Scourge of Tribalism

For many thousands of years, human tribes have competed against each other for their very survival. Tribe coalitions that were more cooperative and cohesive not only managed to survive but also were able to appropriate land and other resources from other coalitions.

Thus the idea that humans have a need to belong to social groups is very fundamental in psychology. Belonging does not just feel good but is often essential for our very survival, even in modern times. Insider-outsider distinctions are innate and are well entrenched. This favouritism is the result of substantial benefits derived from group solidarity in early human evolution, and we still live with this grouping tendency even today.

It should not therefore come as a surprise that tribal loyalties tend to override objectivity and rational decision making. One such manifestation of group loyalty was reported in The New York Times, where the Orthodox Jews of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn shunned a neighbor after learning that he complained to police about a fellow Jew who was sexually abusing his son. As an objective person, you would think that a father protecting his son would be the sort of behavior that would be appreciated and endorsed. Unfortunately, such objectivity is thrown to the winds if it is considered disloyal to the tribe.

Something that goes almost unquestioned in many circles is nationalism which is another strong form of tribalism. Mukul Gupta writing in The Economic Times says “Building walls, promoting hate and distrusting refugees, persecuting minorities, fuelling the nationalist propaganda for narrow political gains are all being used for winning elections at the expense of national wellbeing”.

The divide of ‘us’ vs ‘them’

Harvard professor David Ropeik has written a poignant essay on How Tribalism Overrules Reason, and Makes Risky Times More Dangerous. He argues that tribalism is all pervasive and controls a lot of our behaviour, readily overriding our reasoning faculties. He reminds us of the inhuman things that we do in the name of tribal unity. Wars, for instance, are essentially, and often quite specifically, tribalism. Genocides are tribalism with the idea of wiping out the other group to keep our group safe taken to the extremes. Other examples are racism that lets us feel that our tribe is better and superior to the others, resulting in parents resorting to honour killing of their own children when they dare to marry someone of a different faith or colour. 

Another horrific case is the serious plight of ‘Rohingay’ Muslim community of more than a million staying in Myanmar. Many of them had migrated during the British colonial rule, from across the Bay of Bengal, at that time a part of composite India and now Bangladesh. They had settled down mainly in the Rakhine State of Myanmar. The ugly manifestation of  tribalism in Myanmar has resulted in persecution of this community to such an extent that it has been described by international media and human rights organizations as a genocide. 

After fleeing Myanmar army troops, hundreds of Rohingya children struggle for food at Balukhali refugee camp in southern Bangladesh. 

What is playing out in most of the countries around the world is that people with vested interests are exploiting our tribal instincts to create fear psychosis. Fear is a very strong tool in their hands that can completely destroy our rational thinking and then change our behaviour for the worse. 

These tribal narratives are effectively framed and publicised by the tribal leaders in such a way that it creates a strong feeling that the threat from outside is real and will lead to destruction of our tribe. Such a propaganda engenders a sense of urgency in us to act in order to secure a better future for their our children. 

We need to recognise that all nations, religions, cults, gangs, subcultures, fraternal societies, internet communities, political parties, social movements and sports fans are all groups of people that can be called as tribes. They all tend to have a common bond, be it worshipping a certain deity or speaking a certain language or belonging to a certain geographical region or supporting a certain sporting club etc. Their interactions more often happen with one another in the tribe rather than with outsiders. They all develop an internal culture such that members of the groups often like the same foods, wear the same clothing, play the same sports and have the same philosophical beliefs. An excellent example is the Non-Resident Indian (NRI) community in the US and elsewhere. Tribes also tend to develop legendary histories, where they celebrate and exaggerate the deeds of their founders and past champions. They tend to express their pride in their tribe through conspicuous use of group symbols, group attire and other cultural artefacts. 

Victor Hanson of the Hoover Institution and author of ‘The Second Wars’, calls tribalism as one of history’s great destroyers. With tribalism, loyalty to larger commonwealth is gradually compromised as the influence of smaller and more intimate groups like race, religion, ethnicity, local region etc. increase. This leads to gradual erosion of loyalty and commitment to the larger entity over time, giving rise to fissiparous tendencies. We can clearly witness all around the world, that national interests by many countries are overriding multi-national global cooperation thus effectively nullifying the healthy benefits that we had derived from globalisation. As we go down the hierarchy, we can see that allegiance to religious or political or local entities is overshadowing national interests.

Former US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, a Stanford Graduate School of Business professor, was very honest when she said “Let me let you in on a little secret. There is no such thing as an international community. There are only self-maximizing, self-interested states that will push their interests as far as possible.”

