tribalism in our time

November 19th, 2007

People get into heated debates all the time, over the same old issues - politics, religion, historical facts, old scores etc. It should be clear enough that people who have a personal stake in the matter, like a member of their family having been wronged for example, have more obstacles to overcome in order to stay objective about the issue. That much is perfectly understandable. But so often we debate things where we have no personal interest, things that we consider to be "good for society" or bad for it. Even so, one really has to make an effort to remain objective in these matters.

While the central objective of debate is supposed to be the search for truth, what we often witness is people digging trenches and sitting in them for the sake of it. What should not come as a surprise is that this kind of strategy is detrimental to the debate at hand. If you aren't willing to give up your position in the interest of making progress in the discussion, then the undertaking is futile.

What is interesting is that people are much more reluctant to give anything up when they have the backing of a front, than when they stand alone as a rational individual. A person with a very strong conviction acquired on his own generally has nothing to lose except to admit the flaws of his own reasoning - which is something we are all willing to concede (some more than others). But take that same person when he identifies himself with a group, and he will require overwhelming, indisputable evidence of the most blatant kind to admit his error. Why is that? Because admitting to be wrong is not only an admission of your own imperfection. It is the first (and sometimes significant) step toward disassociating yourself with your group.

This is tribalism.

It is important for us to belong to something. The very presence of groups in society makes it irregular to stand completely unattached. But these associations come at a price. It gives people a license to stop thinking on their own. And it makes it harder for them to think independently whenever they may want to.

There are many important debates which need to be had, but more importantly need to be resolved. Many of these are stuck in a positional war of trenches, where the same tired arguments are exchanged and responses often come in the form of settling scores. Furthermore, because the debates do not concern people, but groups, they must be made accessible to all members of the group. This is where the issue and the arguments are trivialized and simplified down to a collection of slogans and other sound bites. You and I can have an intelligent argument about something, but if we are to make ourselves understood by our respective groups, we have to dumb it down a lot.

Looking at the hot issues today, this is exactly what we have. There is mac vs pc, pro-life vs pro-choice (what well chosen names too), for-the-troops vs against-the-troops, republican vs democrat (however this one didn't work as well, so they found a more fitting pair in conservative vs liberal), catholic vs protestant vs muslim vs whatever and so on. This is a very effective way of sidetracking the issue into a tribal battle. What matters is not what is true, but who is winning and who is losing. Did Clinton lie about Lewinsky? Did Kerry bad mouth the military? Huge talking points. Meanwhile, let's not care at all about anything remotely important.

As a long time sports fan, I have had the occasion to observe tribalism in its purest form. Just like any other grouping, sports fans have very strong ties to their groups. But what makes it so interesting is how abstract their affiliation is. They pledge allegiance to.. nothing in particular. To an abstract entity of a club, essentially. And their debates are just as vicious and intense as of any group, with the distinction that they aren't really fighting *for* anything. Whether a team wins or loses, global warming continues, people will kill in the name of a god, and we still pay the same taxes. Sports have no influence on society at all. And because this is so, it gives a valuable insight into tribalism, and how predisposed we are for it.

There are further characteristics of sports affiliation. Loyalty is the central principle. You must stick with your team whatever the circumstances may be. And you cannot choose several teams either, to buy yourself some insurance against failure, lest you be labeled an outcast. There are no concrete rules for how to treat disputes with other groups, but in practice these discussions are dominated by self serving arguments and self interest. What's interesting is that the debates that are had are not jaded by the same cynicism you might find in politics, because the underlying principles are still that of athletic excellence and justice. However, sports fans are incurable hypocrites. So even though people express themselves (their teams, rather) in the most noble of terms, there is no actual interest in seeing justice served. The only thing that matters is that my team wins. I say this on the back of a long process of gathering data and trying to disprove the hypothesis of hypocrisy, but alas.

Now, political or religious debates are really no more intelligent, fair, or honest than debates between sports fans. And they are no more incisive or focused either, a big part of it is mud throwing. Very little progress (if any) is made, because people are too busy defending the symbolic banner they are fighting under. Finding truth is a distant second objective.

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1 Responses to "tribalism in our time"

  1. erik says:

    I think you make a good point, illustrated by a well chosen metaphor.

    I'd like to add a dimension to the concept of debate. As a political science student, I've been trained to utilize debates as means of gaining knowledge and understanding. I've been known to deliberately take an opposing stance to the majority opinion in a debate, not because I actually supported that stance, but because I was interested in hearing different opinions, arguments and views which inevitably leads to a growing understanding of the topic at hand. Since the only real way to force people to thoroughly examine, consider and express their views is by challenging them by identifying the 'flaws' in their reasoning, the debate serves as excellent means of gathering intelligence.

    Sadly I don't come across such an approach of 'the debate' outside political circles often. Which is a shame. When a debate goes from serving as additional means of informing to becoming a weapon in a (verbal) war, it loses its purpose. Tribalism hinders the evolution of human intelligence.