Modern Tribalism (part 1)

As I was watching the reaction to the tragedy in Norway, something interesting happened.

At first, there was rampant speculation that the attack was the work of Muslim terrorists. It’s a pretty standard reaction these days, particularly when the attacks include bombing. But then it was reported that the attacker who had been arrested was a Nordic male. At that point people split in to two groups. In the absence of information we end up with speculation. One group theorized (it now seems correctly) that he was a right wing extremist and perhaps a neo-Nazi. The others stuck to their belief that somehow this was related to Muslim terrorists. These groupse tended to split based less on the facts of the case and more on their political stance.  The debate became one of left vs. right, when I think we can all agree the actions of this individual do not reflect the ideals of those on either side.

So why is it that, no matter what is going on, people tend to take sides? Why do they try to frame events in to their preconceived notions of right and wrong, left and right, conservative and liberal? I started thinking about different parts of our life (religion, sports, geographic identity) and it seemed that everywhere I turned was the same thing. People choose to identify with a group, and to take sides against an opposing group. And in the absence of an obvious opposing group it seems they will search for one. What is it about us that causes us to default to a black and white thought pattern?

I believe that it is human nature to revert to a tribal structure. Other than the family the oldest and most basic unit is the tribe. In the past there was a clear evolutionary advantage to being part of a tribe. A tribe offered protection and support. Individuals within the tribe could use their skills for the benefit of the group. Your weaknesses could be offset by the strengths of other members of the group. Tribes could control more territory and resources. Those who did not possess the tribal instinct would be at a severe disadvantage, and were likely to find themselves either forcefully absorbed by or destroyed by a neighboring tribe.

Flashing forward, tribalism itself has evolved. What was once a tribe is now a nation. And while it is obvious to associate with the nation of which you are a citizen, it doesn’t seem to have the ability to be all encompassing for many people. Survival now is easier. There are fewer threats. As we have more time and more interests outside survival, we find ourselves involved in a wide variety of activities and intellectual pursuits.  Most of these endeavors are hardly life or death, but regardless of their real importance, we still seem to revert to tribalism.

I believe it is this trait that is the reason that we, as people, tend to find ourselves seeing everything in a binary fashion. In the days of the tribe it was the tribe that guaranteed your survival. As a result it was important to be a member of the right tribe and for the tribe to have at least the appearance of unity on opinions and decisions. A tribe with internal strife was likely to fracture along the lines of division. It was less likely to function well. A less functional tribe would have trouble providing the food, shelter and security that was at the core of its existence.

Instinctively we look at events around us through the eyes of our tribe. We look at it in the most simplistic way. I used to think we are conditioned to think of things in a black and white fashion by society, but looking at what happens around the world it’s clear that this is not something unique to America or even the West. We see the same thing in different ways around the world. In more developed societies the nation has replaced the tribe. In less developed societies the traditional tribe survives. In politics we see the members of various political parties, if they are allowed, reverting to tribal behavior. And the same can be said for everything from business to sports and even to entertainment.

In short, I believe there is a tribalism instinct present in each and every one of us. In some respects it provides advantages for the individual and the group. AT the same time it also provides a disadvantage in that it in effect discourages us from anything beyond a superficial review of the facts of any given event. It also encourages us to make excuses for actions taken by our chosen “tribe” when it might be in our own best interests to distance ourselves from, or actively oppose, those actions.


    1. I moved away from my main group of friends a nubemr of years ago because of work, and our lives have all taken many twists and turns since such that we have all found maintaining our friendships at their previous level difficult. I still miss these friends and though I have made others, these friendships do not seem to have the same depth and it is not just because they are newer. As I get older, I find that people seem to have less time and energy for friendship among the competing demands of work and family, and I find this sad although I am guilty of it also. When I moved here, I also met some people who I felt offered potential as friends, but they seemed to already have as many friends as they could cope with and were not really interested in including any more. I would do anything to help my friends, but I could not say the same of all of them. However, one of the pleasures of getting older is that one gets more philosophical about peoples’ capabilities and alters expectations accordingly. My husband remains my best friend and our relationship compensates much for any perceived shortcomings of others. I have also had the enjoyment of forging much better relationships with siblings and some relatives as we have all “grown up” a bit.

  1. To an atheist such as mylsef, the entire concept of sectarianism is baffling. Well, I suspect the concept isn’t particularly baffling. What surprises, is that none of the things on your handy dandy comparison chart (which is superficially accurate) are being argued about. In other words, the conflict is not about whether we should accept the Bible and tradition, or just jettison the latter, or exactly which books are in the Bible, or the precise relationship between nature and grace and so on In fact, I suspect none of these debates (alas) are of any interest at all to the two sides. Atheist as I have said numerous times until you engage the deeper historical and cultural issues, you have no hope of understanding the world you live in, and why it has become increasingly violent.

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