Friday, December 28, 2012

Tribalism, Divisiveness, Dialog, and Morality

Tribalism (from whence comes our notions of "us" versus "them") contains both positive and negative aspects.  Within our "tribe" we have feelings of empathy, we provide help to tribe members, we forgive them their errors and overlook their flaws, we support their goals, and so on.  But for those outside our tribe, we have much less empathy (if any), we likely oppose their goals, we curse them for things they have said and done, we don't respect them, and may even hate them to the point of perpetrating violence upon them.  Tribalism is a source of altruism and kindness, but is the root of bigotry and violence - both at the same time.

Today, tribalism (in various flavors) seems to be a dominant aspect of our humanity:
  1. Religious believer versus Atheist
  2.   Christian versus Jew versus Muslim
  3.   Catholic versus Protestant
  4.   Mormon versus Non-Mormon
  5.   Fundamentalist versus Non-Fundamentalist
  6. Conservative versus Liberal
  7. Pro-life versus Pro-choice
  8. Gun control advocate versus Gun advocate
  9. Democrat versus Republican (US version)
  10. Heterosexual versus Homosexual 
  11. American versus Non-American 
  12. White versus Nonwhite
  13. ... many, many more ...
Most of us belong to many different tribes at the same time:  White-American-Christian- Fundamentalist-Conservative-Pro-life-Gun advocate-Republican-heterosexual - or Nonwhite-Canadian-Atheist-Liberal-Pro-choice-Gun control advocate-Homosexual.  Clearly, many other combinations are possible, but it should be evident that certain tribes are likely to be members of certain other tribes.  Interesting, no?

Recently, we all seem to be  advocating our viewpoint stridently, to the point where some folks are going off the deep end into outright hatred and even violence.  The tendency is to dehumanize anyone not of our tribe, to categorize them in highly pejorative ways, some going so far as to demonize their "opponents" - thereby justifying virtually anything done to the other tribe.

This sort of divisiveness is devastating to any dialog among diverse viewpoints.  If someone is labeled as a member of another tribe, then they're no longer listened to with any care.  Anything they say is flawed, and unworthy of attention.  If they make some reasonable point, shift the argument to some other issue.  Never respond to their questions.  Any lie is permissible if it might be of benefit to the tribe.  Blame them for not conceding every issue immediately.  Portray your tribe as the ones being persecuted, even as you seek relentlessly any advantage you can win.  Compromise to solve common problems is discarded at the outset.  Tribes simply seek to "win" any clash, regardless of any harm done to the other tribe(s) and anyone unlucky enough to be caught in the conflict's cross-fire.  All is fair in hate and war!  Keep the feud alive at all costs:  never forgive or forget any offense, no matter how long ago, or how trivial.  Feed your smoldering hatreds until the opportunity comes to take your vengeance.  Condemn anything done by members of the other tribe, no matter how successful or helpful it might have been.  Oppose them at any step along the way, even if it causes you harm - you must not allow the other tribe to succeed at anything!

Tribalism is a survival trait that helped humans be successful despite not having the physiology to defeat large predators.  We developed language within tribes and shared within our tribe whatever new things we learned to the betterment of all in the tribe.  Our morality evolved so that we cooperated rather than killing one another, stealing from each other, etc. - anything good for individuals within the tribe that also helped the whole tribe was given high value.  Evolution has hard-wired tribalistic morality deep within our psyche.

In today's world, however, tribalism's dark side - our willingness to do to members of other tribes what we would not sanction within our tribe has become a distinct liability.  It's paralyzing our ability to work together to solve common problems.  It's responsible for racism and bigotry of all kinds.  With modern weapons, war between tribes can escalate to the point where the immediate extinction of most, if not all, of the human race is possible.

When travelling about the world, one message comes across very clearly:  at the core, we humans are all the same.  We can interbreed with any other human on the Earth.  We all seek to make a living, support our families, raise our children, enjoy the good things that life has to offer.  Nevertheless, tribalism seems to compel us to put an undue emphasis on the things that divide us, and to ignore the many things we have in common.  We seem unable to forgive wrongs of the past in order to get along, to the common good of all.  We seem unable to see other tribes as anything but enemies.  We have little or no respect for the cultural differences among tribes.  We mostly seek only to convert or destroy tribal outsiders.

Such primitive thinking has become a distinct liability in today's world.  Tribalistic atavism must be overcome and calm, rational dialog needs to begin in order to seek solutions for the very big problems shared by everyone in the human race.  Economies must be stabilized, wars must be ended and cooperation to find a lasting peace is needed - too many valuable resources are being consumed for military ends.  Anthropogenic global climate change must be mitigated and renewable energy sources developed to replace the dwindling supply of fossil fuels.  An uncompromising position is simply not going to solve anything.  The very survival of our species is increasingly contingent on our overcoming narrow-minded, primitive tribalism.  If we can't do so, we likely will not survive without some sort of cataclysmic disaster that will inflict death and suffering on virtually all of us.  We can't put this off much longer ...