The Dark Side of Tribalism

We humans  are social beings. We cooperate, have altruism, empathy, eagerness to excel, and solicit the admiration and approval of our  tribe/nation/group. We also share heroic narratives and faith along with a pride for  the “specialness” of our group-tribe in which we live. At the same time, we have a tendency and even eagerness to look down on the adjoining tribe-nation, as well as for their individuals who live within our group. If we consider them different, we may even victimize them. This behavior is encoded in our genes as “traits,” was crucial for the survival of ourselves as a species. We call it tribalism.

Normally, mild expression is moderated by sense of tolerance and civility and philoxenia — Greek for “affection for strangers.” Mild tribalism fosters individual pride and identity as well cohesiveness among the members of this croup It promotes cooperation and harmony in social interactions. Unfortunately, there is a dark side to the tribalism. The malevolent form is when we exhibit anger, contempt, and even hatred for the members of the next tribe-nation or even for members of our own group-tribe that are deemed different.

Any difference will do; whether they’re tall, short, dark, white, with different eyes, or have a different accent, faith, gender, or they deploy their affections in a way not to our liking.  It is expressed as xenophobia, racism, and bigotry.

This malevolent form is easily aroused when opportunistic and charismatic leaders aid-and-abet the phenomenon by using words that are emotionally resonating, but devoid of meaning, like “they are coming….” or “they are taking advantage of us…”

These statements play well with the anxiety and frustrations of marginalized groups among us whether economically or socially.

This malevolent form of tribalism is particularly dangerous if not outright lethal for our country, which is made up of diverse people from different origins. It happened in the beginning of the last war in our country where — irrationally and illegally — we put thousands of Americans in camps because their origin was from Japan. While, ironically, the supreme commander of our armies in Europe — who later became a President — was of German origin, from the very country we were fighting against.

This irrational and malevolent behavior can show it’s ugly head with catastrophic results especially for our country. That is why we all have to be weary of such emergent malevolence — especially if it is prompted by our leaders.

Remembering that other people are not “them “, they are just “us” — the tall, the strange-looking, the ones with slanted eyes or the funny accent. Just us Humans. Ironically, the ones we consider “them” too often consider us as the despicable “them.”

Fortunately, as humans, we have genius as well. We are intelligent, flexible, innovative, and creative. We also are capable of grace, generosity, and an ability to reflect on the irrationality of racism and bigotry. We usually come up with appropriate responses for our survival. Problems, not only those of our own making — such as climate warming, the threat of an atomic bomb or overpopulation — but, those that originate from the dark side of tribalism.

This “dark side” of our human nature may very well threaten our very survival as a species .And that will be a pity. We are the only ponderers, chroniclers, story-tellers, and shepard for all living thing on this planet.


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