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On tribalism

Last updated on 24 Nov 2022

Humans evolved in tribes, our species’ equivalent of the general primate troop structure. This meant that members of the tribe benefited from shared resources, the protection of the group and the inherited knowledge of the tribe. It also meant that we will natively and naively defend our group against others, and demonise the other groups. You see it in sports, culture, nations and religions. You see it in class, gender wars (there’s a reason men tend to denigrate and discriminate against women and intersex) and age cohorts. And recently, Australia has been showing it in spades: beginning with the racist dog whistles of government policy towards refugees over the past decade (yes, Labor, I’m including your execrable craven cowardice too!). And right now that tribalism is being used to take away legal rights that Australians have enjoyed for over 60 years. We are giving up rights like the presumption of innocence, public accountability of government, and general human rights.

I also see tribalism in the attacks by the antireligious on all religious believers (in fact much of the tribalism of the skeptical community stems from attacks upon Islamic belief, just as the current rash of state sponsored racism does). The irony here is that the reason the West hates Islam is because it used to be a competition between Christendom and the Caliphates for control over territory; and now it is the competition for control of oil resources. That irony is lost on the supposedly progressive skeptics movement, almost all of the time.

The fact is, it is not progressive humanistic thinking to replace one set of tribalisms with another set; that’s just hypocrisy and self-serving behaviour. We can get that at the local store – why do we need to be skeptics to do that? Why do we need to promote sexism or anti-non-Western attitudes in what should be a rational movement?

I want to say that rationality leads away from these tribalisms, but in fact rationality is, as old David H said, a slave to the passions, and sometimes (most of the time?) those passions are self-interested in the extreme. Sure, there were the cosmopolitan rational thinkers like Russell, or Tom Huxley, but they would not even get a decent twitter following these days. You gots to hate if you wants the fans.

I’m sick of it. No more labels for me: there are people and their actions. If they act well, I don’t give a flying fornication what their label is. And if they don’t, I don’t care they are supposed to be my peeps. I’m an anti-semic from now on.

Err… wait a minute…


  1. Tribalism is almost impossible to get around. Once you frame a social or even scientific issue you immediately will creep into it, all those automatic things kick in to separate friend from foe, “good” thought from bad thought. In the end, it may be a necessary process for thinking and identifying oneself. But, without a doubt, for us good, more reflective individuals, the types of immediate tribalistic tendencies of those more brutish thinkers who complain about immigrants taking jobs and uprooting our cultural norms—those empty thinkers are definitely unacceptable.

    You just don’t agree with them because you do not see that loyalty to tribe is a precious value in itself. In fact, your failure to be blindly loyal to our tribe (whatever that may be) is precisely what is holding our tribe back.

  2. My loyalty is totally committed to the tribe of those who are free from tribalism and any display of tribal loyalty is a clear sign of the enemy.

    But actually my “just so” story is that they are not just a different tribe but a different species and that their ability to stupidly follow leaders is what gave those damned “modern humans” the edge over us smarter but less “effective” Neanderthals.

  3. Brian Brian

    I love me some David H.

    As another great philosopher said, I paraphrase: I wouldn’t want to belong to any group who’d have me as a member.

    The skeptical community is as bigoted, sexist, as any other, thankfully less violent than some, but once we elect a pope, watch you!

    You said:

    No more labels for me

    So, not a curmudgeon anymore?

  4. In your remarks about rationality, you remind me of an old sociology article I stumbled onto yesterday. It’s from 1946 (I wasn’t kidding when I called it old,) “The Relationship Between Attitude and Information Concerning the Japanese in America,” by Gwynne Nettler. Analyzing various groups of survey respondents in terms of the amount of knowledge they had about Japanese-Americans as compared with the amount of bigotry they exhibited towards Japanese-Americans, Nettler concluded that additional information was not at all a reliable cure for prejudice, though it might sometimes be useful. He expresses this conclusion as “men’s beliefs are not completely devoid of reason, but neither are they completely amenable to it.”

