Does Tribalism Do More Harm Than Good?

Human beings have depended on tribalism for millennia, by why? Does it still serve a positive purpose?

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I received an email this morning that got me feeling a little punchy.

Someone who had subscribed to the mailing list for my other publication received an article they didn’t like, and they were damned sure going to let me know it.

“The very first article I just read on your site is X,” the guy wrote — it doesn’t matter what the article was, because it may as well have been anything about any topic — “I am IMMEDIATELY unsubscribing from you RIGHT NOW.”

I replied, questioning my interlocutor about why this was the appropriate response to an article written by an esteemed philosopher who was qualified to weigh in on the subject he was talking about.

“We must never,” I wrote, “tolerate sincere, considered disagreement, right? Only pure, binary tribalism at all costs?

Emails like yours help to confirm for me that Catholic discourse is effectively dead.”

But I’m not sure that’s right. It’s not Catholic discourse that’s dead, even if that’s the subject matter concerned in this email exchange, but discourse itself. Whatever expectations I might place on the Catholic version, because I subconsciously think my co-religionists should do better is irrelevant. This is a human problem, not a specifically religious one.

In frustration, I posted a redacted version of the email to Twitter, to which a friend responded, “That sweet, sweet dopamine hit of self-righteous outrage. Who needs fentanyl when you can ring the bell with a "GOOD DAY, SIR!"?”

My friend is certainly right about that. But I’ve been wondering for some time now why we are so. damned. tribal. I’ve never seen anything bring it out of people like COVID did — good luck having a reasonable discussion about any facet of that nightmare topic no matter what side you’re on — and the Summer of Woke that hit in 2020 only layered it on thick.

Identitarianism is the new black. (Unless you’re white, and that just means you’re culturally appropriating, because racism or something.)

The nature of my work is such that I get pulled in a lot of different directions on a lot of different topics, but today’s email got me jazzed up enough to do a little research. A piece I found by Michael Shermer at Scientific American got straight to the point:

Which of these two narratives most closely matches your political perspective?

Once upon a time people lived in societies that were unequal and oppressive, where the rich got richer and the poor got exploited. Chattel slavery, child labor, economic inequality, racism, sexism and discriminations of all types abounded until the liberal tradition of fairness, justice, care and equality brought about a free and fair society. And now conservatives want to turn back the clock in the name of greed and God.

Once upon a time people lived in societies that embraced values and tradition, where people took personal responsibility, worked hard, enjoyed the fruits of their labor and through charity helped those in need. Marriage, family, faith, honor, loyalty, sanctity, and respect for authority and the rule of law brought about a free and fair society. But then liberals came along and destroyed everything in the name of “progress” and utopian social engineering.

Although we may quibble over the details, political science research shows that the great majority of people fall on a left-right spectrum with these two grand narratives as bookends. And the story we tell about ourselves reflects the ancient tradition of “once upon a time things were bad, and now they’re good thanks to our party” or “once upon a time things were good, but now they’re bad thanks to the other party.”

Shermer immediately turns, as a point of reference, to Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. The moment I saw the reference, I felt a bit sheepish. Some time back, I had asked my friend Kale Zelden, host of the General Eclectic Podcast and my personal provocateur when it comes to the search for meaning, this same question: why are we so tribal? And his response was to read Haidt’s book.

Now, in my defense, I did buy it. It’s sitting right there in my Kindle library along with a million other books I’m trying to read. But if I’m being honest, I haven’t so much as cracked the cover yet, and I suppose it’s about time.

I was in luck, though. Shermer explains some of Haidt’s thought on this topic for slackers like me:

University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that to both liberals and conservatives, members of the other party are not just wrong; they are righteously wrong—morally suspect and even dangerous. “Our righteous minds made it possible for human beings,” Haidt argues, “to produce large cooperative groups, tribes, and nations without the glue of kinship. But at the same time, our righteous minds guarantee that our cooperative groups will always be cursed by moralistic strife.” Thus, he shows, morality binds us together into cohesive groups but blinds us to the ideas and motives of those in other groups.

