Tribalism: An Excuse For Bigotry

I do not like the term ‘tribalism’ and I do not subscribe to the concept that people gravitate by nature toward others who match their skin colour, religious preferences, gender identity, etc, to the exclusion of all others.  This nation has been a salad bowl of different nationalities, religions and ethnicities for centuries now and any notion of ‘tribe’ has surely been diluted to the point of extinction by now.  That said, I know that some strongly believe in tribalism and live their lives accordingly … denigrating others who do not look and think exactly as they do.  And in truth, it seems that calling it tribalism is simply an excuse for bigotry in all its forms … racism, homophobia, misogyny, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and more.  It seems to me that as long as people consider themselves a part of a ‘tribe’ and adhere to the rites and rituals of that ‘tribe’, there is no hope for bringing all people together, for President Biden’s dream of unification.

Along these lines, New York Times’ Op-Ed columnist Frank Bruni had an interesting and thought-provoking newsletter yesterday.  Take a look and let me know what you think …


Our Tribalism Will Be the Death of Us

One of the most consistently intelligent and unbiased sources of news about Covid has been The Times’s newsletter The Morning, anchored by David Leonhardt, who fully respects science while being cleareyed about what it hasn’t figured out yet, opts for data over diatribes and tends toward understatement in an age of hyperbole. So when I see that his focus on a given day is the pandemic, I perk up and pay special heed.

That was the case with his analysis earlier this week of the first pandemic-related poll that The Morning commissioned. Its big takeaway, more confirmation than revelation, was distilled in its headline: “Two Covid Americas.” The paragraphs following that demonstrated anew that while a virus isn’t partisan, many Americans’ responses to this one have been emphatically so.

“Millions of Republican voters have decided that downplaying Covid is core to their identity as conservatives,” David wrote, elaborating on what the poll showed. “Millions of Democrats have decided that organizing their lives around Covid is core to their identity as progressives.” And so, he explained, all of those Americans filter information selectively through their political affiliations, which also determine their triage of concerns.

He wasn’t equating a Covid denier or vaccine paranoiac with someone whose mask is more badge than barrier. Nor am I. He was making a wider point about passions and prejudices. He was drawing necessary attention to the intense tribalism of American life now.

The pandemic, which could and should have brought us together, has instead driven us further apart, exacerbating our tribalism, which is an enemy of real progress but a friend to all sorts of dysfunction, all manner of meanness. The irrational obstructionism in Congress and lawmakers’ taste for vitriol and vengeance are tribalism run amok. Cancel culture, be it on the left or right, is a tribal impulse, not merely abetted but amplified by the technology of our time.

We humans are inherently tribal creatures. I get that. I’ve read and remember enough history and headlines not to be surprised. But the work of civilization — the advance of it — involves containing that tribalism, controlling it, moderating it with grander and more unifying ideals.

That work in America is currently in a state of crisis. You saw that at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. You see it in public opinion surveys that document how darkly Democrats and Republicans regard each other. You see it almost hourly on Fox News, which casts Joe Biden not as a flawed president but as a doddering autocrat or socialist puppet turning the United States into a crime-besieged hellscape. You see it every minute — no, every second — on social media.

I’m obviously talking in particular about political tribalism, which, fascinatingly, is growing just as Americans’ attachment to organized religion is waning. Political observers have noted that and mulled the consequences. One of this tribalism’s obvious drivers is many Americans’ substitution of investment and involvement in physical communities with investment and involvement in online ones that more efficiently sort them into cliques of the rigidly like-minded. Another is many people’s use of the internet not to check or challenge their thinking but to validate it.

I also sense that many Americans, overwhelmed by the volume of competing information that comes at them and the furious pace of its delivery, outsource their judgment to a tribe and its leaders. Those leaders give them certainty in place of ambiguity, definitive answers in lieu of smarter questions. They’re liberated from genuine inquiry and freed from doubt.

In the short term, that’s a simpler, easier way to live. And in the long term?

I fear that we’re in the process of finding out.

39 thoughts on “Tribalism: An Excuse For Bigotry

  1. Yes, if only. …

    At the risk of sounding strange, whenever I see recorded footage of the earth from an orbiting source, I think I actually feel a sense of love for the planet below, everyone’s sole Spaceship.

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    • Well, that makes sense, given that it is the only known planet on which human life can exist. But then … if we all agree that we love the planet … why are some so determined to destroy it?

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      • I’m not sure, but there’s a potentially serious hazard in theocratically-inclined people getting into high office with their dangerous disregard — and even contempt — for the natural environment.

        As a disturbing example of such, in the midst of yet another unprecedented Amazonian rainforest wildfire two summers ago, Brazilian president and evangelical Christian Jair Bolsonaro declared that his presidency — and, I presume, all of the formidable environmental damage he inflicts while in power — is “fulfilling a mission from God”.

