Is It Tribalism?

As they (the founding fathers of America) conceived of a new society that would protect                 the individual rights of all humanity, they explicitly excluded a second tribe among them: African –American slaves.  Andrew Sullivan *

To be divided is to be separated into parts or pieces; being in a state of disagreement or disunity, Dictionary.  Today in America, over 200 years after it was founded, women and men are divided, blacks and whites are divided, liberals and conservatives, rich and poor, etc., etc. Our democracy is divided by gender, race, politics, income, religion, culture, geography, education, etc. And we now have a president and his followers so badly dividing democracy that it is impossible to ignore. By definition, these divisions could easily qualify as tribes. And their behavior could be described as tribalism. Tribe: group of people sharing a common community of customs, interest, culture or habit: Tribalism: A strong sense of identifying with and being loyal to one’s tribe, group, etc.

 The article by Sullivan, plus the recent interest in the concept of tribes, motivated me to write this blog. Sullivan suggests the pros and cons of tribalism in America: One of the great attractions of tribalism is that you don’t actually have to think very much. All you need to know on any given subject is which side you’re on. When three core components of a tribal identity — race, religion, and geography — define your political parties, you’re in serious trouble.

Remember, the goal of democracy is to have equality, diversity and inclusion. It becomes a problem when we turn rival tribes into enemies. I used to argue that war is inevitable only if we believe it is. Now I am no longer sure. When the conclusion seems to be that war is inevitable, then disagreement, disunity and conflict also seems inevitable. What does that say about humankind’s ability to get along with each other? Could it be that humans aren’t built for democracy?  Sullivan suggests that America wasn’t built for humans.

Overcoming tribalism won’t be easy. Tribalism, it’s always worth remembering, is not one aspect of human experience. It’s the default human experience. It comes more naturally to us than any other way of life. For the overwhelming majority of our time on this planet, the tribe was the only form of human society. The notion of living alongside people who do not look like us and treating them as our fellows was meaningless for most of human history, Sullivan.

But look how far we have come in 200 years. Humanism has been addressing the problem dividing America and learning to live alongside people who do not look like us and treating them as our fellows.  And in America and today it is at its peak. Women are marching, the sports world is talking politics, books are being published, respected journalists are being heard, the internet is beginning to take evasive action, the rest of the world is noticing. Many tribes are beginning to unite. Could this save democracy?

  • Can Our Democracy Survive Tribalism? An article in New York Magazine, Sept. 18 – Oct. 1, 2017. By Andrew Sullivan




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  1. Marianne says:

    Sorry to be so long in replying. A worthwhile blog because it is more and more evident that we as a country are more and more segregated. I also understand it is desirable to be with people that look and think like I do, but I also know that to diversify my friends and acquaintances is to become more knowledgeable about the world and my own humanity. That also takes work and energy and many people don’t want to make that commitment. With all that is happening in our country, I wonder if our democracy will survive.

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