“Idea Tribes” and “Pravda”

Maybe it has always been this way, but there seems to be an increase of intolerance in recent years. Yes, I know that in many things— race (maybe), sexual orientation, and lifestyle choices— there seems greater tolerance. But intolerance of divergent viewpoints seems greater. I could be wrong, but it makes sense. We are group-creating creatures… we create cultures. Cultures are tied to shared beliefs and behaviors. Therefore, the notion that all taboos are going away seems doubtful. As we tear one down, we build up a different one. It seems as if we are creating “Idea Tribes” and create a culture around such ideas. I occasionally will drop in on some of these Idea Tribes on social media. I don’t do it very often,  but it is useful as an ethnographic investigation to see how such groups interact and create patterns of identification. I am blessed in that I have online friends who are in nearly the full range of (American and Filipino at least) political positions, and with a considerably broad variety of theological positions. Because of this, it is pretty easy for me to pop in on the Calvinists, or the MAGA folk, or the Complementarians, the Anti-Trumps, the Skeptics, and the Anti-vax’ers. (Many many other groups out there of course).  Occasionally I will drop a comment… but not too often. Some take the comment with grace. Others get triggered (so weird that the people who complain about others getting triggered are so susceptible to being triggered… a form of projection perhaps?).

Pretty much all such groups embrace something that years ago was called PRAVDA. Pravda is the Russian word meaning “truth.” However, it was also a newspaper that served, in part, as the media arm of the USSR. As such, the term “pravda” came to be used as a slang term for “the official truth.” All groups claim to seek truth, but in reality they seek pravda. That is, they seek a shared concensus of what is defined as truth by the group. As such, this pravda is useful to identify the boundaries of the group (who are “Us” and who are “They”). It may also come to be treated as worldview truth. That is, it is presumed to be truth and therefore is used to build off of to discover new truths, and test proposed truths.

One of the fun things to do is to see how some people will so actively seek to develop such Idea Tribes. In other cases, Idea Tribes already exist, and people wrestle in trying to get their idea tribe to take one shared view on a hitherto unexplored new idea.

One such is the response to COVID-19.  COVID-19 is a fact. It exists It is spreading. It is the truth. But truths are not that useful for defining groups. Usually, it is pravda. Pravda can be questioning facts (conspiracy theory groups, for example). More often Pravda is associated with interpretation of facts (What does it mean in terms of our group’s identity) or response to facts (How then should we respond).  It, further, may establish a battle of values (which is the lesser evil or the greater good).

With COVID-19 it is interesting to see that many groups, since they haven’t really dealt with a pandemic before, do not have a shared belief (pravda) so we find Idea Tribes struggling with it. Some of these battling Pravdas are:

  • It’s a Chinese plot.  (Interpretation of facts)
  • We should let the virus run its course (Response to facts.  Darwinian approach)
  • It is the judgment of God (Interpretation of facts)
  • We must meet as a church in defiance to Law (Interpretation and Response)
  • We must obey the Law and support fighting the virus (Interpretation and Response)
  • We must invigorate the economy even if it leads to some people dying (battle of values)

What is funny is how many will try to look open-minded and share a controversial article or video. But then they share another article or video of the same type… and then another and another. Eventually it is clear that they are not being open-minded. They are cherry-picking data to try to sway the group to incorporate their viewpoint as part of the dogma of their Idea Tribe.

One will quote a “leading epidemologist” or a “registered nurse” or a “respected physician” or an “anonymous Chinese witness”. The stream of articles from (sometimes dubious) sources keeps coming in hopes that their view is accepted.

I know as a former mechanical design engineer, there is likely to be a wide range of beliefs within design. The underlying facts remain unchanged. We have Newtonian Physics, Maxwell’s Laws, and the Laws of Thermodynamics. These don’t change… but how to apply them requires certain viewpoints. Do we emphasize performance? quality? economy? flexibility? speed? durability? aesthetics? marketability? Good people can differ about that. Good engineers can vary widely in how to design something because of these perspectives (either personal or corporate perspectives).

In epidemics, does one prioritize human life? economy? liberty?

In epidemic response, is it better to let an illness “burn itself out” or stretch it out so as to be able to ensure that the health care system doesn’t get overwhelmed?

We live in a weird time where we have a weird mix of Modernism (trust the experts) and Post-Modernism (trust our own subjective experiences). Both have their problems. Post-Modernism tends to reinforce Idea Tribes— those whose subjective views align. Decisions tend to be made based on what we want to be true, rather than what is. Modernism has problems as well. Experts are also subjective, limited, beings. Modernism can easily devolve into a battle royale of experts, or a democracy (55% of leading experts concur that…).

In such a time, how should we respond? In some ways, I don’t know. As Christians I do think we have to look to Christ for guidance. I don’t think Jesus would prioritize economy over human life, or prioritize who should live and who from the herd can be thinned-out. But for some other things, I think it best to stay cautiously open-minded. We should not squelch divergent viewpoints. We can also withhold judgment when that is useful. I live in Baguio City, Philippines with a very strict “enhanced quarantine.” Some of my friends online support a more laissez-faire policy. Baguio City has had no new cases of COVID-19 in 9 days, while the laisser-faire places I have looked up are not doing nearly so well. So I feel justified to think that the plan for Baguio City is correct… but I must also accept the possibility that new facts may come out later that would challenge this view.






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