We seem to be in a more polarised world than ever before, and tribalism appears to have been getting more popular over the last few years in the Western world.
We humans are social animals who function in a social world where competition and cooperation is a necessary component of a well-functioning society.
We all have to agree the rules of the social game, and then cooperate in playing a functioning role within that game, otherwise the fabric of society falls away, and nobody in their right mind wants that to happen, because anarchy and chaos replaces order and civility.
Our ancestors lived in smaller, more isolated communities and would mainly connect to other people in their shared geographical space, looking out for their neighbours.
But as populations have exploded, and mobility has increased, those local communities have largely been swept away and we’re now part of a more fluid, globalised world thanks to technological advances. It’s much easier to connect with other people through shared interests, ideas, beliefs and values. We may be connected with people from the other side of the world, yet not know who our neighbours are.
Tribalism and increased sense of self
There is a growing number of people in the population who take their identity from their affiliations; they see themselves as Labour or Tory, Democrats or Republicans, or part of a wider movement with a shared purpose, often to remove inequality from a corrupt social system. Other people are no longer seen as unique personalities with individual traits, thoughts, and values, they are either seen as “one of us” or “against us”. Thinking in this way eases cognitive burden but is a gross oversimplification of reality.
It’s important to understand the mechanics that drive tribalism.
At an individual level part of us likes to bring people, possessions, ideas and conceptual positions into what is best described as our sense of self (SOS). That part of us, often referred to as the Ego likes to think the more we’re connected to, and the more we possess, the more we elevate our self-worth. If we share interests or circumstances with others, and we like them, we will probably connect with them.
On the other hand, if we don’t connect with someone and take a dislike to them, we tend to separate from them by psychologically distancing from them. We also do this to increase our sense of self. If we take a critical view of another person, we’re immediately implying we’re superior to them.
So we lower the others (the other side) to inflate our own sense-of-self, or we inflate our sense-of-self through attachment and affiliation, and this lifts us above others (the other side).
This results in the formation of in-groups and out-groups.
So at an Ego level we’re trying to increase our sense of self by both connecting to and separating from other people.
As social animals we’d generally rather get on with others than not, but that’s just not possible with so many different personalities in play.
We need social connections because it protects us from what would otherwise be a chaotic and anarchical world. By cooperating in a competitive environment, we function without fear of being harmed or killed (most of the time). This psychologically frees us up to strive for personal growth. We can strive to climb social hierarchies in a mutually beneficial way as long as everyone else agrees to cooperate. Even though there are other people with vastly differing views and opinions, they can still participate in the same game, as long as they agree to play by the same rules. We can all agree to disagree with some things, but still cooperate in the overarching social game.
Collectivism can also make us feel more courageous. Psychologically making us less culpable if things go wrong, because the group shares the risks and responsibilities. It feels safer when we’re working with others in pursuit of a shared goal, as someone else can step up in situations where we feel less confident.
Collectives often result in people pointing fingers of blame at others, usually “the other side”, or rely on others within the group to come up with solutions. There are invariably those within the group who will take on leadership roles, and the rest follow in support.
A responsible individual
Rather than having a collectivist mindset, we should function predominantly on an individual level.
You should take personal responsibility for your actions and outcomes. Stop relying on other people, including other in-group members, and stand up and take action for yourself. Sure it’s harder to do, it feels scary at first, but it’s the right thing to do, because it forces you to stand up to your own challenges, and this arms you with the tools and skills to be an individual with real personal power.
Stop blaming others for your situation or complaining how others have caused you this problem and that problem. Blaming and complaining only disempowers you, it gives you an excuse not to take action for yourself. Passing blame passes power. Only when you take full responsibility for your own situation, are you able to empower yourself to make things better. What’s more, you should first put your own house in order before concerning yourself with wider societal issues.
We must also stop focusing attention on our differences with other people and start looking for our shared humanity. We can enrich our lives through genuine empathy and compassion for people who come from different backgrounds, cultures, and life experiences.
We should try to learn from each other’s unique experiences, by being curious, rather than closed-minded. After all, we are naturally exploratory creatures, and curiosity is part of what makes us human.
Open communication through dialogue, we all have stories to tell about our experiences, sharing these will help bring us together. It’s not just about telling your story, listen to other people’s stories, so you can learn something new from them.
Find out more about taking responsibility here.