The evolutionary Rubicon that our species crossed hundreds of thousands of years ago that led to the moral hive mind was a result of “shared intentionality,” which is “the ability to share mental representations of tasks that two or more of [our ancestors] were pursuing together. For example, while foraging, one person pulls down a branch while the other plucks the fruit, and they both share the meal.” Chimps tend not to display this behavior, Haidt says, but “when early humans began to share intentions, their ability to hunt, gather, raise children, and raid their neighbors increased exponentially. Everyone on the team now had a mental representation of the task, knew that his or her partners shared the same representation, knew when a partner had acted in a way that impeded success or that hogged the spoils, and reacted negatively to such violations.”

Haidt, Shermer tells us, believes that “our dual moral nature” means that “we need both liberals and conservatives in competition to reach a livable middle ground.”

Maybe that’s true. I’m gonna have to read more of Haidt to know what I think. But something about this explanation strikes me as too simplistic.

As I continued reading, I found a piece at Psychology Today in which Dr. Nigel Barber pokes at the evolutionary explanation tribalism with a stick and finds it wanting:

Evolutionary psychologists often assume that making strong in-group out-group distinctions is somehow encoded in our genotype as a pan-human adaptation but this view has flaws.

To begin with, developmental geneticists find such Darwinian programs biologically improbable and there is no evidence from neuroscientists that they are real (2).

In the particular case of military solidarity, human societies before agriculture rarely, or never, practiced warfare . What is more, their tribal affiliations were weak. Hunter-gatherers had a fluid social structure where individuals could easily leave one group and join another. This practice reduces tensions within groups because the malcontents can leave.

Instead of being a fixed element of human societies, strong tribal passions were a functional response to warlike environments.

Warlike environments, you say? Does our current socio-political and religious discourse count?

In yet another piece, this time at the “Be Human Project” (whatever that is), a fellow by the name of Steve Knight writes that tribalism is just in our nature:

My favorite word of the evening was “homophily,” literally meaning the “love of the same.” It is the tendency of people with similar characteristics to congregate.

At our core, we humans are tribal. Constantly, our subconscious is bombarded with cues that identify who is “us” and “them.”   Perceived similarities of status and values make it much more likely that we will connect and form lasting bonds with our fellows. This tendency has tremendous survival value; without strong cohesion, human groups ranging from hunter gatherer societies, business organizations, and even modern nation states would not be able to adequately meet the constant challenges they face.

But overdoing tribal conformity has a tremendous downside. Bill Bishop’s 2008 book, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart provides a data-rich analysis of how the drastic increase in high homophily communities and social networks since the 1970’s are making it less and less likely that we’ll encounter, much less consider views that are different from our own.  One of Bishop’s more sobering chapters, “The Psychology of the Tribe,” shows that when we are surrounded by people who agree with us, our views grow more unshakable and extreme. We tend to de-legitimize those who are different, eliminating troubling cognitive dissonance without considering the possible validity of competing ideas. Such groupthink is powerful for rallying action around a single idea, but it is terrible when we need to brainstorm novel solutions. That, of course, is the challenge of every business today.

So what are we to believe? What is it that’s going on with our extreme tribalism these days? Why do we so often fail at discourse, choosing instead to unsubscribe or cancel anyone who doesn’t agree with us 100%?

Unlike in previous essays here at TSF, I am not planning to propose an answer just yet. I think this is one of the most fundamental challenges of our time, and I’m going to have to do a lot more reading before I reach a conclusion.

But in the interest of that exact curiosity, I want to open it up to all of you. Comments for this piece are not limited to paid subscribers of TSF. I’d love to hear what you think about this, what perhaps you’ve experienced, and where you think our focus should be if we want to overcome this challenge to collective problem solving.

I hope you’ll leave a comment. Until next time, have a great weekend.