Tribalism

Must we be appalled by the current happenings in our world? Russia wants to wrest part of Ukraine to its cause; religious extremists want to gain control in Iraq and Syria, chasing Christians from Mosul where they have lived for nearly 2000 years, while Israel is perceived as overreacting to Hamas’ volley of rockets. Those who believe in God would be really appalled, always claiming that apocalypse is round the corner – or is it a sign of Kaliyuga? Because they would have been expecting and taken for granted that humans would have become wiser and more peaceful after centuries of wars and that they would have learned their lesson.

Unfortunately, the reality is different.

The Europeans know something of that dilemma; that’s why they have decided to increasingly rely less on religion than on reason, democracy and secularism after the two world wars. The Scandinavian countries are examples of the success of this type of thinking on many fronts. Now they hope to join together in a large union to prevent a repetition of history. The more democratic nations want to come together to protect their stability and prosperity. They do not want the neighbour Ukraine to be partitioned on ethnic grounds, though they would secretly wish to have it as a buffer zone between themselves and the Russian bear and its ambitions.

There was hope that in the 21st century that all nations would, as a fundamental principle, respect the borders and sovereignty of each other. But Russians have yet to swallow the breakup they suffered, which led to the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia also has a long memory: maybe it had not forgotten the rapidity with which Germany recognized Slovenia at the very beginning of the fragmentation of ex-Yugoslavia which , sadly, led to a domino effect in the Balkans.

In Iraq, the religious extremists are already showing the type of state they want to establish, that it will be based on religious intolerance.

On the other hand the Jews of Israel have a short memory, because they seem to have already forgotten about their sufferings in the holocaust and want at all cost to barricade and blockade a whole nation-to-be.

Does not all that remind us of bygone millennia when people were fighting the same types of wars and their butchery? We had then called it tribalism; does not the modern version resemble the same except that now we use rockets instead of axes, bows and arrows, wear army outfits and boots while long ago we managed bare-footed with some leaves to cover our naked body? Then we were called savages. It may be that in ancient times we had our village or immediate land around us to die for; we fought for survival of our family, our clan and tribe. Nowadays we have other beliefs to prop up our psyche while we go on rampage, invade the land of others and try to ram our ideological and religious beliefs down the throat of the vanquished.

We forget too easily that we are creatures of evolution which is not over yet. We seem to go ten steps forward and, as a reaction, nine steps backward; are we meant to progress very slowly?

Long ago we had thousands of tribes. But gradually we have tried to reduce them so that nowadays we are left with about five major tribes which we call the five religions of the world. They group people who have the same beliefs for which they are prepared to die. We may view as progress that billions of beings, instead of hundreds, are now grouped under the same banner. Unfortunately that’s as far as it goes. Fighting and butchering between some of those major tribes or religions are still taking place.

If we believe that there is more cruelty now in the world than in the past, then we may be mistaken. Most learned people, like the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, show that we have now relatively less wars and butchery; but before our world becomes warless and less cruel we’ll have to wait for a long time.

However, it is now recognized by many psychologists and scientists that this tribalism has its raison d’être. It formed the “in group” as opposed to the “out group”. The latter is the enemy, the villains and murderers to be dehumanized and annihilated, as opposed to the members of the “in group” who must be shielded and protected. It is said that as a result altruism developed, the process whereby a new circuitry was triggered in the brain and from which would arise gradually our finer feelings.

Meanwhile, the human drama is still on and in the news: the Russian “in group” does not like the European “out group”, the Hamas “in group” dislikes the Jewish ”out group” and the “ in groups” in Iraq and Syria have found reason to split into another “out group”. And vice versa. But will the tragedy that is being unfolded in our world where innocent children are being killed sharpen our compassion and nobler feelings further? What do we have more to learn? How are we to go about it?

Think of the parties we throw now and then: we’ll notice that gradually the professionals like lawyers group together, the engineers find excuse to gather in the same place, financial analysts find more fun among themselves. Ditto for doctors: those of the same speciality drift apart and become clannish. Is tribalism – or belief in a common cause, common God, common way of life – a second nature with us humans?

Those of us who have learnt the lesson of history would wish for peace, for more wisdom on the part of the politicians and religious people involved in these wars; but that could be just wishful thinking. The present wars will end but unfortunately some other one will someday start somewhere else, involving different actors and villains.

Meanwhile, some philosophers are asking when will the whole human race become a single clan, thinking like a single tribe? The suggestion has been offered that we’ll have to play the “in group” role. And the “out group” ? That must be played by some extra- terrestrials coming to invade our blue planet! Maybe then the imminent psychological pressure will be on us to evolve and expand another aspect and facet of our consciousness, compassion and finer feelings. By so doing we’ll stop being tribal – regional, national or planetary – to become universal beings.

 


* Published in print edition on 1 August 2014

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