        Unlike the rainforest — home to a third of all known terrestrial plant, animal and insect species — what matters to Bolsonaro is the creation of jobs, however limited or temporary, and economic stimulation, however intangible the concept when compared to the grand-scale, consequential environmental destruction.

        Closer to home, many of Canada’s leading conservative politicians, not to mention our previous prime minister (i.e. Stephen Harper, close friend to Postmedia’s then-CEO Paul Godfrey), are/were ideologically aligned with the pro-fossil-fuel mainstream American Evangelical community and Republican Party.

        They generally share the belief that to defend the natural environment from the planet’s greatest polluters, notably big fossil fuel, is to go against God’s will and therefore is inherently evil. Some even credit the bone-dry-vegetation areas uncontrollably burning in California each year to some divine wrath upon collective humankind’s ‘sinfulness’.

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        • Quite so, which is why we have ‘separation of church and state’, though you’d never know it to hear some of the politicos, especially Republicans, talk. As for Bolsonaro … he is the very image of Trump, a self-focused, greedy and arrogant person who thinks his words are gospel and whatever he does should be praised. If the truth were known, I seriously doubt that either Trump or Bolsonaro truly believe in the ‘god’ they purportedly serve.

          I truly do not think religion belongs in governance. To call the U.S. a “Christian” nation is to deny that the rest of us … Muslims, Jews, atheists and others … are part of this nation, even though the percentage of ‘Christians’ has been on the decline in recent years and non-believers like myself is on the rise.

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          • Indeed, Jesus must be spinning in heaven knowing what faux-Christian conduct is erroneously connected to his teachings. Also, some of the best humanitarians were/are atheists or agnostics who’d make better examples of many of Christ’s teachings than too many institutional Christians (i.e. those most resistant to Christ’s fundamental teachings of non-violence, compassion and non-wealth); and, conversely, some of the worst human(e) beings are the most devout preachers/practitioners of institutional Christian theology.

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            • As a non-believer, I try to be respectful of others’ religious beliefs, but it does seem to me that Christians, especially evangelicals, are among the most narrow-minded. They don’t afford those who believe differently than they do the same respect I try to give them. I have Muslim friends who are far more religiously tolerant than most Christians I know!

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  2. What humankind may need to suffer in order to survive the long term from ourselves is an even greater nemesis (a figurative multi-tentacled extraterrestrial, perhaps?) than our own politics and perceptions of differences — especially that of race — against which we could all unite, attack and defeat.

    During this needed human allegiance, we’d be forced to work closely side-by-side together and witness just how humanly similar we are to each other. (Albeit, I have been told that one or more human parties might actually attempt to forge an allegiance with the ETs to better their own chances for survival, thus indicating that our wanting human condition may be even worse than I had originally thought.)

    Still, maybe some five or more decades later when all traces of the nightmarish ET invasion are gone, we will inevitably revert to those same politics to which we humans seem so collectively hopelessly prone — including those of scale: the intercontinental, international, national, provincial or state, regional and municipal. …

    I’ve heard that, before non-white people became the primary source of newcomers to North America, thick-accented Eastern Europeans were the main targets of meanspirited Anglo-Saxon bigotry. As a 1950s Slovenian immigrant to Canada, my (now-late) father experienced such mistreatment.

    Although no Stanley Milgram, I believe that if Canada were to hypothetically revert back to a primarily-white populace, if not some VDARE whites-only utopia, Eastern Europeans with a Slavic accent would inevitably again become the main target of the dominant Euro-Canadian ethnicity.

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    • Ahhhhh … but don’t we already have that nemesis, that “multi-tentacled extraterrestrial” whose name is Covid? That threat, that reality, should have brought the people of this nation together to fight a common enemy, but instead it divided us even further. And no, it would come as no surprise if a large number of people worked with the ETs … just look at the anti-vaxxers working to help keep Covid around even longer!

      And, if Covid weren’t sufficient, there’s always climate change. We should, by all rights, be working together with every other nation on earth to be fixing our environment, but instead, half the people are pulling dark hoods over their eyes and claiming it’s all a hoax because they cannot see the evidence of it.

      Over the last 2-3 years, I have drawn the conclusion that humans will extinct themselves because they will not open their eyes to what is right in front of their faces. They prefer to focus on such things as who wins the Super Bowl, what Minnie Mouse is wearing, and what Joe Rogan said yesterday. Sigh. I give up … let them destroy themselves, for they seem to be taking great pleasure in doing so.

