Tuesday July 05, 2022

Modern tribalism

February 13, 2017

As the legal struggle over the ‘Muslim ban’ pitches to and fro in the US, a far deeper battle is being fought over what it means to be an American.

A recent Reuters poll found that Americans favour the ban by a margin of 48 percent and 42 percent. There is little to suggest that this is rational. The chances of an American being killed by another American in a shooting, accidental or otherwise, higher than the likelihood of them being killed in a terrorist attack by a foreigner. And yet, there are no serious initiatives on gun control.

However, pointing out this fact achieves little. Numbers tend to make people yawn. In the US and the rest of the world, immigration – specifically Muslim immigration – has become a pitched ideological battle, fought not with dry rationality but weaponised emotion.

Imagine a bearded, unsmiling man from a ‘savage land’. His wife follows a step behind him with her head lowered and covered in a hijab. Their expressions are unreadable, their ways alien and their beliefs all consuming. Perhaps they mean you no harm, but imagine what just one could do in a packed subway, an office building – at a school.

Imagine a young mother clutching her baby to her chest, having fled the horrors of war. She looks, like so many before her, to the fabled shores of a new world. She is tired and yearns to breathe freely. But she is stopped and sent back, doomed to hear her child’s cries get fainter and fainter because the home of the brave is consumed by fear.

What chance do numbers have against such images?

The ban is electric with emotion. Americans who are both for and against the move consider each other to be foolish or outright evil. This is untrue. But both groups are human and being human, they are intensely tribal. The beat of the tribe still pounds deep in our blood. In a place far beyond and beneath the rational self, we all belong to tribes.

Your tribe might be racial, national, political or ideological. It depends on what identity is important to you – and quite likely, what was important to your parents. There’s always something.

Recall any argument between capitalists and socialists, liberals and conservatives and the supporters and detractors of the military. No matter how intelligent we are, almost every one of us cleaves to all the talking points of our own side. The longer the argument goes on, the more convinced everyone is that they are right and the other side’s views are a combination of stupidity and evil.

This should come as no surprise. It wasn’t reason or measured discourse that kept us alive when humanity was still in its crib. To be useless to your tribe, to reject its tenants and to criticise it too harshly would bring your loyalty into question. Perhaps it could also result in people being cast out of a tribe. To be driven out of a tribe is considered is akin to death – either immediately or by miserable inches.

Nuance is an evolutionary dead end. Your tribe is the “me” that blends into the “we”. Real people have human motivations, needs and wants. The others are cartoonish caricatures – flat, predictable and existing only as obstacles to be overcome, irritants to be swatted away and villains to be toppled. This is a dangerous shard of human nature. How much thought will we spare for the concerns or even the suffering of people who we do not, at some emotional level, acknowledge as real people?

How else can so many Europeans and Americans look at Muslim refugees – broken and limping from war – and see them as an existential threat? How else can we treat our Hindu, Christian and Ahmadi citizens the way we do and still regard ourselves righteous? How else can the rich step over the homeless and feel disgust and not overpowering guilt? Sadly, the near-sociopathic response to the ‘other’ is grounded in the primal reaction to something different and alien. It is more powerful than any rational argument.

But there is hope. It is not specifically racial or religious tribalism that is seared into our social DNA; any common identity will do.The key to greater harmony is not arguing that we should treat the ‘other’ well, but insisting that there is no ‘other’ and only we exist. Yes, we are inclined to prefer people who look like us. But, as Robert Cialdini – one of the leading voices in modern persuasion – points out, we also give that same preference to those who act in concert with us. This is why every culture has dances, why every army marches in step and why all communities have customs.

In the US, this has happened before and it will happen again. As we speak, a swathe of American people of every race and religion looked at Muslims and then looked at the people who want to ban them from entering the country. They eventually found that they had more in common with the former. In marches and protests at airports and online spaces, they have created new tribes or expanded old ones.

If you are an ally of minorities anywhere in the world, storm the barricades that have been erected by the keepers of the status quo, which exist to separate them from the broader culture. For minorities, the way forward lies in somehow becoming part of the larger tribe of the nation. No identity and culture is set in stone. If they break through the barricades, if they are able to engage visibly and positively at every available societal node, minorities will inevitably both absorb the mainstream culture and alter it in their image. They will both be shaped by it and, in turn, shape it. As a result, new tribes will be formed.

There is an emerging global tribe whose members identify themselves by their shared desire for more cooperation, open borders, and a robust marketplace of ideas. They think of themselves as seekers of better tomorrows and not of ill-remembered yesterdays. They may stumble and fail, but as an identity they appeal to me – somewhere far beyond and far beneath my rational self. If tribes are inevitable, that’s the one I pick.


The writer is a columnist and a student of persuasion.