What is tribalism?

By Robert Wright, editor of the Mindful Resistance Newsletter

In the Atlantic, Adam Serwer recently challenged the common view that “tribalism” is a big problem on both sides of America’s political divide. As a member of the tribe that holds the common view, I will not let this attack go unavenged!

The reason the tribalism label shouldn’t be applied symmetrically, says Serwer, is that only Trump’s side of the divide “remotely resembles a coalition based on ethnic and religious lines,” and only Trump’s side of the divide “has committed itself to a political strategy that relies on stoking hatred and fear of the other.” Serwer concludes that America “doesn’t have a ‘tribalism’ problem. It has a racism problem.”

Now, people on Trump’s side of the divide might reply that labeling them as racist, which Serwer more or less does here, is itself a way of “stoking hatred and fear of the other”—a manifestation of tribalism that Serwer himself condemns!

But I digress. My bigger problem with Serwer’s argument is his insistence on confining the term “tribalism” to its old-fashioned sense of conflict along ethnic or religious lines. If those aren’t the lines that define your group, he seems to believe, your group can’t be tribal.

A lot of us are using the term more broadly than that, to include groups defined by ideology. The reason is that the psychological mechanisms that sustain conflict along ethnic or religious lines—the emotions, the cognitive biases, the flat-out delusions—also sustain it along ideological lines.

Or, really, pretty much any lines. One study found that if you randomly assign young children blue T-shirts or yellow T-shirts, and then use shirt color as a basis for trivial things like seating assignments, the children will come to believe that their T-shirt tribe is superior to the other T-shirt tribe.

And the classic study of how tribal affiliation shapes perception— “They Saw a Game” —was about how Princeton and Dartmouth students assessed the officiating in a 1951 football game between the two schools. (Answer: Differently.) And you can rest assured that in the 1950s there wasn’t a big difference between Princeton and Dartmouth students along the dimensions of ethnicity or religion.

Though that study was about collegiate tribalism, the cognitive bias it highlighted—more sensitivity to evidence that our tribe was treated unjustly than to evidence that an opposing tribe was so treated—can play out in ethnic tribalism or religious tribalism. Or ideological tribalism: look at how media on the left and right covered allegations of voter suppression or vote tampering in this month’s midterms.

In a sense the versatility of our tribal psychology is good news. It means humans aren’t doomed to eternal conflict along history’s most traditionally incendiary fault lines—race, religion, nationality. Just watch what happens when a fight breaks out during a basketball game; which side of the fight a player is on depends on the color of his T-shirt, not the color of his skin.

What that fight is telling you is that neither America nor the world is doomed to fracture along lines of ethnicity or religion or any other classically tribal lines. That’s the good news. The bad news is that, even so, it can fracture along other lines, including ideology.

Keeping that from happening is a huge challenge. Some of us believe that meditation is one tool that can help meet the challenge. But whatever tools you favor, meeting the challenge begins with understanding that all of us sometimes evince the psychology of tribalism, because we’re all human.

[Note: This reflection is a partial answer to MRN reader LeBrie, who asked in an email,  “Would you tell us more about why you use that word [tribalism] and how it’s helpful for us to think about mindful resistance?” It probably won’t be the last such reflection.]

Each week, the Mindful Resistance Newsletter presents a calm and balanced summary of the news along with reflections on, and background reading about, the problem of Trumpism and how to fight it intelligently.


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Robert Wright, editor of the Mindful Resistance Newsletter, is the New York Times bestselling author of Why Buddhism Is True, The Evolution of God (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), NonzeroThe Moral Animal (named one of the ten best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review), and Three Scientists and their Gods (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award). He has written for The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Intercept, and Wired.

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