Can we survive our tribalistic impulses?Featuring Critical Feedback + My Responses

Photo by Josephine Pedersen
The impact of tribalism in our world today has worried me for some time.
Despite it’s natural, evolutionary origins, and the clear advantages it conferred while our ancestors where struggling to emerge from the forest, walk upright, and manage small tribes it seems increasingly obvious that tribalism has outgrown its usefulness. In short, tribalism seems antithetical to our struggle to build and interconnected, global civilization.
I continue to meet many, however, who assert that tribalism is not merely inevitable, but defensible or even morally necessary.
With that in mind, I went to reddit soliciting critical responses to the following essay. While my fears remain firmly intact, I encountered many interesting points worthy of reflection.

Technological progress generally moves in one direction, and our most destructive innovations are bound to become increasingly accessible. If many of the world’s most renowned thinkers are to be taken seriously, we’ll soon inhabit a world in which small groups of non-state actors are a mere button’s press away from decimating our species. Even if life in 2050 doesn’t have the trappings of an impending apocalypse, it’s clear that our societies are being hammered by disruption. It should terrify us, then, that world powers are growing more inclined to adopt solipsism as state policy. The world is changing faster than our societies can absorb, nobody has the answers, and the infrastructure necessary to marshal solutions (universal cooperation) is rapidly deteriorating.

Surveying this landscape, we’ll find a collaborative, global civilization built on commonality, with robust, universal basic conceptions of human rights and morality, is likely the best (if not only) blueprint for our survival.

One of the greatest obstructions to that project is tribalism, another of the many anachronistic qualities we’re disinclined to outgrow. Tribalism takes several forms, many of which are obvious — the racial violence of the KKK or the religious bloodletting between Shia and Sunni being two examples. But, being innate in all of us, tribalism also lurks in places we’re reluctant explore.

Often, we find those suffering injustices — black people responding to perceived police injustices, Palestinians responding to Israeli occupation — respond with eruptions of tribalism. This is not to say that white people victimizing blacks and black people ‘defending themselves’ are morally, ethically, or historically equivalent. Of course not. But we need not indulge in false equivalencies to recognize that grievances of this kind reliably activate many of the same neurological and evolutionary impulses that give rise to the original racism they stand in opposition against — the disdain and fear of the other, the inclination to blame all members of a group for the perceived wrongdoings of some of its members, etc. In essence, the oppressors and their victims, are often running the same software, albeit on different moral platforms.

These responses to oppression are not merely illogical, but dangerous. At some point, a basic question must be asked: where is this all taking us? If some are condemned to be perpetually contaminated by the slime of their predecessors, then it must be asked: when can people start being good? If the answer is never, an endless cycle of bitterness, vengeance, misunderstanding, and violence surely awaits us. We embrace such a reality at our peril.

Skin color, ethnic group, religious affiliation must soon be clothing we don like the jerseys of our favorite sports teams. Yes, it will be fun to celebrate our history, participate in a community based on some shared commonality, etc. All of these things can be enjoyed and retained. But anything beyond that should be symptomatic of a personality disorder.

Given our common project, appropriation should be viewed as little more than collaboration, or paying homage, for the success of our global civilization depends on our taking the best parts of each culture. Christians (Catholics, to be more specific) invented physics, and much of medicine, but these innovations are not the property of White Europeans — they belong to all of humanity. Should we actually become the melting pot we all ostensibly celebrate, the cultural jewels of our heritages will not be clung to as if by Golem, but shared. Empowering our reluctance to do so is merely empowering the tribalism that may undo us all.

If the racists of the world are wrong, and the differences between us are little more than skin deep, we are one people — one species, sharing one rock in one moment in history. If we hope to maintain that state, we must finally recognize it.”

Critical Responses and replies:

Rpgwaiter”:While I agree that it would be nice if we ditched the immediate “us vs. them” mentality, it is part of what helped humanity get to where it is today. Having a common “enemy”, whether that be a race of people, an ideology/religion, etc., has ended up uniting large portions of people. Once the opposition is “killed”, there is contentment and relative peace for a while, at least within the winning group. We can see this throughout history, from holy wars to WWII.
It would probably be better for humanity if we could put aside our differences, see everyone as equals and have everyone get along, but saying that humanity won’t be able to survive is probably not true.

