Beyond tribalism?

February 5th, 2017
by Chris

In writing about nations (or ethnicities, tribes, cultures or, if pushed, races) one needs to consider how these might be organised (and I have in mind that they may organise themselves). I recently found an interesting article regarding the conflict between democracy and liberalism (both as defined in that article), and another about whether the concept of the nation state may be outdated.

Let’s face it, we are going to have ethnicities for a very long time, if indeed there is any chance they will eventually vanish as a feature of human organisation. One of the more stupid suggestions I’ve seen mooted recently was the idea that we should solve all the problems of the Middle East by eliminating tribalism. Granted, if there was no tribalism (ethnicism), there would probably be far, far fewer tensions in the area, but really? You might as well say we could solve all the same problems by eliminating violence. It is not remotely a practical suggestion.

Humanity is, I think, irredeemably given to creating identity groups. Where there aren’t enough nice clear identities for young people in urban sprawls in the West to adopt, they will create gangs, with their own visual and behavioural distinctives. Before you dismiss this as a feature of youth culture, or counterculture, consider the average parochial church council of body of elders – if there are more than four or five people, there will be factions, and sometimes the level of animus there is equal to that between rival gangs, although, thank the Lord, usually not expressed with guns or edged weapons…

There are a number of factors which contribute towards the identity of an ethnic group or tribe. Large among those is language; if you have a language “the others” don’t understand, this helps you preserve the identity. Dialects and heavy accents will do almost as well, and if you haven’t one already, don’t worry, your group will soon invent its own set of “in group” words. Similarity of appearance is a big one – if your group happens all to have the same skin colour or other clear features such as an epicanthic fold, that’s a good start, but you can get a long way by dress codes, body art and even just general demeanour.

Beliefs are also a very strong identity factor. If they can attain the status of a religion, all the better, but I look at some sports supporters and find it difficult to distinguish their Kierkegaardian “ultimate concern” with their chosen team from the basic substance of a religion, and I am wholly convinced that the neoliberal consensus in economics is religious in nature (and worse than many religions in that its basic tenets such as the infallibility of the market and “trickle down” economics have been shown time and again to be both false and damaging).

Most of all, though, the thing which cements any group together is having an enemy. “Give people a common enemy, and you will give them a common identity. 
Deprive them of an enemy and you will deprive them of the crutch by which they know who they are.”  – James Alison. The great enemy du jour in the West (“Western” may not be a tribe, but that holds for many of the individual tribes which constitute “the West” or “the First World”) is nominally Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, but the terrorists’ narrative is that this conceals the fact that Islam as a religion, as an ethnicity, as an identity is the enemy, and despite the best endeavours of spokesmen in most of the West (I except the new US administration, who seem incapable of being even slightly subtle) that is very much how things are playing out. While we may say that we are merely combatting terrorism, our actions frequently prejudice Muslims generally, and I can well understand my Muslim friends who no longer feel comfortably “at home” in my country, despite in many cases having been born and brought up here. Yesterday’s great enemy was communism, of course, but that is now almost universally regarded as a failed philosophy (wrongly, in my eyes, as what actually failed was command economies). Indeed, the unifying force of a great enemy seems to be the most significant factor in political divides.

We have to deal with the fact that if you put enough people together, they will form tribes; any attempt to create a larger body with a common identity is likely to founder on petty divisions. I have in mind that even in the early days of Christianity, Paul was complaining of this. It would be nice to think that we can get beyond the great unifying force of a common enemy in order to do this, but at the moment I cannot see a way to do this, apart from stressing at every possible opportunity that we are all human beings; we are children of God irrespective of our other differences.

My next post will talk a little more of the Biblical witness to this idea.

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One Response to “Beyond tribalism?”

  1. Chris Says:

    Some deconstruction of the nation state, i.e. our largest-but-one tribal structure:-

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