Tribes and Politics

Posted on 2013 September 26

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For tens of thousands of years, humans lived in small tribal villages. They knew everyone in their world, all few hundred or so. Each hamlet shared the same language, religion, culture, genetics, cuisine. Anyone could talk to the chieftain and be heard. Everyone agreed on the basic rules, and conflicts were resolved within the group. Tribes offered safety and familiarity. They were small enough to be understandable; we could care about and defend our clan because we knew its people and saw things the way they did.

Outsiders — strangers — were looked on with suspicion. They might pillage the camp, steal the women, and, worst of all, infect the community with exotic diseases and parasites. (Within a hundred years of Columbus’s visit to the New World, eighty percent of the Western Hemisphere’s indigenous peoples were dead from European ailments.) Over the eons, we evolved to trust our tribe and look askance at outsiders. It was a matter of life and death. The other appeared to us as vaguely non-human, possibly interesting but certainly dangerous.

Then the Industrial Revolution overtook the planet, and after barely two centuries most people now live in cities, their tribes dashed on the rocks of progress, their neighborhoods cheek-by-jowl with strangers who don’t share their beliefs or culture or skin color or, sometimes, language. It’s a world where you don’t connect by tribal affiliation so much as by economic necessity.

Instead of the slow, stately pace of the village, it’s now a crowded world filled with hustle and hurry. Instead of one set of rules, there are dozens. A virtue in one place is a vice in another; a compliment here is an insult there. Instead of the familiar village, where everyone we meet is our acquaintance, it’s now the alienating city, where everyone we meet is in our way.

We’re driven a bit crazy by it, yet we’re all crazy the same way, so we assume we’re normal.

Still, our very DNA yearns for the safety and stability of a tribe. So we try to find our proper groups in the city. But our religions have changed; our races are melting around the edges; our ancestors’ beliefs and attitudes are fading under the bright light of cultural change. The friendships we make often prove temporary, foundering on the shoals of moral discord. Hey, we thought they were honest! (And they thought we were.) So we move on, searching for a feeling of home in the lonely metropolis.

On TV, we watch politicians speak about our worries and frustrations. They look like they’re almost right here in the room with us, talking directly to us! They sound so eloquent! They stir up our anger and we think, “Yes! This is a cause I must fight for!” and join their crusade. Now, at last, we think we have found our true tribe. These are the people who know the right way to live! These are my people!

And who belongs to our tribe? It’s simple: Are you a liberal or a conservative? Are you a Democrat or a Republican? If you’re on my side, you’re in! You’re one of the good guys. If not, then you’re bad and wrong, vaguely evil, not quite human, and interfering with progress.

It’s how tribes have always felt about outsiders. Our village attitudes, locked deep within our genetic makeup, tell us our tribe is right and other tribes are wrong. Our beliefs are universal truths, but their ideas are crap that should be flushed away. We’re closet supremacists: “Our group is right! Everyone else is beneath us! And they should bow to our superiority or face the consequences!” Most of the time, this dream of ultimate conquest goes nowhere, except to stir us to chronic anger. But every now and then a genius comes along who knows how to harness all that rage. A Hitler. A Mao. A Pol Pot.

When we lived in villages, it was natural to feel suspicion and disdain for outsiders. In big-city life, this only leads to trouble.

• First of all, when we become angry, we stop thinking. Research shows that our brains’ pre-frontal lobes — the centers of reasoning — stop functioning when we discuss politics. So there’s no possibility of making progress between groups in conflict when they’re both angry. And they’re always angry.

• Second, cities function only when strangers cooperate. It’s an association, not a tribe. It’s where complete strangers can work side by side to create value for both. It enables enormous amounts of trade, economic and cultural, between its citizens. It encourages the huge strides in technology we’ve witnessed in recent decades, strides that have enriched everyone’s lives. But when we get tribal, that cooperation grinds to a halt, replaced by struggle and conflict, worsening everyone’s fortunes.

• Third, a political party is not a tribe. It just looks like one. Parties contain, not a hundred members, but a hundred million. Their leaders don’t know us personally; they never will; their purpose is to enlist us as cannon fodder for the battles that make them more powerful. Yet we’re entranced by mass media into believing they’re a caring part of our personal lives. The illusion is made strongest by television, where party bosses — through the magic of high definition — speak directly to us in lifelike sound and sight. We’re spellbound by their images, and the deeper parts of our minds respond to them as if they were our personal acquaintances. We bond to them — after all, they’re members of our tribe! — or reject them because they’re on the wrong side. TV, then, gives national politics the illusion of being deeply personal.

Yet it isn’t. National politics takes place far away, despite the impression that it’s occurring in our living rooms. Our voices — and we do shout at our TV screens — carry no weight, but merely float out our windows into the sky, to be torn away by the breeze. No leader hears, or cares about, our individual concerns. In fact, most officials need a touch of the sociopath in them, so that they can lie to us without blinking, appeal to us without having respect for us, and do whatever it takes to get elected instead of what might actully help people.

It’s all about them, not us. Yet we persist in believing they care about us and our problems the way chieftains did in the past.

The worst part of this is that there’s probably no way out for most people. Once we bond to a tribe, even if it’s largely imaginary like a political party, our hearts are lost to that group. Once we become angry, our intellect ceases to function and we can no longer empathize with our opponents, even if they have legitimate wants and needs. It’s probably genetic: if we didn’t bond, we wouldn’t risk ourselves for the group, which in the past would have helped us survive. Today we may risk ourselves for a group, but the group is too large to appreciate us and too unwieldy to protect us. Yet the illusion persists that it can.

The only escape is to move outside this tribal attitude — to step away, if only for a moment, from our political clans — and look down at the field of battle, as if from above. From that height, we can see how our tribes feud endlessly to no purpose … how the leaders enrich themselves, sucking away resources we might otherwise use productively for our families and friends … how the battle, even if largely verbal, cancels out countless opportunities to prosper together with those who don’t belong to our group.

“But I can’t do anything until those other bastards change their minds!” Spoken like a true tribalist. “But they’re evil! They’re trying to destroy the country!” Of course, and that’s exactly what they say about you. “But they’re WRONG!!” Yes, and that’s how they think of you.

We don’t have to agree with each other! We simply need to work together. In the modern era, others are different, not better or worse. If they want to live that way, let ’em. But where we all congregate, in the cities, let’s associate.

Our genes won’t catch up in our lifetimes, but our minds can adjust our default settings. We can make patches and workarounds. We can look at strangers as potential associates instead of as enemies. In America, a new politics of acceptance might involve a revival of the notion of “live and let live”, plus more local control over decision making and less fighting in Washington over who gets to dictate how we all must behave.

So step away from the fight, climb the nearby hill, and look down at the whole encampment. You’ll find that your enemies tuck their children in at night (just like you), and they do kindnesses for their neighbors (just like you), and they burn with frustration and rage about injustices (just like you). Now stop trying to force them to your way of life, but instead find ways to associate with them in this strange new urban world beyond tribes. And let the feuds trail off into history.

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UPDATE: Our need to join groups and feel approval is ancient

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