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      • Yes, collective human existence is still essentially analogous to a cafeteria lineup consisting of diversely societally represented people, all adamantly arguing over which identifiable person should be at the front and, conversely, at the back of the line. Many of them further fight over to whom amongst them should go the last piece of quality pie and how much they should have to pay for it — all the while the interstellar spaceship on which they’re all permanently confined, owned and operated by (besides the wealthiest passengers) the fossil fuel industry, is on fire and toxifying at locations not normally investigated.

        Neoliberals and conservatives preoccupy themselves with vocally criticizing one another for their relatively trivial politics and diverting attention away from some of the planet’s greatest polluters, where it should and needs to be sharply focused.

        As a species, we can be so heavily preoccupied with our own individual little worlds, however overwhelming to us, that we will miss the biggest of crucial pictures.

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        • It seems that most people these days are so wrapped up in their own little worlds, claiming their ‘rights’ are being violated, that they cannot “see the forest for the trees” as I’ve often heard. They forget that we are all in this together, that there is a ‘greater good’ to be considered that must sometimes take precedence over their own desires. Humans are the most selfish, greedy, and arrogant species on earth.

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          • Thinking about the awe experienced and even love felt by astronauts for the spaceship Earth below, I wonder: If a large portion of the planet’s freely-polluting fossil-fuel friendly governing leaders rocketed far enough above the earth for a day’s (or more) orbit, while looking down, would have a sufficiently profound effect on them to change their apparently unconditional political/financial support of Big Fossil Fuel?

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            • Hmmmm … good question! I doubt it would have the desired effect, but perhaps if we sent them far enough into space, they could become ‘Lost in Space’, thus alleviating us of their burden? And while we’re at it, could we send the fossil fuel ‘barons’ with them?

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  3. A few years ago, around the time that Trump was elected, I think things were actually worse, at least with my group of friends. Now, most of us do not read the news anymore & if we are on social media, we do not share any political memes whatsoever. I have also noticed that I agree with most of my conservative friends on a lot of issues … it’s just we disagree on how to fix these things. But there’s no arguments anymore. So many of our shared friends have died in the last two years that arguing over politics is just a waste of precious time.

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    • That’s interesting! You’re the first person I’ve heard say that. While I agree with you in one sense, for I lost many friends and family members through my anti-Trump stances back in 2016-2017, I still think that overall there is more violence and hatred today. Consider such things as airline passengers and store customers brutalizing employees over minor issues. There just seems to be an anger simmering just barely beneath the surface, ready to erupt at the slightest thing.

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    • In social climates of heated emotions and violent intolerance, it may not be enough to just not think/act hateful; we also need to display kindness. For example, following the June 6 killings in London, Ontario, of four members of a family for being Muslim, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested to Canadians that “the next time you see a woman in a hijab or a [Muslim] family out for a stroll, give them a smile.”

      Due to seemingly plentiful incidents of hate-motivated crimes, his thoughtful request can be applicable to a wide array of such inexcusable attacks. I feel that offering a sincere smile can be a healthy and powerful, yet relatively effortless, potential response by caring individuals to acts of hate targeted at other identifiable-group members of society. (One might also wear anti-hate symbolism, e.g. a colored ribbon or shirt.)

      I decided to do this as my own rebellious response to the (as anticipated) acts of racial/religious intolerance that soon followed Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election victory. Anti-Trump demonstrators’ catchy slogan was “Love Trumps Hate”. Not much for the non-family ‘love’ part, I would do the next best thing by offering a sincere smile.

      On one occasion, I smiled at a middle-aged Black woman as I passed her along the sidewalk. To me, she had a lined expression of one who’d endured a hard life. I gave her a smile, and her seemingly tired face lit up with her own smile, as though mine was the last thing she’d expected to receive. We always greet one another, since then, and converse when awaiting the bus.

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  4. Among the many “hit the nail on the head” words in this piece, I was especially struck by “many Americans, overwhelmed by the volume of competing information that comes at them and the furious pace of its delivery, outsource their judgment to a tribe and its leaders.” In other words, they can’t/won’t take the time to think for themselves, or are incapable of doing so. So sad.

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    • Yes, those words struck me, too. This is where Fox ‘News’ and others play to their audience and know exactly what they are doing. Back in the day, we used to teach young people to THINK for themselves, but for the last decade or maybe two, we mostly teach them how to program computers. Civics is no longer taught in schools, as is the case with many other social sciences and humanities courses. I think we are seeing the result … ignorance and laziness, a lack of understanding how government even works, and a passè attitude toward humanity. It is sad, and also frightening.

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  6. Jill, “fear of the other”, “the other side are the bad guys”, “they are not like we are,” etc. kinds of scare tactics have been around for ages, as long as there have been those who want to control others. “They” are the reason for your problems. “They” are evil.

    It is the worst example of name calling or labelling by those who want to sell you on the idea, that we must guard against them. Sadly, it works. This was the heart of the message by the former president when he got elected in 2016 and still is today. Yet, he is just copying history.

