The Problem of Tribal Identity

“Tribalism” has become something of a buzzword in my section of the blogosphere. It plays a part in religion as well as politics. Many of us are indoctrinated in grade school to having “team spirit” for the local sports teams. I got over that last one around middle school and rolled my eyes during mandatory pep rallies. I’m not a sports fan, so why should I care about the school’s football team?

I’m not proposing solutions to tribalism, but offering some of my perspective while looking for discussion.

Humans have some natural tribal instincts that got us through the wilderness. The problem is that our prosperity depends on outgrowing those instincts. Monarchies, dictatorships, oligarchies, governments that discriminate against a minority all seem to have roots in our hierarchical tribal tendencies. The autocrat is the larger scale version of the tribal elder. In the case of a tribal elder, there is a reasonable rationale for relying on his judgement: In the wilderness days, living to a decent age was an accomplishment. Being around so long usually meant that he was experienced, and that experience allowed him to survive. Having a leader has a lot of benefits in a dangerous environment, since he can direct everyone to survival tasks whereas a leaderless group would lose efficiency from everyone doing what they thought was important.

The hereditary monarch seems like the next intuitive step: Supposedly, the experienced elder would do a good job of teaching his children what he knows so that they can grow up to be effective leaders. The intuition, however, can lead to a ruling class and with it, class disparity. A system where one class gets a proper education to rule over the lower classes may be stable, but it’s very sub-optimal because it suppresses talent in the lower classes. There’s more to a culture’s prosperity than simple survival. The other destructive side is that it can encourage a false sense of entitlement in the ruling class, where bloodlines matter more than actual ability to lead. It gets worse when the ruling class can claim divine right or other religiously endowed status, since it provides motivation for the lower classes to accept bad leaders unquestioningly.

Another aspect of tribalism is in-group cohesion and out-group discrimination. The in-group can be just about anything: A religion, a race, a political party, a sport team’s fandom. Humans naturally form groups because teamwork has many benefits. The trouble is when tribalism inflates emotional reactions. Sports fans will sometimes break out into riots after a game. Obsessed fans will pick fights with fans of the opposing team. These responses are grossly out of proportion for what should be a friendly match. It gets worse with religion, politics, and race.

On the topic of race and sports teams, the pride people show is baffling to me as an adult. I didn’t choose to be raised in my school’s district. I didn’t choose my race. My inclusion in those groups was by accident. Why should I be proud of those things? I suppose one answer for the attitude is that it boosts self-esteem: A white supremacist doesn’t need to do anything to feel good about himself because he’s convinced himself that some great white people accomplished great things because they were white, and thus he thinks he’s praiseworthy and entitled to benefits by extension. Of course, a person with this attitude typically becomes enraged if someone from another race earns distinction through his own abilities. Meritocracy is anathema to discriminatory attitudes because it seeks objective measures of worth over presumed worth by association.

Politically, I think the two-party system has done a lot of harm in the US. I don’t know the solution, but I recognize part of the problem. When Bush was in power and responsible for numerous civil rights abuses including torture, the Democratic party was largely opposed. However, when the Democratic Obama became president, continued, and even expanded many of those civil rights abuses, the Democratic party became much less vocal about them. That was a very disillusioning experience for me. Suddenly, a clear evil stopped being evil apparently because it was their own doing it. I may not be a vocal advocate of truly objective morality, but the in-group preferences and out-group discrimination of tribalism seems the likely cause of that moral subjectivity. I often call it “red team-blue team morality” where something is evil if the opposing team does it, but it’s fair play if your own team does it.

Of course, the Republican party has plenty of its own guilt and a lot of them seem to define their moral stance in terms of opposition to Obama, rather than having firm values of their own. They’ve been hurling a lot of rhetoric devoted to making several groups into a monolithic “Other” to be opposed, conflating their boogeyman versions of Islam, atheism, LGBT activism, feminists, Communism, intellectuals, and so forth as being some sinister conspiracy, even though some of those groups are vehement enemies of each other. Their criticism of Obama is largely focused on his race, baseless accusations of him being foreign-born, accusations of secretly being a Muslim, of being a Communist or socialist for trying to modestly improve medical care or raising taxes. They don’t speak of him as an American they disagree with, but as an evil outsider come to sabotage Mom and apple pie. Of course, while they feel good about themselves for criticizing the wrong thing, they miss out on the expansion of executive power and destruction of government transparency as well as problems in other sectors of the government.

Finally, religion plays its own part. Religions are usually imbedded with all sorts of ideas that reinforce tribalism. The divine right of kings was used to support tyrants. The prosperity gospel is used to support the dominance of wealthy individuals and to ostracize the poor. The sovereignty of an omnipotent god reinforces authoritarian themes of an unquestionable leader who is above the law. The requirement of belief to get into the good afterlife mixed with punishment for unbelievers for being unbelievers reinforces in-group cohesion while “justifying” out-group discrimination. It deters honest, open discussion if you think questioning the dogma and thus your kin is a betrayal. It’s common for ex-Christian atheists to describe how pressured they felt to conform, how they were scolded for asking honest questions, and how they were ostracized by insincere “friends” and family when they drifted away from religion, so on.

Of course, pretty much everyone is subject to tribal biases, including me. I suspect I might not feel it as strongly as most people, but it’s there, and I’ve been caught in it before, so I recognize that I have to keep watching myself so that I don’t fall into the pattern. At times I’m willing to give fellow skeptics and atheists the benefit of the doubt, but when one blatantly crosses the line, I’ll do my best to call him or her on it. I’ve got a particular case of that in mind for my next post.

As an aside, I feel like sharing an amusing anecdote from an old friend of mine: At his high school’s pep rallies, students were separated by class, and the cheerleaders would go around telling each to shout.

“And now, the seniors!”


“And now, the seniors!”

More silence.

Apparently someone had suggested that they all remain silent when called on, and all the seniors present decided to go along with the plan, including my friend. Someone wrote in the school newspaper saying it was sad that the seniors had no school spirit. At the next pep rally, the cheerleaders lightly chided them for their silence last time and told them to really put some effort into it.

“And now, the seniors!”

The cheerleaders were bombarded with boos and crumbled up school newspapers. The senior class was banned from all future pep rallies.

I wish I could have been there.

One response to “The Problem of Tribal Identity

  1. Such a large subject with so many manifestations in human life (and the lives of many other animals) Could it be for any creature? To some extent? I’m not sure. Perhaps locals in my part of town would receive a kinder greeting/response when at my front door, asking for assistance, simply because I recognise their face as that of a local.
    I think a relaxing of the ‘Tribal’ influences in us may be something to aspire to in order to create the true equality and fairness that the modern moral flavour of the times require. But still such a basic and widespread effect as Tribalism makes me wonder if I should end all of these sentences with a question mark?
    If all borders and boundaries: racial, religious, economic, language-dependant, cultural, defensive and national were dropped, how long would it take for the whole world to become a chaotic and lawless third-world country?
    Do we need some of the effects of tribalism to keep our world livable and learning? How much of this world is livable and learning anyway?
    Good subject, difficult for me to form definite conclusions about it. If my grasp of the subject is weak or ill-informed, anyone is welcome to tell me so.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s