Tribalism vs. The Tribe – The Good, the Bad, the Ugly… and the Possible.

Alexis de Tocqueville


“Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free,
but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom.”

Alexis de Tocqueville


When I first started writing this article no one was talking about tribe, and the word tribalism hadn’t caught on.  The words surfaced in the media as soon as I started writing and were rapidly ubiquitous.  Tribe and tribalism became new “buzz words” and wrongly, became intertwined and interchangeable.  Their improper use was very discouraging but now, I am back at it.  Here is how it all began…

I was having coffee with a new acquaintance who was very distraught.  Throughout the conversation, without apparent connection, she kept saying, “we were meant to be free.”  It was as though she felt freedom was the primary driving factor of our species.  I think there might be many other people who feel the same way.  Though I didn’t speak it, what popped into my head was, “No, first we are tribal.”

I don’t remember much of the rest of the conversation but her assertion about freedom stuck with me.

Tribe – The Good: survival of the most cooperative

There was a time when the tribe was where your first loyalty resided.  Secondarily, it might have been loyalty to family.  If the tribe was also a family clan, these loyalties might have been intermingled but there would have been obedience to the tribe or clan leader and one would be expected to follow the dictates of the tribe.  In return, one would get a sense of security and belonging which, it would seem, is an important aspect of the human psyche.

In more recent times, one had to rely on the family or perhaps a school or club, for this important sense of belonging.  As activity in these groups has diminished in our modern world, especially with the disembodied rise of social media and the growing cultural and economic divide, we have lost that sense of community and belonging.

We romanticize the lone wolf.  But a wolf, all alone, has been either been kicked out or abandoned by the pack.  He then searches desperately for a new pack or a mate to start a new pack or to take over the pack and territory of a weaker alpha.  We may look enviously at the mountain man, who seems to have no boundaries and survives free and on his own in the wild.  But, in order to survive, even he must connect with civilization periodically.  He sells his hides; he buys his supplies.  If the town or the tribe were not there, he wouldn’t be able to survive.  So, one might say, we can all be like mountain men or the lone wolf and just go to Walmart or Home Depot for whatever we need.  Right? Well, let’s see.

Every tribe has its rules.  Break the rules and you may be punished or even ostracized.  Human beings have always found strength in numbers and common goals.  We know that ancient tribes traded over vast distances.  Sometimes they battled over ecology or resources, just like many other species.

A tribe is viewed developmentally, economically and historically as a social group existing outside of or before the development of states.  A tribe is a group of distinct people who are dependent on their land for their livelihood, largely self-sufficient and not integrated into the national society.

So, we know that human beings are highly territorial.  In fact (as defined above), some have suggested that territory is our primary instinct.  Sometimes, that battle for territory involves resources but more often, it comprises defense of personal space or ownership of the land.  But, in some cultures, there was no concept of land ownership. Rather than the land belonging to them, they belonged to the land.

Try this sometime.  Invite someone to lunch and sit across from them.  Whether you realize it or not, a line is automatically drawn across the center of the table.  As you are chatting, start moving items across the line. The salt and pepper, the ketchup bottle, a napkin – and observe as your lunch companion become increasingly uncomfortable.  So the tribe is not just about territory and, even though we are territorial, that also involves personal space.  I suggest you be careful who you pick for this little experiment.

But Tribalism has nothing to do with the tribe!

Tribalism – The Bad:

Definitions for tribalism include –  colonialism, denigration of the other, and the survival of the greediest.

And the ugly…

Tribalism: The state of living in a tribe is tribalism.  This word is also used to describe situations where people are overly loyal to their own group.  For example, a newspaper editorial might complain about tribalism in American politics.

This word was exclusively used to describe aspects of living in a traditional tribe until the mid-20th century, when it came to have a more derogatory meaning.  Today, tribalism is often seen as putting one’s own group above every other consideration, including kindness or justice.  Tribalism can lead to bigotry and racism and, when taken to extremes, even war.

I’ve always been taught that you can’t use the word you are defining to define the word.  It is difficult to nail down a definition for tribalism that doesn’t include the word tribe in it.  And yet, nothing about tribalism fits with the definition of tribe.  Today, tribalism has become identity with a group or some specific belief.  But what is that group doing for you?  Is it a group that offers you sustenance and support or a group that allows you to identify with and exercise your worst instincts?

Tribalism also seems to include devotion to a personality or leader, who doesn’t necessarily have the best interests of the group at heart.  In other words, it has nothing to do with a tribe.  It is more like a cult – a cult of personality and a leader who preys on peoples’ need to belong.

One of the definitions of tribalism includes colonialism.  So let’s consider this…

Are you a man or a mouse?  Humans are inherently territorial.  Mice are not territorial but they are colonial.  After WWII, John Calhoun’s famous mouse utopia experiments revealed many characteristics that could be induced in mice that bear frightening similarities to behaviors that we can observe in humans in restricted conditions.

