Belfast Telegraph

You can keep your cloak of tribalism, it leaves me cold

By Fionola Meredith

We love our cosy little tribes, don't we? Getting in a huddle with all the people who think exactly like we do. Feeling deliciously oppressed and aggrieved at the injustices we have suffered. Whining together, in harmony. Best of all, hurling abuse at our enemies in the other gang. Because if you're not with us, you're against us, right? That's the most basic law of the tribe.

I'm not just talking about orange and green, and the current state of their absurdly petty culture wars, with curried yoghurt, Trojan horses and toilet paper flying back and forth between the two camps.

There must be something toxic in the soil of Northern Ireland, or maybe in the water, because it seems we can't stop dividing ourselves up into new gangs, new ways of hating each other.

The latest adversaries are 'The Christians' versus 'The Liberals'. When the butter-cream hit the fan over the refusal of Ashers bakery to make a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan on it, the two tribes quickly marshalled their ranks. 'The Liberals', bearing the proud flag of the Equality Commission, were the ones to go on the offensive this time, and they set up a steady fire on 'The Christians', denouncing them for their unlawful bigotry and intolerance. Meanwhile 'The Christians', clad in body-armour sponsored by the DUP, rushed to defend the rights of God-fearing Ulster patisseries to decorate their cakes entirely in accordance with their own beliefs.

Being a fully paid-up member of a tribe makes life very easy. You don't have to bother engaging your critical faculties, weighing up the rights and wrongs of a situation according to the evidence before you, using your own independent beliefs and values as a guide. All you need to do is to log on to Twitter and check what the people you follow are saying. Then simply retweet and relax, your job is done.

Take the tribal verdicts on the case of Bernadette Smyth, the leader of the Precious Life anti-abortion campaign, who was recently convicted of harassing Dawn Purvis, who is director of the Marie Stopes clinic. A holy martyr, claimed 'The Christians' heroically prepared to go to jail for the cause. Ha ha ha, laughed 'The Liberals'. Bernie had it coming to her, with her bonkers religious beliefs, and now she's got what she deserves.

There are still a few of us out there who don't want to be in anyone's gang. For instance, I was pleased at the judge's verdict in the Bernadette Smyth case, not out of some tribal antipathy, but because of the appallingly aggressive tactics used by Precious Life. This was never about Christianity versus the forces of secularism. It was about the rights of women to be able to enter a reproductive health clinic as staff or clients without being harassed. Thank God the judge acted in support of those rights. In the same spirit, will the (all-male) members of the Stormont cross-party pro-life group - which includes Health Minister Jim Wells, as well as two other government ministers, Mark H Durkan and Danny Kennedy - be considering the position of their official adviser, one Ms B. Smyth, now that she is a convicted criminal?

How about those other Christian martyrs, Ashers bakery? Well, not being in a tribe, I'm free to form my own opinion, and it's this: I'm on their side. Ashers didn't discriminate against a customer because of his perceived sexuality, which of course would be wrong, and rightly punishable by law. They just didn't want to endorse a message that was antithetical to the ethos of their business. That should be their choice, in exactly the same way that the lovely new feminist bakery - Germaine's, recently opened in the Cathedral Quarter, do drop in and try the quinoa scones -shouldn't have to make cakes for pro-life celebrations, complete with sweet little fondant foetuses on top. Okay, so Germaine's doesn't exist, but the point still holds, if you believe in freedom of conscience.

If you're tired of 'The Liberals' being as intolerant and illiberal as their religious enemies, or 'The Christians' claiming to speak for all people of faith, rather than the extreme wing of Christian conservatism that they actually represent, why not consider going tribe-free? True, it can get a bit lonely at times, out on your own. But at least you get to think for yourself.

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