Have our tribes become more important than our country?

Tribalism is humans’ default mode


Don Aguiar

The single most important intellectual trend of our time is the popular rediscovery of human tribalism.

We thought we had it licked. For roughly 200,000 years, humans ran around in small, clannish groups, hunting and mating together while variously raiding or befriending other groups.

But in the past couple of centuries, we wised up and replaced tribal social organization with depersonalized, rules-based institutions: markets to organize our economies, elections to organize our politics and science to organize our search for knowledge.

To satisfy our hankering for group affinity, we transferred our tribal loyalties from clan and caste to abstractions like the Constitution and the free-enterprise system. The results were spectacular, a step change in human potential. We had figured it out. Or so we thought.

Only we couldn’t fool Mother Nature. And, yet ultimately is both a sign of the rediscovery of the primacy of tribalism and a lucid guide to its implications.

Science has shown that tribalism is hard-wired. Experiments and evidence dating back generations, in psychology, sociology and anthropology, have established firmly that human opinions and emotions, loyalties and affiliations, religions and customs, and even perceptions are shaped by our need to belong to a group — and by our proclivity to hate rival groups.

Experimental subjects will spontaneously form in-group loyalties and out-group antipathies when assigned to teams randomly. Subjects will deny the evidence of their own eyes to agree with those around them, even if the discrepancy is blatant.

There need be no trigger for tribalism, no cause or conflict. If we do not already have a tribe and a reason to be loyal to it, we will create a tribe and invent a rationale. Some versions of this behavior, such as loyalties to professional sports franchises, are relatively benign. Others, such as blind political partisanship, can be quite malignant.

British imperialists made a science of understanding the tribal structures of societies they colonized. In places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, where they privileged Sunnis and Pashtuns to exploit tribal divisions, they played favorites adeptly.

More recently, however, anti-communism and enthusiasm for democracy became all-purpose prisms and often distorted Americans’ view. In Vietnam, the United States misunderstood its adversaries as communist fanatics kowtowing to foreign sponsors, when in reality; the North Vietnamese were motivated more by nationalism and ethnic grievance.

Later, in Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans imagined that democracy and peace would bloom once everyone could vote. Instead, vicious tribalism erupted. In many parts of the world, far from neutralizing tribal hatred, democracy catalyzes it.

Terrorism, too, is often driven by tribal impulses. Young people join radical groups in search of an identity they can call their own; the groups desensitize them to outsiders’ humanity and send them off in suicide vests.

The key to contemporary Islamic terrorism lies in the proliferation not merely of fundamentalist Muslim teachings but of the belief that Muslims, as a group, are being attacked, humiliated, and persecuted by an evil Western enemy. The worst thing the United States, Europe or Asia can do is to indulge in us-vs.-them rhetoric that helps militant Islamists win converts.

Indian progressives’ shift away from messages that appeal to shared values and toward themes that dwell on ever-narrowing group identities, the great mid-century civil rights leaders saw themselves as delivering on the promise of the Declaration of Independence.

We now see the emergence of something quite different: A shift in tone, rhetoric, and logic has moved identity politics away from inclusion — which had always been the right’s watchword — toward exclusion and division.

Facebook, it is noted, lists more than 50 gender designations, “from genderqueer to intersex to pangender.” Activists compete to be offended if their particularism is not acknowledged. “Gay” becomes LGB, then LGBT, then LGBTQ, then LGBTQQIAAP and other variants — a terminological balkanization “For today’s Right,” it is observed, “group blindness is the ultimate sin, because it masks the reality of group hierarchies and oppression in India.”

Political actions beget equal and opposite reactions. Recent polling finds that a majority of high caste Hindus — including about two-thirds of Hindu Brahmins without college degrees and three-fourths of the other higher caste Hindus — believe there is discrimination against them in India today. High caste Hindus and other traditionally predominant groups are developing their own narratives of beleaguered solidarity and group victimhood, and Amit Shah and President Modi are standing by to take their calls.

Two consequences follow, both troubling. India’s unique achievement, for some, is its emergence as a secular-group — the only one among the major powers of the country and have forged a national identity that transcends tribal politics — an identity that does not belong to any subgroup, that is strong and capacious enough to hold together an incredibly diverse population, making us all Indians. This status is precious.

Of course, in practice, the ideal of an Indianness that transcends race and ethnicity and all the other categories can never be perfectly attained. But we can struggle to that end, and we have fought a very long way toward it, as I can attest: Tribalism of both right and left endangers progress toward sharing the country. Worse, it endangers the idea that we should share the country. At different times in the past, both the Indian Left and the Indian Right have stood for group-transcending values. Neither does today.

Moreover, tribalism is a dynamic force, not a static one. It exacerbates itself by making every group feel endangered by the others, inducing all to circle their wagons still more tightly.

Today, no group in India feels comfortably dominant. The Left believes that right-wing tribalism — bigotry, racism — is tearing the country apart. The Right believes that left-wing tribalism — identity politics, political correctness — is tearing the country apart. They are both right. I wish I could disagree.

We see hopeful signs. Psychological research shows that tribalism can be countered and overcome by teamwork: by projects that join individuals in a common task on an equal footing. One such task, it turns out, can be to reduce tribalism.

Don Aguiar
In other words, with conscious effort, humans can break the tribal spiral, and many are trying. You’d never know it from cable news or social media, but all over the country there are signs of people trying to cross divide and break out of their political tribes.

Tribalism is humans’ default mode. De-tribalizing requires effort. Indians’ atavistic impulses got the better of us because we grew complacent. Progressives failed to imagine that identity-mongering and victim-worshiping would not only take over the academy but could help elect Modi to the presidency. Now they know.

Seculars failed to imagine that rage-mongering and conspiracy-theorizing would not only take over secular media but could help elect Modi to the post of prime minister. Now they know. Those who hold with what is called group-transcending values were caught flatfooted and are only beginning to gather their forces and find their voices.

But they are assembling, and the tribalists have lost the advantage of surprise.

(Mumbai-based Don Aguiar is engaged in social and event management. He is also the secretary Maharashtra State of AICU (All India Catholic Union) as well as the secretary of the Bombay Catholic Sabha.)

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