Tribalism is a primal human instinct that surfaces at times of crisis and threat, as it directs action toward survival and protecting those who are part of your mob. Given there is safety in numbers, and avoiding ostracism and isolation from a community that will otherwise provide emotional refuge, people will strive to stay connected with and loyal to those people they identify as like them. They are their tribe.
Whether that tribe is circumscribed by culture, language, race, religion, professional or economic status, people with fragile egos and limited personal resources in terms of education, wealth and freedom of choice will be drawn to that social identity for their own self-worth and comfort. It takes courage to be the other, to be contrary or to challenge your group’s values, behaviour and alliances. Accordingly, we see compliance with the tribe’s norms and expectations, conformity expected and deviation condemned. Loyalty from the tribe demands unwavering commitment to the prevailing philosophies of the group, else risk being vilified or alienated by the mainstream of that tribe’s key proponents. George Bush (Jr) summarised that succinctly after the 911 attacks on New York that “you are either with us or you are against us”.
Sadly, we see such a binary choice dominating the thinking and expectations of so many political and social systems across both the supposedly democratic world and in the one party states and dictatorships. So many recent examples. Either pro or anti Brexit in the UK. Climate change believer or denier. Pro-renewables or pro-fossil-fuels. Believe in the Covid-19 pandemic and the needs for lockdown and masks, or belief in a conspiracy and the need to assert personal freedoms to ward off perceived fascism. Pro-guns or pro-gun-control. Pro-choice or pro-life. The lists goes on. Such choice, while usually never restricted to just two outcomes, are nothing new. What is new is that tribal allegiances are now requiring loyalty to their package of choices, without being able to exercise some flexibility case by case.
The Trump impeachment trial was a case in point. Republican senators in the US blindly rejected the impeachment process instigated by their Democrat opponents because they needed to protect one of their own. Tribal allegiance ‘trumped’ allegiance to their own nation and all of its people. Climate denialists are similar across the globe, who prioritise loyalty to their wealthy colleagues and respective investments in the fossil fuel industry to sabotage competing green technologies at the expense of future generations of citizens on this planet. Short term expedience driven by “what’s in it for me” imperatives, and stuff the rest. So called survival of the fittest.
Problem is so many of these protagonists driving tribal behaviour are supposedly ‘public servants’, elected or designated leaders in their countries and states, principally there to serve the utilitarian interests of their people. Their tribe. Of course, dictators by definition are self-interested and hardly service oriented. Leaders of one-party states too are less likely to act expansively in terms of the common good. However, in our democratic countries too, we are seeing this growing tribalism fomenting division and undermining social cohesion. Greed and egocentricity is encouraged as institutions are trivialised and mocked. Our judicial and taxation systems are weakened, evidence-based practices and scientific endeavour are considered superfluous, while educational pursuits, affirmative action for women and minorities, and similar honourable policies are rejected as politically correct.
This is a time for leaders. For courage. To strive to integrate the greater interests of all. But it ain’t sexy and it does not generate many social media clicks or enhance the follower tally. So we continue to dive to the bottom. Maybe only then when we are drowning in our own hubris, trying to till our denuded lands and survive the ferocious storms of mother nature, that perhaps we shall realise we have contributed to our own demise. Those selfish bastards (yes, and they are mainly men), they did this! And when they had the awareness and the opportunity, they hesitated, procrastinated and wimped it. They truly care less about the legacy they leave. Gratification now is their only motivation.
Solution? Strengthen our democratic institutions. Prioritise education and universal health. Root out corruption and promote more women to leadership roles. Develop cohesive taxation systems that more evenly spread the wealth (yes, significantly tax the multi-multi-millionaire’s plus). Care about the vulnerable, the disabled and the poor, and include them, not abandon. Operate in terms of universal human values. Facilitate this by appropriate application of law and balanced enforcement. Do so, to rise above our primal urges, to leave the jungle and once more return to civilisation. Else we are not advanced, just repeating brutal history.
Here’s hoping it does not get worse before it gets better. To endure world war III before so. However, unless we are all part of the solution (like US citizens voting in their elections in November), caring for your neighbour and seeing ourselves as custodians of this planet and so responsible for the plight of all sentient beings here (the earth’s geology does not care, it will outlive al species here), we will remain like lifeboats tossed on the wild oceans, hoping that one day we can be rescued, before we perish first.
Rescue the future now, because that is our power, and how we can respect those who come next. Or be bystanders and watch “Rome burn while Nero fiddles”.