Tribalism alert

Social IssuesThought-provoking

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 Dennis Relojo-Howell looks at how the cancer of tribalism is weakening our democracy, our harmony and our humanity.

Scratch the surface of the various conflicts raging in society and the chances are you will uncover the same puss leaking out. It doesn’t matter whether the division is linked to race, religion, politics, or even football. Deep down they are all manifestations of the disease of tribalism. 

The threat of tribalism is not new. John Adams warned of the destructive nature of tribalism in American society in 1780 when he described ‘two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil, under our Constitution’. Of course, that is precisely what has come to pass in many Western societies today as everyday politics.

Often, an issue as widespread as tribalism seems insurmountable. It is easy to convince ourselves that there is nothing that can be done.

Of course, defeatism will achieve little. To find where tribalism ends, we must first examine where it begins.

Tribalism really stems from fear. Arash Javanbakht, assistant professor of psychiatry at Wayne State University, suggests that fear can fuel the flames of tribalism. The way we bond together in times of joy and strife plays a crucial role when facing a threat. While there is safety in numbers, this survival tool can be misused when it falls into the wrong hands. Here, unity becomes a weapon against the ‘other’ instead of a force for cohesion.

Psychologists usually regard tribalism as practically inseparable from human nature since it has been historically integrated into our methods of survival as a species. This strongly suggests that we cannot entirely rid society of tribalism, but it also means we cannot point the finger at a single group and apportion blame accordingly.

Any objective observer would recognise that liberal and conservative groups like to place the blame on the other, even though they are equally guilty of tribalism. When assessed for levels of partisan bias, both liberals and conservatives exhibited similar levels of skewed perception. And while liberals generally fault conservatives for intolerance towards people unlike themselves, they too showed similar levels of intolerance. This kind of confirmation bias leads to an echo chamber effect, amplified dangerously by social media.

People in politics having conversation

It can be discouraging to think that society may never be entirely rid of tribalism, but when we acknowledge that no one group is better or worse at preventing it, we undercut its very nature. 

Racism and violence are perhaps the most obvious expressions of tribalism.

In the world of politics the cancer of tribalism has metastasised wildly and now grows damagingly in every organ of the body politic.  

This has been seen in issues such as Brexit and the reactions to the murder of George Floyd in 2020. If tribalism is at the root of these phenomena, it is of the utmost importance to confront the issue, recognise it for what it is and what it does to us as human beings and as societies. 

While sociologists suggest that tribalism cannot ever be fully eradicated, through careful interventions and changes of mindset, societies could possibly be spared some of its worst symptoms. Nikos Sotirakopoulos, a sociology lecturer at York St John University, argues somewhat hopefully that tribalism is not, in fact, something ingrained into human nature. It is, rather, a choice that has the potential to lead to some ugly consequences – or not if proper avoiding actions are taken in time.

Sotirakopoulos claims that it is a personal choice to follow the herd instead of thinking through an issue in a reasoned manner and acting on your conclusions, even though they might turn out to be wrong. The challenge is one that every citizen must assume, and the difficulties cannot be underestimated, but it’s one that lends hope to society at a time when hope risks being crushed out by the endless culture wars raging over every issue.

If tribalism is a choice, then it is also something that individuals can choose to reject.

The path forward is clear: independent thinking and the power of reaching one’s own conclusions regarding the state of the world – after thoroughly educating oneself – rather than relying on someone else to do the thinking for entire masses of people. 

Woman making her own decision and doing research

We need to ask ourselves in any issue: am I just following the herd here, giving way to a knee-jerk, emotional reaction? Have I really checked the facts? Is everything as black and white as it is depicted to be?

We should also examine more deeply our own capacity for critical thinking, which can only be properly formed by good reading and study. Do  I know how to develop an argument? Do I have the critical apparatus to spot the flaws in someone else’s argument? Can I discern my own prejudices and those of others? 

This is clearly not an easy or quick fix. Of course, while the question of how to teach children to think for themselves on such a large scale remains unanswered, it is up to the individual to take responsibility for their own actions, choices, and opinions.

Also, it is essential to engage individuals in new ways, to create connections and repair rifts opened by tribalism. For instance, facilitating ‘systemic dialogues’ can help to subvert the effects of tribalism in participants. These conversations help reveal the humanity of the people whom each group had once labelled as the ‘other’. This is an important step in bridging the gaps between groups.

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