We must all learn to rise above tribalism

Photo credit: Roy Lister 

By Neil Patrick

If we want a better world we have to intelligently manage some very primal urges which are hardwired into us.

One of the most basic human instincts is tribalism.

A while ago one Saturday morning the doorbell rang. Standing in the porch was a middle aged lady clutching leaflets. She said to me:

"Hello. What troubles you most about the world today?”

I paused for a second – this was a big question which demanded a succinct yet comprehensive answer.

I said, “Tribalism, sectarianism and blind devotion”.

She looked dumbstruck. She seemed not to know what to say next.

Because she was, and I knew it, about to peddle her own particular brand of sectarianism.

She writhed about for a moment and finally said, “Here are some leaflets you might want to read. Goodbye.” She turned and left.

I looked at the leaflets, which I wasn’t surprised to find were from the local Jehovah’s Witnesses. An archaic looking amalgam of biblical quotes, event announcements and essays on salvation.

I skimmed them, wondered briefly who was in charge of their editorial content (because they weren’t doing a very good job I thought) and went back to my desk.

This was about devotion.

I thought no more about this until today. As I was going through my Twitter feed, I came across a post from a politician whose views I normally find hard to swallow. Nonetheless, I read the article attached and thought it was actually a very sound argument. So I retweeted it. It mattered not to me that I have never voted for this person or their political party and disagree with much of what they say.

I did this not because of tribal loyalty. Because I have none. The fact is that my currently low regard for this person doesn’t mean that I would never vote for them. Or that everything they say is wrong. Or that I hate them. I just disagree with many of their opinions. And that’s fine.

As I continued, I found myself on the BBC news website. The Syrian conflict dominated again. And as usual I found myself pitying the people caught up in a conflict which seems insoluble. It's not about nation states in conflict, (which is bad enough), it is about sectarianism. And worse, the sects involved are so diverse and numerous, that it’s inconceivable that any settlement could satisfy them all. So these tribes condemn everyone in their vicinity to the prospect of eternal hate, conflict and destruction.

It’s sectarianism.

As I continued down my feed, I came across more and more tweets which were blindly supporting one political view, and denouncing the opposition. It’s as if loyalty to a faction always trumps (sorry) rational consideration of the merits of alternative viewpoints.

It’s tribalism.

And tribalism is dangerous when no-one thinks and just follows the herd.

Pulitzer Prise winner E. O. Wilson, said, “Tribalism is a double edged sword. The collective communion that it promises isn’t open to us all. The flipside of tribal belonging is brutal exclusion. No human institution easily escapes the darker angels of our divided self.”

Tribalism is at work everywhere in our societies because it promises community, belonging and hope. But it also fuels hate, intolerance and prejudice. It’s a fine balance to deliver one without permitting the other.

But we must all try.


  1. As a science fiction short story I read many moons ago said "We don't have racial spirit, we have ape-tribe spirit." And, from Frank Herbert's DUNE, paraphrased, "Our biggest rivals are members of our own species."

    IMHO, until human nature itself changes, this will never happen. And when some "evolve" past it, and others do not, those that have not will make short work of those that do.

    1. I hear what you say David. Have we reached the limits of our evolutionary capacity in this respect? I hope not, for then the robots really will be superior...