In one experiment, mice were placed in a habitat that could hold up to 4,000 mice.  There were separate cells, each stocked with food and water.  At far below capacity, several aberrant behaviors began to emerge.  Some mice lost interest in reproducing and for mice that did reproduce, pregnancies failed.  Obsessive behaviors included excessive preening and mice piling up on top of each other, and starving.  Solitary males roamed around, attacking other mice.  Sound familiar?  Ultimately, the population collapsed at far below capacity, with many cells still stocked with food and water.

So what happened here?  Are we seeing the collapse of a tribe?  No, mice are not tribal – but something clearly pushed the colony to collapse.  Population growth is governed by limiting factors such as food, water, space.  Clearly, this was not the case with these mice.  Lack of some nutrients, pollutants and natural catastrophes can cause behaviors that result in the collapse of a population.  Limiting factors are described very well in the following article.  How 1960s Mouse Utopias Led to Grim Predictions for Future of Humanity

Tribe, Tribalism and Community

I would suggest that what is not covered here is the psychological aspect of the tribe (or colony) as a supportive community.  I can’t speak for the mice but for humans, we know the importance of a mother’s touch, of being held, of belonging to a family and/or community.  Whether through social contact or physical contact, it’s important for humans to have a sense of belonging.

For children especially, in energy healing, we know that a child’s energy field is not fully developed until around the age of 12.  And, when they are in close contact with a parent, they benefit from the protection and comfort of the parent’s energy field.  Even in nature, I have personally experienced animals one would hardly expect (a sea turtle and a moray eel) to crave being petted and touched, once they have experienced it.  But that is not what is being described in our mouse colony.  There is nothing nurturing or sustaining in our mouse colony. Instead, there is a descent into base, self-destructive behaviors.

There also seems to be no adherence to any supportive structure or rules.  Even a lion cub needs to learn the rules of how to behave in the pride.  A tribe where anything goes and everyone does their own thing, is not likely to thrive.  So, in addition to a natural instinct toward territorialism, there is an inherent need for not only nurturing but structure; structure that is directed toward survival of the community or tribe.  That structure includes a code of behavior or ethics that, if rejected by the individual, results in ostracization from the community.  But it is fear of ostracization or fear of the loss of belonging that causes one to adhere to the rules.

With the loss of belonging to a group that promotes strong, positive moral ethics a person might find themselves entangled in a group with negative, hateful, or destructive “rules” in order to satisfy their need to belong.  Rather than community, more familiar and appropriate terms might be “gang” or “cult of personality” or “fascism” (which is a cult of personality that has become institutionalized).  Or in part, a more modern term might be “identity politics.”  I say in part because I think that is still a causal factor or perhaps an intermittent stage of institutionalized or entrenched behavior, in search of something more – something intangible – like a sense of belonging.

The founding fathers warned of this but called it fractionalism (the state of consisting of separate usually non-homogeneous or inharmonious units).  I feel that fractionalism is a more appropriate term, because there is no implication of a tribe and it more appropriately describes what we saw in the mouse colony.  Fractionalism also describes what we see in much of our discourse today; a fractured society that leads to destructive and polarizing behaviors.

In the absence of a nurturing tribe, individuals without a strong personal identity seek out the identity of a group.  Instead of the leader who would protect and provide for them, they follow a leader who would enable and entangle them into a cult of personality.  This suggests that humans have an additional drive or need for direction or inspiration – from outside themselves.  It also suggests that there is a tenuous connection (or perhaps grey area) between the need to be directed or lead and the need to be absolved.  For, if we relinquish our ability to act independently toward what is right, then we also risk surrendering responsibility to a higher authority.  If that higher authority is not acting in the interest of the entire community, then the community does not thrive but descends into chaos.

What is Possible?

We need to focus on recreating tribes, with the thought that our tribal connections will counteract the destructiveness of tribalism or fractionalism.  As 21st century advances shrink the distances between us, our tribes appear to grow larger but our sense of belonging is diminished and our sense of loneliness and despair increases.  Instead of a tribe of physical friends, colleagues or family, we sit and click on digitized faces – sometimes of otherwise total strangers or bots.  We shop online, work online, order in and even have our meals delivered, which might even be delivered by a drone in the future, rather than a human being.

Meanwhile, broken homes and political policies that cut resources (in order to serve the rich to the detriment of the underprivileged) drive kids to gangs, in search of a place to belong, and end up finding only fear, drugs, loneliness and despair.  Many schools no longer support sports (parents have to pay extra), arts and club activities, where young people can find camaraderie and a sense of belonging.  Instead, the rise of hate groups and bullying (both online and in person) is tolerated by schools, institutions and extreme religious groups, and even encouraged by our current POTUS and his administration.

There is a chance though, that a re-commitment to forming “tribes” that are truly devoted to instilling high moral and ethical standards and a true sense of belonging, without prejudice or fear, can turn this trend around.  More funding for sports and the arts in our schools, Boys and Girls Clubs that provide positive activities, and organizations for adults that provide a sense of structure and high ethical values are some of the ways we can turn this trend toward fractionalism and fear around – and find a new sense of inclusivity and belonging.

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