We live in some pretty volatile times. There are lots of “isms” we are coming to feel the effects of, coming to terms with or trying to rise above: sexism, racism, nationalism, terrorism and religious and political extremism… to name just a few.
As much as we want to believe that we are evolved or enlightened enough so as not to be affected (or afflicted) by these “isms,” it is simply not the case.
Each of the above “isms” is simply an outgrowth or form of the great “ism:” tribalism, or what Webster’s defines as “tribal consciousness and loyalty especially; exaltation of the tribe above other groups.”
There have been many studies by social psychologists and neuroscientists that reveal some basic truths about humans and tribalism.
The fact is that humans form groups very easily, almost as if programmed to do so. It’s instinctive. Not only do we form groups; we do so arbitrarily over almost anything and, very often, over matters beyond anyone’s control, such as the neighborhood we live in, schools we attend, religion we were raised in, the color of our skin, our gender, etc.
The groundbreaking studies of psychologist Henri Tajfel on social identity theory confirmed that, to an astonishing degree, we define ourselves by the groups to which we believe that we belong, those groups to which we are loyal. Tajfel concluded that once we view ourselves as part of a group, we immediately tend to view those who are not part of that group as “other” and “lesser” in some way.
Tajfel makes it clear that this response is not anyone’s fault. It is not our intention to view others as “lesser,” we just do. It’s a “primal psychological response.”
That’s just the dynamic of personal identity, of the tribalism that we all are subject to, in big ways or small ways whether we realize it or not. What we understand rationally and logically about the world around us has very little to do with what we believe as members of our group and what we believe about “others.”
With this understanding of human nature — our social nature — it is quite easy to see why overcoming such “isms” is so incredibly difficult. They operate at a kind of subliminal level of which we are almost surely unaware.
We might like to think that, given access to the facts of any matter, “such isms,” or false ideas can be swept away. That’s why people argue over issues where their “groups” differ.
However, that is far from the truth. Research makes it clear that in tribal disputes, the battles are very often not at all about the issue itself. The arguments being offered by the participants are often illogical and inconsistent, sometimes blatantly contradictory.
The arguments actually serve as mere justifications for the speakers’ us-versus-them emotions that are part and parcel of membership in a group. The more we are confronted with “facts” or “evidence” that conflict with our view, the more we tend to “dig in” or “double down.”
Because of this phenomenon, nearly anything can become a tribal value or “truth” to be strongly held and protected at all costs.
Washington University anthropologist and psychologist Pascal Bowyer points to something called “motivated reasoning” as something that happens in groups whereby, as group members, we must defend our positions regardless of the information or evidence we are presented with. When confronted with such “evidence,” we immediately question the source of the evidence so that we may discard it and hold onto our “truth.”
This “motivated reasoning” is extremely powerful. It has wreaked havoc on political discourse, making such utterly useless, as everyone dodges any factual discrepancies simply by denying the validity of the source. We even have seen this “motivated reasoning” go so far as to lead people to commit mass suicide in several cults. It’s very real.
This tribal mentality has led a great many people to gravitate toward “news” sources that reinforce the values and beliefs of their tribe, and in turn dismiss, challenge or even ridicule the values and beliefs of “others.” Research has even shown that we learn selectively as well, actually learning more from sources and information that reinforce our view than from information and sources that do not. Thus the rate and potency of polarization continue to climb.
So it’s very easy to see why partisanship is so strong at the moment. It seems that we are actually embracing this tribalism now, rather than resisting its siren call and seeking independent facts to help make important decisions about the world and our country at a critical time.
There are many issues we face that cry out for well-reasoned, fact-based decisions: global warming, election fraud versus voter suppression, protecting Social Security, nuclear proliferation, Homeland Security, foreign interference, our position of leadership in the world, health care, COVID-19, disparate racial practices in our society, law and order, tax structure — the list goes on.
Tribalism and the us-versus-them mentality that comes with it only serve to make us suspicious, dismissive and even immune to reason, logic, statistical evidence, scientific evidence and reality itself. Though we are not to blame for being lured into such irrational loyalties, this kind of unexamined and unquestioning loyalty to the “tribe” is the very definition of ignorance. It ignores the very tools that we must employ to find our way through the sea of troubles we find ourselves in today.
The resulting stalemate may do someone somewhere some good, but it doesn’t do any of us as individuals or as a country any good.
Regardless of our perceived loyalties, we must strive to realize during this heated moment that the “others” we are so worried about are really just our neighbors, our co-workers, our friends, and often even our family members. They are not “other” or somehow “lesser.”
The tribalism pulling at us is a primal force we cannot avoid. But perhaps we can understand it, minimize its judgmental overtones, make an effort to listen to information with an open mind, listen to each other, learn and grow — together.
Bob Bierbaum is a Moore County educator and attorney.