Glyn's Web Site


angel and devil - tribalism

Political Tribalism, and Why You're Wrong.

(or why they think you are)

I Have a Dream!

that one day...

... people of all colours will come together... Red, blue, yellow, orange, green, even purple. A nation who work together to solve our issues, and political tribalism will be a thing of the past...

... but currently that's looking very far fetched. "Western" politics is currently as divided as it's ever been; So a few civil wars, not to mention the odd world one prove that comment to be hyperbole, but while we may have come a long way from our feudal past, much of our democracy is still struggling under the influence of, well, people.

The Human Psyche

Some claim that humans are naturally selfish. It's partly true. We're also naturally social, and most take pleasure from helping each other. Our political positions tend to revolve around the extent to which we believe humans are selfish, or social creatures.

If capitalism is based around the idea that we're naturally selfish, and communism around the idea that we're naturally social, it should be self evident that neither is completely suited to our needs if it turns out we're actually a bit of both and not one or the other.

A society which is both selfish and social needs a political system which reflects that, rather than opposing doctrines trying to enforce their views on the other. So why are we bogged down in this tribalism? Obviously it's because everyone else just doesn't get why you're right... but ... maybe there's more.

The Evolution of Tribalism

Historically tribalism is about people coming together as a means to improve their survival chances. People became social for selfish reasons, not because they cared about the tribe, but because they appreciated that there is safety in numbers. The bigger the group, the more chance you had to bring down the mammoth, or beating the other tribes when competing for resources. Great leaders (or just the biggest thugs) brought smaller tribes together to form larger ones, until we end up with the concept of nations, or just really big tribes who got bored of fighting, and drew up borders at roughly the positions of the last battles.

Modern tribalism is less about a need to survive, and more about finding "people a bit like us", shared identity and beliefs, amongst the swathing mass of humanity which has engulfed the planet. It can be based on anything from taste in music, clothes or sport. No longer restricted to being a member of just one tribe, modern tribalism can work across a whole range of levels and ideas. It can be as much about what people are not, as what they are.

We may have come together out of selfish necessity, but the fact is, most modern people do care about others, and the more we consider them "like us", that is, the more we share ideals, the more we relate, respect, and care.

When it comes to politics however, it's currently as much about the old definition as it is the new; Getting hold of power and resources for "your tribe", or people who think like you.

The Basics of How Tribalism Works

Tribalism makes people focus on;

  • What makes people in the tribe the same.
  • What makes people outside of the tribe different.

Which has two obvious effects.

  • It brings people within the "tribe" closer. We go out of our way to understand, justify, or protect them, even when they do "wrong".
  • It alienates people who are outside of the tribe. It makes them "other"; People who need to be beaten, rather than helped or understood.

While Tribalism might be a coming together of people over shared values or beliefs, it intrinsically creates Factionalism; "People in tribe good. People not in Tribe, bad". Tribalism makes people afraid to question tribal dogma, for fear of appearing "other".

When viewed from a more national, or even global perspective, tribalism stops being a way of simply bringing people together; Tribalism is then a way of dividing people, making them fight among each other, leaving them at best ineffective, and at worst easily conquered.

A Fundamental Change in Attitude

"Why can't we all just get along?" has been asked so many times the question is almost a parody. The problem is that the question is flawed. We aren't all "We"; "We" is divided... into "Us" and "Them". Let's not pretend we can just wish that away. We have the largest levels of global inequality in history, and some people are doing very nicely out of keeping the rest of us divided while promoting ideologies pushing selfishness in varying degrees.

Sure, we are all selfish to some degree, but we're not all that selfish. The question for most is not if we should all be completely equal, but if it really should be so incredibly unequal. Do we want to see those massive levels of inequality increasing or decreasing?

Those of us who want to see those levels of inequality decreasing need to come together; We need to have a wider idea of what counts as "Us". That's going to require thinking outside of our current tribalism. It's going to require listening to each other; Understanding what's right about each others arguments, not just what's wrong. We need to understand how we respond to people within "our tribe" and recognise when we're treating people "outside of our tribe" differently.

It all requires a shift away from "I know how to do this best", to "Let's work together to find out how we want to do this."

Let's just put that in a box, and highlight it, to give it a bit of clout.

That requires a shift away from "I know how to do this best", to "Let's work together to find out how We want to do this."

Well, you can dream...