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When Tribalism Goes Bad

Human survival relies on groups, but what if those connections are toxic?

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Tribal membership meant survival

We are drawn to our group identities in part from a place of belonging, and in part from a very real evolutionary need for survival. Human beings are not built to survive without group support. Human babies take many, many years before they can care for themselves. From the time of earliest human history, living as part of a tribe was beneficial — there was safety in numbers and a division of labor so that food could be procured by some, while others were caring for the young. Due to minimal geographic mobility, most tribes were built with people who were similar and related. This learned survival through tribal living, while not necessarily genetically programmed, was built on enough generations to be a strong part of our cultural ancestry as human beings.

Tribal membership is dynamic

But tribal identity was changeable and fluctuated throughout human history. For example, birth as a marker of tribal identity was joined by religion as a powerful way to identify with others. Class grew into a tribal identity. Today there are numerous tribal identities; some are strong, and some are weak. Our racial and ethnic identities tie us to groups in a deep way, while our allegiance to sports teams may be more fluid and less consequential. I have met rabid sports fans, but most know that deep connection is not really a tribal/survival connection, while being among people who are ethnically connected to you may seem like a survival need. So, too, with other parts of our identities. In times or places of great hostility towards your group, being connected to others like you can very much feel like the only way to survive. During the early years of social movements, people bond together to fight for their rights in ways that make them feel like a tribe fighting for their survival. These connections can feel as deep as our ancestors’ bonds to each other in order to survive harsh elements and other competing tribes.

“Bad tribalism”

We are built to be tribal. But sometimes that tribalism goes too far. The worst type of tribalism is groups aligned to destroy other groups, such as through ethnic cleansing and genocide. We have heard the word tribalism used a lot today in reference to our politics. Today in our political world, we have “bad tribalism.” Bad tribalism is a group identity that fosters the bullying and scapegoating of others not like you. Bad tribalism joins people out of anger, jealousy, and spite, not for collective well-being. The unfortunate irony is that bad tribalism is easy to provoke, but not healthy to maintain. Staying angry is stressful, and large doses of stress are bad for our health. At the same time, good tribalism is difficult to build, but healthy to maintain. When we connect with others to ensure safety and good health, we lower our own stress.

Changing bad tribalism into good tribalism

How can we invoke healthy forms of tribalism and lessen bad tribalism? First, recognize that groups built on the foundation of hate, disdain, and anger build those traits in ourselves. With the constant urging of bad tribalism, we stay angry, and that can affect our personal well-being. Second, we can step outside ourselves through empathy and see the world from the view of others. When we use empathy to understand others, we see how we are similar, how we are all human beings. Empathy can broaden our sense of connections to others, and that diminishes bad tribalism.

Ultimately our goal should be to build the tribe we all belong to: that of humanity. When we can see each other as human beings, we change bad tribalism into good tribalism. We are part of the work to ensure the survival of our shared tribe of humanity.

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More from Elizabeth A. Segal, Ph.D.

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