    As for the poor pandemic response by the former president, per the well-researched book “The Premonition” by Michael Lewis (who wrote “The Big Short” and “The Fifth Risk”), he notes if it were not for an informal cadre of doctors, data scientists and epidemiologists, the US response would have been even far worse than it turned out to be. There was an unheard of level of incompetence from the White House in 2020 where the people who needed to be in charge were no longer there and the ones in charge were more focused on loyalty to the then president and less on saving people. Not making the president look bad was the priority as some refused to take early action that was needed.

    To this day, we see folks using the same words the former president and his sycophants used back then. This cadre of folks used data, history, research, etc. to help push concerns and actions even when folks in authority ignored them and frowned on them. They were the truth tellers in the moment of crisis. Eventually, they got more and more attention and helped shape action, but later than it needed to be.

    Interestingly, many of these folks were invited in by the George W. Bush administration to help prepare for a pandemic around 2007, after Bush read a book on this type of crisis. This may be the greatest thing Bush did as president and few know about it. These folks stayed in touch, even as some left the next White House. By the time 2016 rolled around, they were gone.

    We need to focus on the issues and not which tribe wins or loses. Or who can be blamed for failure. When nothing gets done – all of us lose. Lewis’ book “The Fifth Risk” spoke of not being able to handle a real crisis as the last administration let people go or did not fill positions. We became less aware of the real crises facing and focused more on the threat of military or terrorist.

    And, along came the pandemic. As one of many examples, the former president said on February 26 after the first known US COVID death, that it was only one death and this would all go away soon. The cadre of doctors at the same time knew this was an exponential threat and the one death was a bell weather of likely 200 more that had not been reported yet. And, the deaths would grow. The lead thinker of this group had predicted a month before after some quick math that COVID could kill 350,000 Americans, yet few were listening.

    We/ they is really us. If the collective we do not stop this BS, we are the ones who will lose. When we worry about who we can blame rather than the problem at hand, the problem will not be solved. It is truly that simple. Keith

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    • All of what you say is true, and I fall into that trap sometimes also, demonizing the Republican Party, though I am neither Republican nor Democrat. Trump, however, took it to the nth degree by denigrating every group or person who did not fully agree with every word that came from his mouth, and it seems to me that far too many are following his lead these days.

      It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it, how our response to the pandemic could have been much worse, but yes, I’m sure it could have were it not for Dr. Fauci and others who quietly went about the business of setting standards, developing the vaccine, and educating the public … at least the portion of the public who would listen.

      As to which tribe ‘wins or loses’ … it seems that we will all be losers if we don’t learn to care about others regardless of skin colour, gender, ethnicity, etc. The human species is on a collision course with nature and also within itself and I’m not sure humans have enough compassion or intelligence to stop the madness. To deny climate change, to deny that the pandemic is real and a threat to all, to refuse to take precautions … is indeed madness. And on a different scale, those who would return Trump to the Oval Office would usher in the death of our democratic foundation and destroy what is left of our society. I cannot understand, especially after his horrible response to the pandemic, putting our lives in mortal danger even when he KNEW how serious Covid is, how anybody with even half a brain could even consider allowing that to happen.

      You’re right … ‘they’ is ‘us’, or as Pogo famously said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

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      • Pogo was right then and now. The people who recognized and moved our COVID concerns forward were beneath the level of Fauci and actually got his attention. The leader of this group, who called themselves “The Wolverines” is named Carter Mecham. He had many kindred spirits who equated fighting an exponentially growing pandemic with fighting a wildfire. Mecham is the one who said by the time we ceas

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  8. Not weerybody wants to be “tribal,”I do not think, but it seems to be almost a defensive position right now. There are so many tribes one cannot stand, and more tribes one cannot understand.The farther back one draws from them the more one comes into contact with others who are more like then than not. And they feel safer there. It doesn’t feel like tribalism, so one calls it what they will. But it is still tribalism if we do it, even unknowingly.

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  9. We are still, getting into the habits of, labeling each other by the differences of skin color, age, gender, etc., etc., etc., and, unless, we can all, snap out of that mindset of identifying each other by the differences of external appearances, there will always be, discrimination, prejudices, stereotypes in the world that we are, living, in.

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    • You are so right, my friend. Bigotry in all its forms is alive and well in most of the world and has become more prevalent since the Arab Spring when many refugees sought asylum in other countries. I sometimes think that prejudice and fear of “other” is built into the human DNA and that we will never overcome it. Sigh.

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    • Do you have the same sort of divisiveness over the pandemic as we do here, Michael? Are the anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers as prevalent in Germany as the U.S.? I know there is some in the UK, but I’m not sure about other countries in Europe. You have a great weekend, Michael!!! xx

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