There are a few good “isms” (altruism being the slam-dunk winner) but, let’s face it, most of them are bad. Cannibalism, nepotism, alcoholism, fanaticism and terrorism are examples – and in the “prejudice/bias” category we have racism, sexism, and (newly invented) ageism and weightism. But the worst ism of all is tribalism.
Tribalism, in fact, is at the root of most of the prejudice/bias isms, making a particular persuasion or characteristic into a virtue that makes a “tribe” of all holders/believers of that persuasion or characteristic. Add another ism, extremism, to the mix and we have all the ingredients for very bad behavior.
There was a time in man’s past when tribal behavior was an asset to humanity. Fifty thousand years ago, when humanity was huddling in caves, close to losing its battle for survival, tribal loyalty was the glue that held small groups together. Later, it created an atmosphere of trust so that sociable behavior and division of labor was possible. The scene was set for cooperative behavior and skills-driven work assignment. Hunters harvested meat, farmers cultivated crops, fishermen fished and women cooked and took care of the children.
The other side of the tribalism coin, however, has always been distrust of those outside the tribe, leading to endless wars born of fear and ambition. Over time, tribes grew by conquest and nations came, and then empires. Over more time some of the rough edges of tribalism were modified and civilized, but tribal behavior survives today with new labels such as cultures, ethnicity, race and religious creeds. People still gather into “us” and “them” groups and the old habits of fear and distrust of “them” persist.
In the sphere of religion, tribal positions are taken by thousands of denominations and sects. The ism family of religions includes Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Mormonism, Sikhism, Wahhabism, Raelism and even Satanism. Extremism, including fundamentalism has made many of them into monstrosities that do far more harm than good.
In some spheres we have innocuous isms that are merely descriptive. In the arts, for example, we have impressionism, modernism, cubism and pointillism. In politics we have conservatism, liberalism and communism. Add tribalism to politics, however, and then we can have aggressive forms that escalate to become hate-filled cancerous threats to our humanity. Hitlerism, Stalinism, Marxism, Maoism and McCarthyism will go down in history as marking the worst of times for our species.
The great evil, tribalism, divides us into an insane patchwork of warring factions. Hatred, manifesting in wars and terrorism is constantly flaring across the factions. Frequently the wrong that inspires the hatred was committed hundreds of years ago. When Yugoslavia was freed from communism in 1990, naive observers expected good things. They expected that the people involved would savor their new freedom and goodwill would rule. Instead, the newfound freedom was used to release centuries-old tribal hatreds that had been kept in check by force – and Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Muslims and Christians exercised their rights (rites?) of tribal hatred. The term “ethnic cleansing” was added to everyday lexicon and all of us, calling ourselves “humanity”, were shamed.
When tribalism was an asset, many thousands of years ago, we benefited from it in our fight for survival. We won that fight and the human population exploded from a founding core 50,000 years ago of less than 2,000 to 7 billion today. But our “success story” is flawed. The growth in population is itself a major problem. At the end of the 18th century, the world’s human population was under 1 billion. By the end of the 19th century, it had grown to 1.65 billion. A hundred years later, at the turn of the last century it stood at 6.5 billion and is projected to reach 9 billion by 2040.
The stress on Earth’s infrastucture is escalating and the grotesque difference in personal wealth between the haves and the have-nots in the world is a powder keg waiting to explode. While many in the affluent, developed countries are living in luxury, others in third world countries are living in desperate poverty, dying of starvation and falling victim to diseases that could be treated by drugs easily available in the richer countries. Solutions to these problems will require a global, long term, view – and tribalism blocks the way.
We take pride in our species’ rise to dominance on this planet as an “intelligent species” but, in fact, by the measure of evolution we were “born yesterday” claiming a mere 50,000 years of existence and perhaps 40,000 years of dominance. Compared to the two million years that dinosaurs ruled the world, it is a momentary blip on the evolutionary charts. In fact, if we fail to “grow up” and overcome our tribalism we will be doomed to extinction and will take our place in the fossil record as one of the most short-lived species in our planet’s history.
If we survive long enough, the day will come when it will be practical for any human being of modest means to board a space shuttle and take in the view of Earth from space. Perhaps, one day, it will be the favourite “school outing” for the children of our descendants. When (and if) that day comes, arguing against tribalism and for unity will be made so much easier. Look down on earth from a mere 100 miles and you see a beautiful globe, predominantly blue with white clouds and green and brown land masses. Nowhere to be seen are any of the artificial boundaries that are rooted in tribalism. No political boundaries, no religious boundaries – just a beautiful planet that is home to that most precious commodity, life.
It will not be easy to put tribalism behind us – but we have to do it if we are to avoid extinction and become future man.