In Defense of Tribalism
We hear it everywhere these days:
- “In-group solidarity is bad, all-embracing love is good.”
- “Patriotism is dangerous, global oneness is the real deal.”
- “Nationalism is evil, unity of humanity is holy.”
- “Ethnopluralism is racist, multiculturalism is ethical.”
- “Tribalism is the problem, universalism is the solution.”
But should we really oppose all in-group solidarity, patriotism, nationalism, ethnopluralism, and tribalism? Do we humans not organically form tribes? And does tribalism not bring us joy, love, and meaning?
According to moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, the tribal transcendence of one’s selfish desires, which he calls hiving, has positive effects rooted deep in human nature:
Hiving comes naturally, easily, and joyfully to us. Its normal function is to bond dozens or at most hundreds of people together into communities of trust, cooperation, and even love. Those bonded groups may care less about outsiders than they did before their bonding—the nature of group selection is to suppress selfishness within groups to make them more effective at competing with other groups. But is that really a bad thing overall, given how shallow our care for strangers is in the first place? Might the world be a better place if we could greatly increase the care people get within their existing groups and nations while slightly decreasing the care they get from strangers in other groups and nations? (Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind, p. 281)
A nation of anti-tribal individualists might be universally compassionate and imparitally loving, but its compassion will be pale, its love weak, its social capital low, its mental health impaired, and its soul hungry for meaning. “It would be nice to believe that we humans were designed to love everyone unconditionally. Nice, but rather unlikely from an evolutionary perspective,” writes Haidt.1 And while the ‘oneness of mankind’ is a cute religious tale, it is not the bedrock of human morality:
We need groups, we love groups, and we develop our virtues in groups, even though those groups necessarily exclude nonmembers. If you destroy all groups and dissolve all internal structure, you destroy your moral capital. (Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind, p. 359)
This is the central wisdom of conservative and right-wing movements: tribal identity matters! Leftists, however, also make an important point: tribalism binds and blinds people ideologically, it makes them biased and irrational, and it is extremely counterproductive for tackling intertribal and international problems. The irony in this is that their identification as leftists inevitably puts them in an ideological tribe, which blinds them to conservative facts.
To cooperate on intertribal and international levels, we must indeed be able to look beyond our tribal horizon, to exert compassion, and to apply the impartial moral principle of utilitarianism. Yet this does not imply that we must cease all parochially empathetic cooperation on the tribal level. And what when different levels conflict? Then let us evaluate the complex trade-off between tribal belonging and universal openness in a direct-democratic manner.2