the Police & Citizens’ Boys Clubs of yesteryear? You need the HSC to enter the Army and a degree to become a copper. What about those for whom family and schooling have been ineffectual and work in unavailable?
Villages and tribes could expel people they did not want, or send them to Coventry (refuse to acknowledge their presence or existence). At the larger levels of belonging, like the state and the nation-state, it becomes increasingly difficult to know just what one is belonging to. We disagree about all sorts of things, which is why it is so hard to agree on what might be ‘core Australian values‘. I would like to think that one of the core values is that we recognise the need for us to disagree, and that we can do it peaceably in our society but, as I was arguing in my last post about free speech, I’m not sure that we can.
In any case, while I am not a great Anzac Day person, I am glad that the young people are turning to it in the search for what it means for them to be Australian. With any luck they will find a new reason for celebrating what we are and what we have done in our country, and I will learn from them. ‘Belonging’ leads to a feeling of entitlement, and I’ve written about that before, and at the level of the nation-state, it is the focus of disagreement about who is entitled to what, and why — but that should be the topic of another post.