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Traumatized young adults and the danger of “tribes thinking”

How today’s trendy ideologies can harm the already hurting


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Traumatized young adults and the danger of “tribes thinking”
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A recent Impact 360/Barna study found that 82 percent of Generation Z (those born between 1999 and 2015), self-report having suffered trauma, defined by the study as an experience “leaving them with a sense of helplessness, terror or distress lasting more than a few weeks.” Top reported traumas include the death of a loved one, suicidal thoughts, betrayal by a loved one, and racial discrimination.

God does not suggest but commands that we “build up,” “encourage one another,” “bear one another’s burdens,” and “weep with those who weep.” Those commands suggest how we care for Gen Z. Yet, there is an ideology currently sweeping the nation that will yield tragically ironic results as we seek to help the traumatized among us.

Before naming this ideology, let us first ponder trauma. A scary childhood sickness, a panic attack in a tight space, or a humiliating social moment can rewire a brain for any number of troubles. A trio of brain regions function together as what doctors have called “the uh-oh center.” At the genesis of much anxiety, we find traumas that light up the brain’s uh-oh center like a Christmas tree.

Exposure therapy has tremendous healing effects for the traumatized. The arachnophobe who gradually learns to hold a tarantula learns that not all spiders are out to kill him. In short, good psychologists help phobics ungeneralize. They help rewire phobic brains to realize that the world is not, in fact, as terrifying as their brain’s uh-oh center would have them believe. Trauma from this spider does not mean all spiders are out to kill you.

But young adults are also inundated with what we may call “tribes thinking.” Tribes thinking tells us that the best way to interpret our experiences is by heightening tensions through tribal identities. Young people are encouraged to reframe everything through the lenses of oppressors versus the oppressed.

This trending ideology does the exact opposite of what good psychologists do. It generalizes identities and increases tensions. That spider bit you; therefore, all spiders are out to get you! People questioning whether the spiders are out to get you are probably spiders themselves! The brain’s assessment center is bypassed. The uh-oh center is ignited, and tribes thinking does nothing to slow the flames from spreading until the whole brain turns to ash.

We must not teach any ideology—left or right—that pumps enough wattage into people’s uh-oh centers to light up Times Square. That would be cruel.

Some will read me as saying there’s no such thing as gender discrimination or racism. That is not the point. There are real creepy spiders in the world. There are real misogynists and real racists. When they strike, it is the Christian mandate to listen and love those who hurt. My point is that to love people well, we must be careful not to inadvertently pour salt in their wounds with an ideology that generalizes their trauma.

As one former tribes thinker describes his experience, “To see every interaction as containing hidden violence is to become a permanent victim, because if all you are is a nail, everything looks like a hammer.” What effect did such nail-and-hammer thinking have on this young radical’s soul? It left him “exhausted and misanthropic, because any action or statement can be shown with sufficient effort to hide privilege, a microaggression, or unconscious bias.”

In short, tribes thinking is burdensome. It adds psychological oppression to those already suffering. As Musa al-Gharbi notes, “There is abundant research demonstrating harm caused by heightened perceptions of racism, discrimination, racialized violence, and racial inequality. … We have ample reason to believe that sensitizing people to better perceive and take greater offense at these ‘slights’ actually would cause harm.”

If we teach along with critical race theory activists like Robin DiAngelo that “the societal default is oppression; there are no spaces free from it,” then we will see oppression everywhere, whether it is real or not. In so doing, we aren’t defending the oppressed; we are adding to their number. We are inadvertently adding to the net anxiety, depression, anger, and fear in the universe. We must not teach any ideology—left or right—that pumps enough wattage into people’s uh-oh centers to light up Times Square. That would be cruel.

Think of such fear in Biblical terms. God commands us to “fear not” more than a hundred times in Scripture. God does not want His people to languish in fear. If we advance ideologies that generalize people’s painful experiences, leave them chronically triggered, and set their uh-oh centers ablaze, then we should not pretend that we are doing the kind of justice Scripture commands.


Thaddeus Williams

Thaddeus Williams is the author of the best-selling book Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth: 12 Questions Christians Should Ask About Social Justice (Zondervan/HarperCollins, 2020). He serves as associate professor of systematic theology for the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University and resides in Orange County, Calif., with his wife and four kids.


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