A Fundamental Human Flaw: Loyalty To The Tribe

Nov 1, 2018 · 5 min read

Instinctively, humans think that protecting the tribe is more important than protecting outsiders from the tribe.

By David Grace (www.DavidGraceAuthor.com)

Bishops of the Catholic Church covering up child abuse and protecting pedophile priests is nothing new. Back when Jay Leno was still hosting The Tonight Show he told the following joke:

“What did the Catholic priest say to Michael Jackson right after the altar boy walked by? ‘Back off, I saw him first!’”

Yet, today we still have serving Catholic bishops who participated in covering up child abuse and protecting pedophile priests. You would think that a person as moral, decent and honest as Pope Francis would have sacked the lot of them long ago, but he didn’t.


We Are Hard-Wired To Protect The Tribe

Because humans are hard-wired to protect the group, the organization, the company, the tribe.

  • The head coach finds out that one of the assistant coaches is molesting little boys. Does he call the police? No. Does he fire him? No.
  • The corporate Vice President finds out that bank managers are opening hundreds of thousands of fraudulent bank accounts in order to game a sales-quota system. Does he/she blow the whistle and put a stop to the practice? No.
  • The head of a sports organization finds out that a team doctor is sexually assaulting the team’s own athletes. Does he fire the doctor? No, according to prosecutors he embarks on a plan to suppress the evidence.
  • Cops who would never beat or shoot an innocent person cover up beatings and shooting by “bad apples” — the famous Blue Wall.

We all know the term, “Circle the wagons.”

The evidence of individuals covering up wrongful activity by members of the tribe are legion.

The People Who Don’t Protect The Tribe Are The Bad Guys

Moreover, honest people who do not aid in the cover up are themselves seen as immoral by the other members of the tribe.

Think about that for a moment. I see a fellow police officer lose his temper, pull out his gun and shoot an unarmed, fleeing suspect, and if I don’t perjure myself to protect him, the tribe will consider me the bad guy.

When Alexander Butterfield answered honestly that Richard Nixon had a library of tape recordings of everything that happened in the Oval Office, Butterfield was marked as a wrong-doer by many Republicans.

If honest people act dishonestly to protect corrupt members of the tribe they are applauded as being “stand-up guys.”

If honest people refuse to lie to protect dishonest members of the tribe, they are seen as immoral.

The Most Important Thing Is Protecting The Tribe

The rules of the tribe are:

  • It is moral to act dishonestly in defense of a corrupt member of the tribe.
  • It is immoral to act honestly and fail to protect dishonest members of the tribe.

In short, it is more ethical to protect the reputation of the tribe than it is

  • To be honest.
  • To protect third parties from being injured by corrupt members of the tribe.

What do we call people who don’t protect corrupt members of the tribe: Rats and traitors.

Why do humans view loyalty to corrupt members of the tribe as more honorable than protecting outsiders from those corrupt members?

We Are Descended From Tribal Animals

My guess is that it’s because we humans are descended from apes which are tribal animals. My guess is that tribal loyalty is instinctive with humans, that it’s hard-wired into us.

In the wild, the tribe is power. The tribe is safety. The tribe provides food, protection, and sexual partners. If a monkey is expelled from the troop, he’s likely to die, and die alone.

Humans who are considering doing something that will damage the tribe are up against an evolutionary imperative to avoid banishment.

At its core, the rule is:

  • The well-being of the tribe is more important than the well-being of outsiders.

The lesson all tribes want to teach is:

  • Protecting outsiders at the cost of damaging the tribe is unforgivable

Leaders Have Always Known That “Us vs. Them” Is A Winning Strategy

This is not some recent discovery. It certainly isn’t a lesson lost on politicians. Appealing to the tribal identity and banking on the tribe’s fear of outsiders is Demagoguery 101.

What was Hitler’s core tactic? Unite his tribe, the Aryan race, by denigrating other tribes, Jews and Gypsies.

  • Step One: Our tribe, the Aryan Race, is terrific. We’re the best.
  • Step Two: These other tribes, Jews, Gypsies, Blacks are evil, corrupt, depraved, and dangerous.
  • Step Three: These other tribes are out to get us. They’ve already hurt us and they want to destroy us.
  • Step Four: Follow me and I will lead our wonderful tribe to victory over those evil, depraved outsiders who are out to get us.

Since protecting the well being of our tribe is more important than preventing damage to outsiders, anything goes.

Besides, outsiders are evil, so hurting them isn’t really a bad thing anyway. They’re not really human, not the way we are.

“Us vs. Them” Is An Old Story

The Spanish did it to the Incas. We did it to the Native Americans and black people. The Germans did it to the Jews.

Our tribe is great. Those other tribes are terrible. It’s not only OK to hurt them. It’s actually morally right to hurt them because they are so bad.

It’s Deja Vu All Over Again

So, what are we seeing Donald Trump doing today?

Paraphrased: “Those Mexicans who came here are not decent people. They were rapists and criminals. More of them are coming here to steal your jobs and your tax money. Stick with me an I will stop them. If the evil democrats are elected they will let all those criminal outsiders into our wonderful country and we will be screwed.”

That’s his number one issue in the midterm elections — Protect America from “invaders” from Mexico and Central America.

My Digression On Immigration

As an aside, do I think it’s in our economic interest to have an open border? Of course not.

Should we allow anyone in the world whose government is oppressive to come here?

I don’t think so, but not because they are evil or criminals or subhuman. Not because we are good and they are bad. That’s just tribal demagoguery.

It’s a matter of the social cost of more untrained, unskilled workers. We need to increase the membership in the middle class and decrease the percentage of the population in the unskilled working class. Admission of additional unskilled, non-English speaking people works against that economic goal.

If we have the chance to admit thousands of black and brown people with Ph.ds and medical degrees and mad skills in programming and computer science, I think we should welcome them with open arms.

But I digress.

Today’s Political Rhetoric

Look at Trump’s political rhetoric. His number one issue is tribal — white people versus brown people.

He doesn’t say “white” versus “brown.” He says, “us” versus Mexicans and Muslims. But we all know who Trump means by “us.”

We all know that to The Donald’s core supporters “Make America Great Again” is code for “Make America White Again.”

It’s an effective plan. Tribalism works.

– David Grace (www.DavidGraceAuthor.com)

To see a searchable list of all David Grace’s columns in chronological order, CLICK HERE

To see a list of David Grace’s columns sorted by topic/subject matter, CLICK HERE.

David Grace Columns Organized By Topic

David Grace columns contained in topic sections


Written by

Graduate of Stanford University & U.C. Berkeley Law School. Author of 17 novels and over 200 Medium columns on Economics, Politics, Law, Humor & Satire.

David Grace Columns Organized By Topic

David Grace columns contained in topic sections

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade