We live in a presumably globalized world, in which people, goods, services, news and ideas float across a seemingly borderless space, leading to an increasingly homogenized culture. Whether they find themselves in London, Tokyo, Berlin or Washington, modern individuals are expected to be (and often are) flexible, mobile and make themselves at home in whichever metropolitan area that they move to. However, the 21st century has also witnessed an increasingly forceful pull in the opposite direction. Amidst increasing cosmopolitanism, we observe rising nationalist, racist and extremist tendencies across the globe and across the whole political and religious spectrum. While the external conditions seem to be becoming more modern and interconnected, some individuals and sub-groups are moving towards polarization and back to the tribalism that has shaped human history for centuries.
What is Tribalism?
The term tribalism has multiple meanings in different parts of the world. In the context of this article, tribalism is understood as the human tendency to create ingroups and outgroups based on real or imagined similarities or differences. Members work to protect their own ingroup and sacrifice and fight for their ‘tribe’. Tribes may form around criteria such as nationality, ethnicity, religion, dichotomies such as communist vs capitalist, Sunni vs Shia, or around other forms of imagined communities such as football clubs or Star Wars fans. The differences can be widely accepted and ‘objective’ or defined by the group alone, such as ISIS’s understanding of ‘true Muslims’ as only those supporting its specific worldview. Central to the understanding of tribalism is not whether external observers regard a particular community as a cohesive tribe but only whether the collective identity underpinning membership in this particular group becomes so salient that members display tribal tendencies.
Where Do Tribal Tendencies Come From?
Tribalism has an evolutionary basis and has become ingrained in our socio-psychological reality and culture. Our brain is wired to be social and act within a collective rather than alone, protecting not only ourselves but those who ‘belong to us’ and working not only for our own benefit but for the whole community. In fact, we connect on a neurological level to those we feel close to and our brains react differently to stimuli in group settings than when we are alone. Already 19th century psychologist Gustav Le Bon wrote that the psychology of crowds is different from individual psychology, a thought later expanded upon by sociologists such as Durkheim or Marx, who spoke of a “collective (class) consciousness”, and most recently by researchers such as Amy Chua who analyze political polarization in the United States. While tribal tendencies can be positive, leading to altruistic behavior such as protection of the young and old, they also can cast a “dark shadow around the world”.
When Does Tribalism Become Problematic?
Psychologist Stevan Hobfoll explains that tribalism can lead to extremism and violence when the tribe comes to believe that it is under attack by outsiders and that its destruction is imminent if nothing is done about it. When polarizing language is used such as being ‘under siege’ or labeling foreigners or unbelievers as ‘outsiders’, tribalism can lead to aggression towards outgroups and a feeling of superiority of one’s own group, which can be used to justify oppression of anyone considered to be ‘the other’. Chua writes: “In its dark manifestations, tribalism desensitizes by dehumanizing. It can distort reality on a massive scale, by motivating people to see the world in a way that favors their group commitments. (…) Individual responsibility is merged into and corrupted by group identity, and people become capable of engaging in a celebration of atrocious acts of brutality”. When we feel threatened, humiliated and under attack from all sides, the very same instincts that lead us to protect, nurture, defend each other and stand up for what we perceive to be just, can lead to more extreme political positions, aggressive behavior towards the outgroup and ultimately radicalization.
How Do Extremist Groups Exploit Our Need for Belonging?
Extremists have long exploited our wish to feel a sense of belonging in order to draw in alienated and vulnerable individuals into their group. The current manifestations of terrorism have even been defined as the neo-tribal wave of terrorism. ISIS and other jihadist organizations, for instance, evoke a brotherhood of equals and a sense of community that needs to be protected from external, evil forces by heroic warriors in their propaganda. Similarly, right-wing groups depict nationality or race as a family and as needing protection from invaders seeking to undermine White culture and rape White women. When these tribal narratives are effectively framed—by creating an outside threat working towards the destruction of the tribe and a sense of urgency to act in order to secure a better future for the tribe’s children—tribalism can be used to radicalize. This mechanism can be exacerbated by social media and potential echo chambers, because those vulnerable to radicalization can now be found more easily by recruiters, can create a shared reality through instant communication with like-minded people and bond across physical boundaries to create truly modern, virtual tribes.
Is Globalization to Blame for Increasing Polarization?
But why do we witness such a proliferation of polarization in our times? While extremists now possess more efficient tools to create tribes across time and space as well as reach more people through social media, this does not explain the increase in populist, radicalized opinions throughout the Western world. The current tribal divisions in our world — the walls that are built, the controversial discourse on whether Muslims can be a part of European societies, the rise in right-wing extremist parties as well as increasing political polarization and extremist activities across the ideological spectrum — are a product of changes in external conditions interacting with the biological, psychological and cultural ‘aggress and defend’ mechanisms that are also part of the “collective consciousness” of our shared reality.
In part, the rise in tribal tendencies is the unintended consequence of increasing globalization and the ‘liquid modernity’ it produces. Because the need to belong is deeply engrained in us, the erosion of national sovereignty and borders, multicultural societies, rising numbers of ‘left-behinds’ (the losers of globalized economies) and the perceived loss of control that economic crises, migration crises and other ‘crises’ can cause, all contribute to a revival of traditional tribalism— a secure structure to protect oneself and loved ones in an insecure world. The statement “the most successful extremist groups offer their members precisely what existing societal institutions do not: a tribe, a sense of belonging and purpose” now holds true for a much larger segment of society than in previous times. If an increasing number of people feel that their current way of life is under threat, an increasing number of individuals will turn to tribalism, which, in turn, leads to a proliferation of radicalized opinions and further divisions.
The dark manifestations of tribalism have moved from the realms of extremist organizations into the mainstream, both into the social discourse and in the physical realities of our existence. Europe now has about the same physical barriers than it had during the Cold War and potentially as much if not more political polarization between right-wing populist, traditional conservative and left-leaning forces. A relatively small group of extremists perpetrating an even smaller amount of terrorist attacks have, coupled with increasing fear of the ‘other’ through migration and an erosion of trust in the political and economic elite in these ‘liquid times’, kicked off a domino effect of tribal polarization. A cycle of mutual radicalization of opinions and further divisions has started. If this trend will continue, more extremism on all sides is likely to follow.
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