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I’ve been in a very introspective and uselessly philosophical mood as of late. Right now I’ve been wondering about tribalism, or the idea of people forming groups around a shared identity, interest, or idea. This affects me because I see a lot of it wherever I go, from something like a shared hobby all the way to political and cultural tribes. I can’t help but think that it gets in the way of human achievement.

Take mental illness and changing social norms about it, for example.
To begin with, I think about this because I keep facing the reality that I can’t talk about all of my symptoms with people – even anonymously or in therapy. So it’s a very real barrier to me getting a full measure of cure for what ails me. I’m sure other people with mental illnesses suffer the exact same thing. Dealing with stigma thus is a matter of survival for a large group of people.

But how stigma gets changed matters, too. It doesn’t serve anyone to threaten people with social punishment if they don’t promote a new social norm. At that point, people are only claiming to respect the mentally ill out of fear, and not because they can see why such treatment is important. Ignorance of mental illness will persist, albeit a bit more quietly.

Tribalism has the same effect elsewhere.
In the US at least, we’ve been publicly against all sorts of nasty things for quite some time. Despite the public demand for equality and decency, a lot of them haven’t changed. Everything gets distilled down to group membership. If you’re in the group, people will forgive almost anything. Being outside the group makes a person fair game for poor treatment.

That this exists shouldn’t be a surprise; evolution has been very kind to people that were able to work together. But working together doesn’t mean thriving together, and it most certainly does not mean that individuals must thrive. In fact, tribalism often gets in the way of individual people having a better life.

Here’s where I go off the rails and realize this is a big question.
Tribalism has been a basic human social tool for thousands of years, at the very least so long as we’ve had recorded history. It might have served a purpose when a person’s major goals in life were to eat, sleep, and get laid. Outside of these three things, tribalism tends to get in the way of human achievement.

Think of it this way. We’ve got technology that lets us talk to everyone around the world, and it gets used to bully people into submission. At times, this has been so awful that some people have killed themselves. Such behavior seemed okay at the time because the victims weren’t members of whatever tribe was on hand.

It’s easy – even for me – to forget that there are people behind all of these ideas. Nobody should agree with me or get treated poorly because they don’t have the same library card as I do. With regards to group membership, the ends do not justify the means.

4 thoughts on “Tribalism

  1. As a gay man who has been subject to religious bigotry all my life I can agree with your paragraph. How to change this human condition I do not know. But boy I know it really needs to change for the good of our species. Hugs

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  2. The problem is that there seems to be a limit to the number of people one can surround themselves with and not to start to feel isolated. That’s probably why people can feel more lonely in a city than in a village. I think that we have evolved to be less empathetic with other people the the further they are outside our circle. I doubt that will ever change.

    The best we can hope for is to develop an environment where we don’t feel the need to be hostile to those outside our “tribe”. Unfortunately I’m not sure if the extreme competitiveness and individuality of American culture is conducive to the development of such an environment.

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  3. I personally don’t think tribalism is as prevalent as it was for most of human history. This is large part is because of the increased ease of travel, and then things like radio, television, and the internet. It is likely that it will be hard to get out of a tribal mentality, but the key is to expanding that notion of what you mean as your tribe. Is it just people in your religion, your race, your city, your family, etc? Certainly narrower and broader definitions exist, but considering that people are willing to help flood victims in India all the way from North America, indicates that there is at least some acknowledgement of the basic of humanity of all people, and that we need not be in personal contact with people to be concerned with their well being. This is why I think globalization is inevitable and when we look at how we solve problems like climate change, it is going to require global cooperation and this means moving away from nationalism. This is the alt-right push back right now. It’s largely white, but it also highly nationalistic. This is a concern among even more moderate Republicans. But I do think it won’t stand the test of a longer historical arc.

    I agree that there are many negative aspects of social media and the ability to connect, but I think that we will use social media in a more productive way over time. I think the fact that we are having discussions about communication and ethics is a sign of our being more thoughtful about what’s going on with social media. It would be nice if humans had more foresight to have these discussions early, but I think it’s a good sign that we are having them.

    In regards to mental illness, I am not sure how much tribalism plays a role here, over a religious subtext to society (I talk about all religions) that see the mind and body as separate entities, and that free will is far more libertarian than it actually is. I see erasing a lot of the stigma as being a matter of education. We need to do a better job of teaching about the brain and seeing it as just another organ and not some intimate connection to the soul or some other nonsense.

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  4. Good thoughts here, Sirius! But then, I don’t consider philosophical moods useless. A bit like tribalism, it’s all about what you make of it.

    I agree that tribalism is a survival tool. One that has worked so well for our ancestors that we’ve practically got it installed on the genetic level. We’re pack animals. No way around that, unless we want to redesign the entire species from the ground up.

    Because our immediate survival and well being depends on our core pack, it’s the one where we invest most of our energy. A horse, a wolf, a dolphin can make it alone, but first chance they get to join a group, they will.
    It’s where we form the strongest social ties, too. We already watch each other’s backs, our ancient brains tell us that our survival depends on one another, so it’s reasonable to care about the unit as a whole and the individuals within.

    But then, being humans, we proceed to overuse our tools.
    Dolphins may compete with other pods over resources, but they won’t start wars that wipe out entire populations, nor do they vilify the other guys beyond “Mean interloper! This is myfish, now bugger off!”

    But I don’t think the concept itself is outdated, or useless.
    On the contrary, I’m all for tribalism in its basic form of mutual support.
    Not long ago one of my favorite bloggers wrote a post about how her “Horse Tribe” came through for her when her four-legged darling was dangerously ill.
    I understood from the first paragraph what she was talking about. If my horse were in dire straits, there are several people I could call, and non-horsey friends who would be happy to help and I love them for it – but only my Horse Tribe would understand. On an emotional and a practical level.
    I won’t bore you with details 😉 – but in a situation where hours, even minutes may count, you need someone who will race and hitch up a trailer at 3 AM because s/he doesn’t need a lengthy explanation, just one word. Colic.

    In reverse, I just looked after a sweet little mare because her owner was incapacitated for a while – we never met before, but we have a mutual equestrian friend. The barn was not far, I had the time and the ability, so I volunteered. He trusted me to look after his horse, because I am part of a friendly (allied) Horse Tribe.

    When it works like this, it’s beautiful and beneficial for all involved (especially the horses, both of whom are well and happy now).
    When different Horse Tribes bicker, it can be a nuisance. 😜
    But the benefits usually far outweigh the drawbacks.

    The trick is to realize a person can have many tribes, and they need not conflict. Sometimes they can overlap – that’s a massive boost to the support system – sometimes they don’t and that’s okay.
    It’s also in realizing that the “Us versus Them” mentality is an alarm system in our brains triggered by scarce resources (why are Trumpists so fiercely howling about others “Taking my job!” or “Taking things!” in general?) and that in this at least, the modern world has overtaken our instincts, and the practical thing to do would be to widen the circle, not tighten it.

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