Most of the Middle East and Africa remain plagued by tribalism. In Iraq, a civil servant sees himself first as Shiite or Sunni rather than Iraqi, and acts accordingly. A Kenyan’s first allegiance is to his tribal first cousin rather than to an anonymous fellow Kenyan.

The result is inevitably the violence seen in places like the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Syria or Iraq. Back home in India, there is no attempt to hide the religious, caste and regional calculations during elections. The political parties unabashedly select candidates during elections based on religion or caste or linguistic considerations. A leader from Thakur, Brahmin or Dalit community in Uttara Pradesh or a leader drawn from Lingayat or Vokkaliga community in Karnataka will be chosen for leveraging the particular vote bank that gives maximum advantage. More unfortunately, religious loyalties and political affiliations are trumping national interests in India and there is complete lack of consensus on even important issues, including the critical area of security of the nation.

It is amazing that the Sunni and Shia Muslim sects who had lived for hundreds of years years as fellow citizens in many parts of Middle East have become enemies overnight thanks to Islamic extremists waging global jihad and power struggles. Surprisingly, both Sunnis and Shias look very similar to each other, live around in the same neighbourhood and believe in the same God albeit with small differences in theology. It is the very same violent aspect of tribalism that played out traumatically during the partition of ‘colonial India’ into two nations of India and Pakistan resulting in massacre of thousands of people. 

The level of inhumanity in these tribal conflicts is mind-boggling. For instance, the Fulani tribes in Sahel region of Africa were targeted by the other tribes. A ten day old baby was killed along with the mother. People of the tribe were thrown into a ditch of burning oil before being fired upon. One village chief was captured and summarily executed in front of his own mother. There were also pregnant women and elders who were killed and some people’s throats were cut while others were burnt alive.

When ex-president Donald Trump likened immigrants to poisonous snakes, biologist and behavioural scientist Robert Saplosky had this to say.  The author of Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst” observed that this comparison coming from a powerful leader, is a textbook definition of dehumanization of the ‘other’ group. When group or tribal leaders exhort their tribesmen with phraseology that activates their neurons in the insular cortex, the part of the brain that responds viscerally to disgusting things, then they have succeeded in creating the platform for genocide.

Saplosky had another profound observation.  He says that we do our worst when we are surrounded by a lot of people who agree with us. For example, devout religious belief is not necessarily a predictor of extremism. Devout religious observance also does not give rise to extremism. But devout religious observance in a large group setting does engender extremist tendencies. Studies show that support for terrorism in Muslim majority countries was unrelated to how often they prayed or how devout they were about various religious prohibitions. But it was definitely related to how often they prayed in mosques, in large group setting. The same was also true of right-wing Jewish extremists in Israel. Things take on a new meaning and a different perspective when sacred values are re-affirmed in group settings.

Jonah Goldberg in his new book, Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy’, describes what he calls the West’s suicidal tendency to surrender to tribal and nationalist forces from both the left and the right. 

World Economic Forum (WEF) Study finds that the world is witnessing a deepening distrust of each other thanks to growing tribalism and intolerance of those with different beliefs and backgrounds. Economic factors are playing a central role in terms of rising inequality, stagnant incomes, job insecurity and the division between prosperous cities and “left behind” regions. But the perfect storm of conditions for social fragmentation is coming from the convergence of economic forces with changes in culture, technology and the proliferating communication media landscape. 

WEF urges political leaders and civil society to appreciate that maintaining the rule of law, accountable institutions, independent media, social trust and strong civil society networks have become extremely critical. It points out the need to lower the barriers so that ordinary citizens are engaged more meaningfully in national affairs instead of restricting such participation to the loudest voices with the most strident views. There is also a crying need to incorporate serious consequences to those politicians, advocates and campaigners who pursue victory at any cost undermining the critical public trust in the system.

Neuroscientists have been researching this field for some time now. When in experiments black and white Americans were flashed pictures of the other race, their amygdala, the brain’s center of fear and anger, were activated so quickly and subtly that the conscious centers of the brain were unaware of the response. The subject, in effect, could not help himself.

On the other hand, when appropriate contexts were added like the approaching black man being a doctor and the white person his patient, things were different. Then, the two other sites in the brain, the cingulate cortex and the dorsolateral preferential cortex of the brain integrated with the higher learning centers, effectively silencing the input through the amygdala.

In a paper published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Eva Telzer of UCLA showed that the racial sensitivity of the amygdala does not kick in until around the age of fourteen. Such racial sensitivity is also not uniform across people of the same age group. Racially diverse groups had a less strong amygdala effect. In fact, with really high levels of diversity in the group, racially sensitivity almost disappeared. These findings therefore suggest that neural biases to race are not innate and that race is a social construction, learned over time.

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