    Indeed, Nettler found that many of his most fervently anti-Japanese-American respondents were in fact among the best-informed, precisely because their passionate hostility had led them to make a hobby of searching for information they could use as sticks with which to beat their chosen foes. Indeed, those bigots who did exhibit ignorance did not have less access to information about Japanese-Americans than did friendlier types, but simply flared into anger at the first mention of their betes-noires and did not settle down until the subject was changed. In such cases, well-intended attempts to offer education about real Japanese-Americans did nothing but offend their sensibilities and thereby inflame their prejudices further.

    Nettler himself found these conclusions enormously depressing, but followed them up with studies of what would in later years be called the sociology of scientific knowledge, in which he found much of the research of his fellow scientists to be just as tendentious as, if more benevolent in its goals than, the fact-hunting of the anti-Japanese bigots he had dealt with in his early study.

    So, like you and the young Gwynne Nettler, I would like to believe “that rationality leads away from… tribalism,” and like the two of you, I am pessimistic about its power actually to do so.

    • The date on that study suggests that its results may not be typical of a more randomly chosen example of prejudice. And when you refer to the “passionate hostility had led them to make a hobby of searching for information they could use as sticks with which to beat their chosen foes” I am led to wonder who made the choice of whom would be cast as foes.

  5. Oh, Nettler explains at the outset that he focused on prejudice against Japanese-Americans because of the role in which they found themselves cast during World War II, as domestic representatives of The Enemy in the eyes of much of the public. He cites the mass internment they suffered and official propaganda aimed at them as evidence that this casting was neither a chance occurrence nor the purely natural result of wartime stresses, but was a deliberate policy of the US government.

    Nettler’s study and denunciation of the injustices inflicted on Japanese-Americans during the war would later serve him well. After his academic career was interrupted by his conviction for burglarizing several mansions in Los Angeles (hey, everyone needs a hobby,) he was appointed to a professorship at the University of Alberta in Canada. That appointment was largely due to the influence of Professor Gordon Hirabayashi, whose own experience as a wartime internee left him both grateful for Nettler’s work and scornful of the US legal system.

    • What is th ename of these mythical religions? The only religions I know that in general assumed universal brotherhood did so assuming the brothers and sisters were all members of their own religion.

      • Keith B Keith B

        I was thinking of Luke 10:29 and other passages that clearly say that you should regard people of all ethnic and religious groups as one’s “neighbor”, i.e., a member of one’s own tribe.

        Naturally religions want to gain adherents, but insisting that all humans were members of the same in-group is how early Christianity gained converts in so many places, at least until it started to acquire some political power. Even then, at least in principle tribal membership was equally open to everyone, regardless of any intrinsic differences such as race or nationality. The idea of universality was something new. (Maybe not completely unprecedented, but carried further than anyone had before.)

        The case of Islam was somewhat different, since it expanded via conquest almost from the beginning, but Mohammed was explicit about regarding Christians and Jews as people worthy of some consideration, even if inferior to Moslems. In practice, early Islam, up to the time of the Crusades anyway, was far more tolerant than Christianity.

        The real point here is that expanding the scope of what one considers one’s tribe is a way to overcome tribal differences. It’s the only way I can think of that works. People are capable of making the transition, or we couldn’t have nations or universalist religions to begin with. Socialism in its internationalist form could be considered a secular attempt to transcend tribal differences, although it hasn’t had any noteworthy success that I’m aware of. Still, although the problem is surely extremely difficult, history shows that it’s not quite completely hopeless.

  6. Keith B Keith B

    As I recall, there used to be religions that tried to overcome the problem of tribalism by persuading their adherents to regard all human beings as members of their own tribe. You don’t hear much about these religions nowadays, I wonder what ever happened to them?

  7. Nihaya Khateb Nihaya Khateb

    Tribalism is a premitive character of the human brain. As we all know; our brains are undergoing continuios evolution. Peopl who still openly behave with tribalism are usually emotional ones that behave instinctly. People who try not to behave openly with tribalism ( most of western peopl) actually behave out of reason and not instinctly; but deep in their brains most of them are still tribal although they try always to hide this “premitive” charecter.Rational people should continue to silence this tribal attitude of the brain in order to make the brain familiar with this advanced and modern character; and bring equality and lasting peace to our planet.

