Michael Key

Defeating Tribalism (Part 1)

Michael Key
Defeating Tribalism (Part 1)

Who are we?

I wonder how many emphasized the verb here: Who are we? Taken in that existential direction, the question mirrors cousin questions like “what are we here for?” and “what is our purpose?” Emphasize instead that tiny, two-letter pronoun with which the question ends: Who are we? In the former reading, most readers intuitively substitute “the human race” and assume that the question delves into what it means to be human. But in the second reading, we (being the collective readership) are forced to consider who “we” is referring to. Does “we” stand for humanity? For all readers of this article? For people of a certain nationality? Of a certain race?

To modify A.W. Tozer’s notable statement concerning beliefs and attitudes about God, what comes into your mind when you think about “we” reveals much about you. More to the point, to whom “we” most often refers in your general usage reveals much about you. It discloses in some sense your perceived identity: to whom you belong, who are your people, what is your tribe. For some, that tribe is a self-selected group of individuals, your friend or friends perhaps. You have chosen them, they have chosen you, and in the most devoted cases, an unspoken blood-oath (or a spoken one if you’re into that sort of thing) seals the bond between you. For others, that tribe consists of givens, people that God or Nature or whatever have seemingly connected you to — family for example. In either case, if someone were to harm or some trouble befall one of the “we,” there would be hell to pay.

This familial devotion, which as noted can extend to one’s chosen family, very often ought to be commended. To look out or stand up for your “tribal members” demonstrates self-sacrifice, care for the community, justice. Your tribe affords you the opportunity to look outside yourself, and in many ways is the antidote to narcissism. Indeed, in many cases, to neglect a member of your tribe is tantamount to treason or blasphemy. How could you be so self-centered and neglect one of “us”?

They and the Tribal Problem

If, however, what comes into your mind when you think about “we” reveals something about you, equally revealing is what comes into your mind when you think about “they.” Who are they, in your vocabulary? The ancient Greeks had a name for their “they”: barbarian. The Greeks thought that the languages of non-Greek speakers just sounded like bar bar bar, quite literally mindless babble. To be non-Greek was to be lesser than. Such a superiority complex still plagues moderns.

Familial devotion drifts into tribalism, a mindset that promotes social bonding at the expense of and in antithesis to another group. Love for our people often leads to a diseased, even demonized, perception of our “theys.” Most familiar to American experience, partisan politics thrives on love of “we” and contempt for “they.” Both Democrats and Republicans suffer from this problem equally. If they would just listen to the scientists and accept human impact on global warming. If they would care about the welfare of the poor. If they would stop trying to take our hard-earned money. If they would listen to God and the Constitution. Racial, ethnic, national, lingual, and religious (or areligious) divides all contribute to tribalism. President Trump in particular parasitically thrives on tribal language to an extreme very rarely seen in American politics, feeding on people’s fears and prejudices about contrived “theys,” who always seem to have a penchant for diminishing America’s greatness in some ambiguous way.

But the problem is not limited to American politics. Populist uprisings, feeding on tribalist tendencies, are notoriously growing in many European countries as well. Apparently the specter of Hitler’s Aryan “we” and Jewish “they” still haunts the globe, simply donning new disguises. What prescription can exorcise this dichotomous demon? What solution can encourage us to love our tribe well while diminishing our tendency to demonize others?

The Humanist Solution(s)

Some will put forward education as the fix. In fact, some see education as the remedy to cure most of the world’s ailments. In this view, the thing that makes human beings uniquely human is rationality. Thus, deeply-rooted problems must have delved into the reasoning mind. Fix the mind; fix the problem. Ignorance, so it is believed, blinds us to the issues caused by tribalism. Perhaps the social sciences can especially train us to see its damning effects.

While exposing the issue may help, it ultimately fails and even perpetuates the problem. A new “we” and “they” form: the educated and the ignorant, the elite and the populace. How haven’t they seen the consequences of tribalism when so many studies delineate its effects? Why must they maintain such a medieval mentality?  How long will they perpetuate their parochial small-mindedness? Such language, not foreign to our educated elite, drips with patronizing contempt.

Others might appeal less to our rationality and more to our feelings and will. I’m sure more recent songs encapsulate this idea, but this stance is epitomized by the 1985 hit “We Are the World.”

We are the world

We are the children

We are the ones who make a brighter day, so let's start giving

There's a choice we're making

We're saving our own lives

It's true we'll make a better day, just you and me

The song triggers a sense of compassion and community within the listener who is included in the “we” that extends to the entire world. Even more, “we” can actively demonstrate our compassion. It’s our choice to make the world a better place, less tribal and more global. Yet again, it falls prey to the same tendency. The lovers versus the haters, the inclusive versus the exclusive, the compassionate versus the unfeeling, the active versus the inactive, the strong willed versus the weak willed.

Moreover, to extend that sense of community to the entire globe, their must be some social bond which ties us together, something which makes us recognize and feel that every human being really is part of our “we.” Love cannot exist in the absence of a relationship. Can the idea that we all belong to the taxonomic category homo sapiens provide us with that bond? Can some notion of Natural Law and the equality of humans could enlighten us? What about all being “a part of God’s great big family” as Tina Turner croons in “We Are the World’s” first verse?

The Trump to Tribalism

Perhaps there is something to this last thought. Certainly some will object. Hasn’t religion contributed to, if not acted as the primary cause of, the us-versus-them mentality? The saint on the one hand, the sinner on the other? The people of God crusading against the infidel? Since no universal religion exists can we talk about every human as part of God’s family? Which God?

Christians have undeniably perpetuated this stereotype (I used “crusading” above purposefully), but if we follow the deep logic of Christian doctrine, a solution surfaces to counter the draw all people feel not only to love particular associations but to demonize others. Even, or perhaps especially, Christians needs this reminder.