When two tribes go to war, a point is all that you can score
So, I haven’t been posting much. Honestly, I wanted to wait until after the election. Our collective behavior in the run up to the election and the aftermath has been both fascinating and heartbreaking to observe. Time to start processing, I suppose.
A while back I wrote a piece about epistemic closure. Today I want to talk about tribalism, which can be seen as a result of epistemic closure. The self-selection of media and information creates a “bubble” in which people nurture their tribalism.
The type of tribalism that I am referencing is when a person acts or behaves in ways that are more loyal to their tribe than to their friends, their family, their country or other social groups. Over the past week I have read some amazing examples of tribalism advocating treating family, friends, customers, neighbors and society in less than kind ways because they didn’t vote “properly”. You may have seen this conservative-libertarian’s rant after the election. I also recommend reading this interview to get some color on how far he intends to take things. Elsewhere I read about a mother cutting off her daughter and another gentleman drastically reducing assistance to his “mentally handicapped” uncle due to his uncle’s vote for Obama. Here’s another person who demonstrates her tribalism by calling for the President’s assassination and then wonders why it was such a big deal.
I readily admit that I’m engaging in some “nut-picking” here (and I readily admit that this behavior isn’t confined to only one tribe), but the above stances seem a bit harsh, no? Also, it seems to undercut the whole idea that each person can vote how ever the hell they want to. There are less egregious examples of tribalism. Some people will only do business with “red” or “blue” businesses. Some people purged their facebook friends of their “enemies”. Some friendships fall apart for a political reason that had nothing to do with why they were friends in the first place. The interesting question to me is why this is happening.
Tribalism is hardwired in the primitive areas of our brains. We no longer have tribal societies, but tribalism still exists. In an evolutionary sense, tribalism is beneficial because humans by nature need a social group to survive. Tribalism bonds an individual to the group. When a member of a group starts to disagree or wants to leave, the traditional countermeasure from the group is bullying to keep the member in the group. “Bullying” is a pretty good analog to the examples I linked to above. Those people want their “opponents” to know that there are consequences, dammit, for their actions.
Tribalism manifests itself in (mostly) benign ways. The easiest example is the sports fan. I think this is a healthy way to indulge our tribalistic instincts in a way that usually does not result in harm. There are some rather large differences between sports and governing. Sports have definitive outcomes and the winners and losers do not have to work together going forward to achieve goals.
Part of the allure of tribalism is the ability to glom onto the identity of the tribe. Oakland Raiders fans seem to believe that they are “tougher” than other fans. Democrats believe that they have more empathy. Broadly, one could argue that those perceptions are true. On an individual level it may not be the case. Tribalists are appropriating the “coolness” of the larger group, whether it is true about them personally or not. Put another way, a relatively poor person can still feel superior to an abjectly poor person or minority. That superiority makes them happy and allows them to look past their troubles.
I hope that we can agree that tribalism taken to the extent of shunning family, friends, customers and neighbors produces bad results. Personally, it does not compute at all. I do not “hate” 50% of my fellow Americans because they do not share my views on governing. Even if I were inclined to, I must interact with my “opponents” each and every day. I love my friends and family in spite of their flaws and sometimes because of their flaws. Honestly I like some of them more because they feel differently than I do because there are opportunities to learn about myself and others from them. To promote effective government, the people need to provide the template for our elected officials. We need to talk to each other and at least try to understand our respective positions if we expect our representatives to do the same. We don’t have to sacrifice our principles to talk to each other. The first thing we need to do is to recognize tribalism and reject how it can be a substitute for actual thinking and understanding.