  8. “[T]here used to be religions that tried to overcome the problem of tribalism by persuading their adherents to regard all human beings as members of their own tribe.” I don’t think any religion could make it that simply dismissed tribalism. I suppose the Baha’i come pretty close to doing that, and of course Progressive Christianity and Reconstruction Judaism claim to begin from a rejection of tribalism, but wherever a religion has struck deep roots it has at least tacitly acknowledged that kinship systems and nationalities and sectarian groupings and other associations that could be called forms of tribalism are the matrix in which our personalities are formed and the medium through which we act and have impact on the world around us.

    So the New Testament has Jesus airily proclaiming that being a child of Abraham is no great thing, that the one who sent him can raise up children of Abraham from the very stones; yet he also says that he will fulfill every jot and tittle of the Mosaic law. And in the bit at the end, it has figures who apparently represent the nations of the world laying down their crowns and joining in a common worship, but doing so only at the end of history. That seems to imply that every event in secular history and the whole cosmic drama of Christian eschatology will have to play out before we can transcend nationality. Christian practice has generally followed the model suggested by these texts, in which universalizing pronouncements are made within the walls of houses of worship that are instantly identifiable as alien by any traveler of an ethnic or sectarian background different from that of its builders.

    I am inclined to think that it is precisely because of this model that Christianity has been so very successful, that it allows its adherents to exist as members of tribes that are often fiercely self-contained and violently assertive of their prerogatives against other tribes, while at the same time giving them a moral vocabulary that invites them to imagine a world free of the unattractive aspects of tribalism. Of course, that imagining can easily shade off into the fantasy that one’s own tribe’s self-assertion is somehow a transcendent act of moral rightness, which has also helped in the spread of Christianity from time to time.

  9. jimhexis jimhexis

    I get it that what you wrote was essentially a homily so I’m reluctant to parse it too literally, especially since I agree with the moral. Still, it seems to me that speaking about tribalism as some sort of general characteristic of humanity can be rather misleading if you don’t qualify it a great deal. People don’t live in society, they live in particular societies, just as they don’t speak language, they speak English or Urdu or whatever. And even at a middling level of generality, people have lived in different kinds of aggregations—bands, tribes, chiefdoms, kingdoms, nation states—that have there own characteristic ways of relating to out groups. Particular cultural traditions matter as well. The Hobbesian conception of human nature reflects a particular historical situation—it’s hardly irrelevant that its propounder was a translator of Thucydides writing during the English Civil War. The extreme sectarianism and hostility towards others one associates with the Middle East and the Balkans evolved in the context of multi-cultural empires where the other was next door and has been exacerbated in the last century or so by Imperialism, neoliberalism, and, most recently, climate change. It isn’t very helpful to understand it as the expression of an eternal human propensity, though it is certainly true that people always have it in ’em to act badly. Circumstances explain more than essences. For example, since the New Atheists don’t belong to endogamous clans, their version of tribalism is unlikely to be a true rhyme with the xenophobia of a Sunni with an AK 47.

    Look on the bright side. There may not be a religion of universal humanity, though of course many religions claim to be just that. On the other hand, particular societies and collections of societies have developed ways of mitigating hostility between groups, just as they have developed traditions of hatred. Diplomacy, hospitality, sanctuary, gift exchange, and trade are cultural forms that promote beneficial coexistence. We tend to focus on the negative role of stereotypes, but there are positive stereotypes as well. As Georg Simmel pointed out in a famous essay, the stranger can be valued precisely because he is not one of us. In many cases, the man from elsewhere gets chosen as the lawgiver because he has no tribe—think of Lawrence of Arabia. People are capable of making nice.

  10. Aren’t Freemasons a flock of tribes that have as their tribal rules the humanism that would suit you? Alas, they are highly have hierarchies and rituals and are highly semic with their secret signs, symbols and handshakes.

  11. I can only argue from an understanding of how a sense of being British emerges between the 6th and 9th century and would suggest very strongly its born out of and is literally an emotional state; resulting from a period of intense violence and increasing competition.

    Grows out of a sense of loss and a deep state of anxiety.

    I think the problems I have with tribalism is that its very difficult to deal with other peoples emotions and it’s often rather difficult to grasp what they are, what is motivating them and where the solutions can be found.

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