My response: Yes, I would certainly concede that tribalism is “natural” and conferred many advantages in our more primitive stages…but the same can be said of many evolutionarily-based behavior we should be desperate to outgrow now that we live in modern society.

I’m not claiming that tribalism is an existential threat at this moment…just that we won’t be able to withstand it as destructive capabilities become increasingly advanced and democratized

Rpgwaiter:” “many evolutionarily-based things we should be desperate to outgrow now that we live in an interconnected global civilization.”
I totally agree with this. I really don’t like the thought of “oh, it’s human nature, it’s genetics, it’s instinctual, it’s natural, etc.” as an argument as to why something is better. Nature is not perfect, not even close.
“just that we won’t be able to withstand it as destructive capabilities become increasingly advanced and democratized”
I think the desire of self-preservation will override the desire to kill the opposing “tribe”. I sure hope so anyways.

My response: I agree that that is possible that our need for self-preservation will prevail, but see no reason to think it’s guaranteed…and the potential negative outcomes make the risk of being wrong (however minor), intolerable. Even if the collective self-preservation instincts of humanity vastly exceed our apish desires to kill the opposing tribe, we may one day only need a few highly motivated dissenters willing to “suicidally bomb” on a much larger scale to bring this whole civilization project to an explosive end

As I said, even if we don’t arrive to a state in which one person can press one button and kill millions, we are no doubt drifting in that direction…and I think there are many points along that continuum that can’t withstand our attachment tribal thinking.

TheManWhoWasNotShort”: I think you’re misinterpreting BLM especially. As their response to anyone who says “All Lives Matter” goes: the goal of BLM is to create an America where that phrase is true. Certainly, there is some tribalism amongst some: the legacy of Malcolm X and black nationalism lives on, but the goal of BLM is not to create tribalism, but to eliminate a tribalist inequality. I would argue that you cannot solve racial-based issues unless you actually confront those issues and the role race plays in them.
The argument about cultural appropriation is much the same. It isn’t saying that white people cannot borrow from other cultures: it is saying that if people are going to borrow from other cultures, let’s make sure those cultures aren’t marginalized, and that the people who created whatever it may be are still recognized for their achievements. It’s not an argument against integration of cultures: it’s an argument that we need to be on an equal playing field as we integrate as a world. Once again, I do not disagree that there are many who complain about cultural appropriation for tribalist reasons, but the premise behind the movement to begin was to make sure we’re really moving past tribalism and one group isn’t just going to be discarded after the dominant group takes what they want from them.
So, I would argue these groups actually agree with you about ending tribalism, and that those movements are not (generally speaking) tribalist movements, but movements with the opposite intention

My response: Perhaps I should have been a bit more precise when including (by implication) BLM…I was trying to speak to the general phenomenon of the way groups that are on the right side of the “moral question” often function, and pulled them from a hat. Any example I would include, of course, has its own story with justifications, nuance, etc. Sometime broad strokes are necessary.

Anyway, while I contend that some elements conform to the black nationalism charge alleged by others, I think the problem is more fundamental and deeper than that. The same can be said of the cultural appropriation issue…what I’m really saying is the idea of group “rights” or group “property” etc. (as opposed to individual rights) is fundamentally flawed. You say that we need to develop systems to create an equal playing field and I agree with that wholeheartedly, but I think those have to be implemented at the level of individual people…not their level of melanin production, and we should aim to do so while recognizing the bloody trail of racism and discrimination that has led us here. For example, should the black son of a hedge fund manager get preferential treatment over the son of an impoverished factory worker in WV? People may use examples of this kind to paint over the historical oppression of minorities, but that’s not what I’m doing. Of course, this represents an idealized, edge case. But it elucidates first principles. Under a more individualized approach to affirmative action (largely based on socioeconomics) historically oppressed minority groups will reliably account for a major share of those who receive its benefits. But there will still be a Bayseian curve for every group. To whatever degree historically-based oppression has served to disadvantage a person, it can still be realized and addressed at an individual level (in so far as we can view it in concrete terms.) I would argue that this is a much more principled, and sustainable, approach to addressing inequality.

