The Return of Tribalism
After the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union a political scientist named Francis Fukuyama wrote a book entitled The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama stated that the Soviet demise signaled more than just the end of the Cold War. He provocatively hypothesized that the demise meant that humanity’s ongoing search for a utopian ideology was over, because Western liberal democracy and associated individualistic ideology would be universalized as the final form of worldwide human governance. In this new world order humans would not have any specific group identities, and therefore cultural differences would disappear. Instead humans would function strictly as autonomous individuals in a homogeneous global community. Sadly, events of the last two decades have made this prediction as spectacularly erroneous as Marx’s prediction of a universal classless society. Why was Fukuyama so wrong?
Primarily because he ignored humanity’s tribal evolutionary roots. For millions of years our hominid ancestors lived in small hunter-gatherer tribes of 10 to 50 people. They spent their entire lives with the same group of people, and they were hardly ever alone. They identified with these people as their tribal In-group (‘us’), and everyone else were identified as Out-group members of other tribes (‘them’), who were viewed with suspicion and sometimes hostility. The onset of agriculture and industrialization (civilization) 10,000 years ago has not erased our genetically programmed tribalism. We still engage in In-group/ Out-group categorization. Civilization has simply given us new ways to categorize people as Us or Them. Now, in addition to categorizing people by family or clan kinship, we also categorize by national and regional culture, race, religion, social class, age, gender, and numerous other factors.
This helps explain why there is so much resistance to globalized homogeneity; people clearly do not want to give up their tribal identities. The evidence for this is all around us. Directly counter to Fukuyama’s thesis, global democracy has been in retreat since 2008. Dictators like Xi, Putin, Kim and others cloth their domestic oppression and territorial aggressions with appeals to the national pride of their tribal members. Islamic jihadists want to destroy Western values and reinstitute a unified patriarchal Muslim empire. British voters rejected membership in the European Union, primarily based on immigration fears. In our presidential campaign Trump’s appeal is primarily tribal. His vehement anti-immigrant stance appeals primarily to the white working class. Even in the Olympics competitors do not just compete as individuals; they also compete as members of their national tribes. These are just a few of the many current examples of reemerging tribalism.
The most ominous problem with modern tribalism pertains to the current lethality of weapons. Now the various tribes can attack each other with nuclear and biological weapons, rather than fists and clubs. Therefore we cannot succumb to this rampant reemergence of violent tribalism. However, if humans are genetically predisposed to tribalism, what can be done? We could slow down the relentless push toward Westernized globalization, which features autonomous individualism as the cultural ideal. In individualistic cultures each person’s needs, desires, values and goals have precedence over group identities and obligations. Independence, autonomy, freedom, competition, and individual rights are valued. Americans and other westernized citizens perceive individualistic values positively. We don’t realize how negatively these values are perceived by people who live in more collectivist cultures. Many people in tribal-oriented collectivist cultures and subcultures view the individualism associated with Western values as the pathway to anarchy, chaos and self-destruction.
Humans are social animals; they are not just autonomous individuals. They are members of groups that add positive meaning to their lives. Groups such as families, tribes, neighborhoods or countries are sometimes more important than the individuals who compose them. If prosocial values such as interdependence, conformity, duty, loyalty, obligation, and cooperation are recognized as legitimate aspects of a good life, then it is possible that tribalism can be nonviolent. Out-groups can be recognized as different but non-threatening. Tribalism becomes violent when tribal members feel that there group/cultural identities and values are threatened.
Anthony Stahelski, is a a professor of psychology at Central Washington University in Ellensburg Washington.
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