This article is an excerpt from
V. M. GOPAUL
Since 2015, tribalism has been on the rise, according to some trend analysts. If this statement is true, it poses as one of the most significant obstacles to the oneness of humanity.
Let’s look deeper. In its basic form, a tribe is the oldest social structure, going back to prehistoric times. Tribalism suggests limited consciousness yet extreme loyalty, with the exaltation of one group above other groups. There are many causes for such a formation. The main reason is that humans are social beings with a high kinship to one’s family and ancestry, thus providing strength and protection against both natural and human adversaries. Over time, within a group or cultures, certain survival skills grew and were passed on from one generation to another. Many tribes have survived the tests of time while many others are extinct. For example, in Canada there exist now about sixty tribes, also known as First Nations. In Judeo-Christian traditions, there were twelve tribes of Israel that were scattered around the world. In 242–240 BC, the Tribal Assembly (comitia tributa) in the Roman Republic included thirty-five tribes.
Though thousands of tribes still exist in many parts of the world, the social structure of humankind has evolved into cities, regions, nations, and federations.
According to David Ropeik, “Tribalism is pervasive, and it controls a lot of our behavior, readily overriding reason.” He made this claim in a blog post, “How Tribalism Overrules Reason, and Makes Risky Times More Dangerous.”
To illustrate what he meant, Ropeik provided a powerful metaphor. When he was growing up as a kid, his synagogue was right across the street from a Catholic church, thus making Bellevue Avenue the dividing line between the “Chosen People” and the “Saved Ones.” Just like the tribal instincts of old, one group was the enemy of the other. Ideology, religion, and culture were the dividing lines and each needed protection from the other. This is not unique to the U.S.A, where Ropeik grew up. In the 19th century, Main Street in Newmarket, Ontario, was the dividing line between the dominant Protestants and newly arrived Irish Catholics.
Ropeik explains the grouping as an inner need for belonging and identity, just as birds of a feather flock together. If there is a threat, real or not, then the group will rise to protect itself with whatever means available.
According to Amy Chua, author of Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, there is a new phenomenon called white anxiety. For example, in the UK, many Brits felt their way of life was threatened by immigrants, and when they got a chance to air their grievances, they voted to opt out of the European Union (EU) in a referendum in 2016. “I don’t hate you but I have to protect my own…” claimed many Brexit supporters.
How serious is white anxiety? Such a sentiment is increasing in Europe and North America, giving rise to the alt-right and Neo-Nazis. It is a tribal instinct, but one I understand, as they fear losing their power and privileges. Insecurity is expressed through demonstrations and in elections. The opposing groups want right-wings banned outright, claiming their approach of protests is violent, offensive, and racist. Although I don’t subscribe to white supremacy and the tactics used by its supporters, their concerns must be heard in a greater dialogue for our social well-being. As I have mentioned in a previous chapter, expressing one’s beliefs, however different they may be from mine, is sacred. More importantly, despite their white supremacist leanings, first and foremost they are part of humanity. Unfortunately, politicians and leaders use the concerns of certain groups to divide us further.
In his chapter, Ropeik concludes that “It’s a sobering reflection on this inherent but potentially destructive aspect of human nature, in these unsettled and threateningly uncertain times.”
Like Amy Chua, I am very optimistic that humanity, while facing many challenges, has the capacity to resolve social problems and has done so in some of the most difficult situations. For example, the dissension between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland has been resolved to the point that they are not resorting to violence anymore. In Newmarket, Main Street is a bustling street with flavors of the old town without the religious acrimony of the past. Instead of being an ideological divide, the old section of this town is now lined with Mexican, Japanese, Indian and Middle Eastern restaurants where patrons of different races and cultures mingle in a social setting.
Diversity is not to be feared but embraced. This is exactly what has happened in Toronto, the most multicultural city in Canada. In 1971, when I first stepped into this city, 90% of the population was white. The 2016 Census indicates that 51.5% of Toronto’s population is composed of visible minorities. Over 250 ethnic groups call this fair city home, where all live in harmony—working, raising families, and enjoying life. But if any one of them were to be threatened, of course, the survival instinct would kick in, and that group would fight back with all its might. Leaders of our time have the responsibility to protect the rights of all to find a peaceful co-existence; unfortunately, some choose to divide us for their own benefits.
The latest version of tribalism has some semblance of the past human experience, but it has morphed into something different with characteristics of unbending divisiveness. Many ideological groups, such as feminist, right-wing, left-wing, environmentalist, to mention a few, are forming with heightened zeal and passion. All are sincere in their efforts to change society, professing to be justice warriors of modern times. Powered by the strong commitment and sincerity of staunch believers, they are willing to fight like the tribes of old days. It is also true that such a mentality makes us ignore the big picture of social changes. In societies, many important aspects play a role in bringing out the best in us, such as education, jobs, safety, security, and consciousness. For instance, what if the demands environmentalists make are so great they block projects that directly affect the livelihood of many?
How can balance be maintained? Empathy and kind consideration are needed to move forward when diverse tribal forces are at play. When the ideological battles get fierce, progress is at risk. During these challenging times, trust in each other and institutions (the rise of conspiracy debate) is eroding. With trust restored, competing tribes can come together for consultation on issues of great importance to communities, nations, and the world, where everyone’s viewpoint is carefully considered and the final decision is reached by overseeing institutions. After such a decision is made, all parties will support the decision. Thus, harmony can be restored and progress not undermined.
What about the oneness of humanity? Transitioning from ideological tribalism to peaceful coexistence is not only possible but inevitable. Conflict is tiring, and cooperation is uplifting. Of such change, there is one great lesson learned from history: The European nations have fought wars for thousands of years, but World War II changed the consciousness of war-mongering nations. Now joined in a confederation of twenty-seven nations, each EU member state is different from another in culture, history, language, and temperament, yet this union is a friendly place to live, where war has been banned for over seven decades. In any human endeavor, challenges always exist, and it is so true for Europeans. However, while keeping their differences, EU nations treat each other with respect and are tied together in an abiding trust. The cooperative atmosphere enables these sovereign members to live in peace and harmony.
In conclusion, Baha’u’llah’s wish is slowly coming true. He said, “These strifes and this bloodshed and discord must cease, and all men be as one kindred and one family…”