fullchorter”: I think what you are saying is long term correct but in the short term you are missing the actual problems in our society. BLM did not create tribalism, rather they decided to organize to defend a group of people who were already being treated as a marginalized group. Racial identity can’t go away while there are still extremely clear differences between races created by a white power structure, once difference begin to fade, (both literally in the sense of increased interracial marriage and socioeconomically in terms of a more balanced distribution of wealth and power), tribalism will likely fade with them because of a simple lack of need for this thought process.

My response: I certainly wouldn’t claim that BLM created tribalism, but to your larger point..I think trying to recognize and alleviate injustices doesn’t require us to do so in tribalistic terms. These issues can be treated like diseases or any other thing that plagues us where we collectively recognize our common interest in improving the human condition, and try to devise intelligent solutions. I think this approach doesn’t require us to be dishonest about how and why these issues emerged…but we can also recognize that the next white baby born is no less responsible for racial injustices than the next German baby born is responsible for the holocaust. To be clear, though, the unfairness of “original sin” I perceive toward whites is not what’s primarily animating my concern. Rather, it’s the fear that continuing down this path will produce an endless cycle of reaction and counter-reaction that will take us nowhere….or worse.

“errhhbrerrh”: You are thinking too much of the individual and the short term (years and decades).
WW2 in the short term had high casualties and negative effects. But long term, it would be difficult to argue that the technology and wisdom gained from the event were a net loss.
View tribalism as an investment fund; you invest the lives and happiness of individuals, for potential long term gains.

My response: I’m not sure I understand the investment analogy, because it seems so obvious to me that this is inverted…perhaps I’m missing something you could clarify.

But you seem to suggest that tribalism has been disadvantageous in the short-term, but will have some long term benefit. My view is precisely the opposite. Historically, operating in tribes made a lot of sense, and produced a net benefit with relatively low risks as we were, comparatively, far more isolated from one another. I’m arguing that as we become more connected and as technology evolves, the benefits associated with tribalism diminish (or cease to exist) while the risks grows increasingly intolerable.

As for investing in the lives and happiness of others, I think that makes sense for family and friends (which can be preserved.) But being extra-invested in people who, by mere luck of birth, have a similar shade of melanin or were born within some shared geographic space, or communicate ideas w/ the same cadence, rhythm, and words (eg language) doesn’t make much sense to me, unless I know them as people. Living in the same place and speaking the same language may make it easier and probablistically more likely that I will know a person, but I’m never investing in people on the basis of those criteria.

“howisitonlytuesday”: I think the idea of eliminating tribalism is a beautiful one, but it is also an unrealistic idea, and unfortunately can actually contribute to existing problems being ignored.
It is normal and natural for human beings to categorize and put labels on things. This is a product of our biology — our brains simply do not have the capacity to hold unlimited information, and we are CONSTANTLY taking in huge amounts of data — so our brains organize that by unconsciously assigning labels. And all labels are formed in our minds with the data that we have, which is inherently imperfect, and thus those labels are inherently imperfect. So it’s super normal not only to have those labels, it’s ESSENTIAL to existing in daily life as a human being. And unless you grow up in a cultural vacuum, those labels will have meaning assigned to it that has some amount of value judgement — often inaccurately. And we also have a limited capacity, as human beings, to care about large quantities of people. Again, part of our biology. A small disaster where less than a hundred people are killed gets more of an emotional response than a large disaster where thousands of people are killed. So even if we were somehow able to remove all borders and see each other as a single people, we would STILL have tribalism — in groups and out groups, biases against those you do not understand well or know well and towards those you understand better and know better.
And it’s also outright damaging to try and force tribalism to go away when inequalities within subsets of people already exist. If I say “I don’t see race” to a black person, not only is that not true (even if I want to believe it is), it is also invalidating of any experiences that person might have had that was directly related to them being black. We can’t try to address inequalities without shining a light on those inequalities, and in order to do that we need to acknowledge how existing and continuing tribalism played a role.
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