Tribalism is a natural human behavior. Over millions of years, humans evolved to exhibit a variety of behaviors that support living in something bigger than the basic family unit. Large groups of people survived better than independent nuclear families. People who were loners and didn’t behave well in groups were less likely to survive in the wilderness, and therefore less likely to have their behavior patterns included in the gene pool.
At its extreme, tribalism fosters us-against-them feelings in human beings, and for good reason. When a foreign tribe came over the hill and marched on a tribal village, a general distrust of the strangers often facilitated survival. It was best to distrust all of the strangers until they could be verified as peaceful; otherwise, an ugly end may have awaited the trusting tribe.
In modern times, tribalism is perhaps best on display at NFL and big-time college football games. Fifty thousand or more people, all in the same tribe, gather at one place to cheer for their champions on the field as they do battle with the “enemy.” It is pure us-against-them, and it stirs ancient and familiar passions in people. The good news is that just about all the fans recognize that us-against-them is playing out on the field, but not in the seats. Fans of both teams, wearing team colors, share food and drink at pregame tailgate parties. Visiting fans often are subject to good-natured us-against-them chatter, and the visitors often give as well as they take. People generally know where to draw the line. Still, the us-against-them mentality is unmistakably on display.
Like many other evolved human behaviors, tribal behaviors often have unintended, unfortunate consequences. In their recent book, The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt identify tribalistic patterns in the behaviors of some current U.S. college students. On some campuses, students have displayed clear us-against-them tendencies by disinviting or shouting down speakers with whom they disagree. They identify some speaker as belonging to an opposing “tribe,” and rather than engage in the open dialog that should exist on college campuses, they conclude without listening that the speaker is evil, because the listener believes that “they,” the other tribe, are evil.
Thus, tribal behaviors continue in all of us, behaviors that served our ancient ancestors well. Those behaviors sometimes benefit us, such as when the heroes on Flight 93 banded together to prevent terrorists from crashing their plane into the U.S. Capitol. As often as not, however, human beings misperceive their situation and respond to their tribal instincts in a way that is counter-productive to their interests.
In their book, Lukianoff and Haidt discuss the need to come together in terms of common-identity humanity politics, best exemplified by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Throughout his career, King steadfastly opposed us-against-them thinking. His message was not white-against-black, rich-against-poor; in fact, he fought the proponents of that kind of messaging. His message always was that we are one people seeking to make things better, not separate groups of people seeking to impose our point of view on others. The point, the authors say, is to draw one circle around a large group, rather than to draw separate circles around smaller groups. The point is to be inclusive rather than exclusive.
And so we have municipal governance in Connecticut. By virtue of having created the City of Hartford and multiple surrounding towns, we have invited tribal thinking where it isn’t in our interest. We identify our town as our tribe. When I talk to people about merging the City and towns into one jurisdiction, I get responses like “I don’t trust those people with my money.” Those people? It’s classic tribalism – my tribe is best and the others are, in a sense, the enemy. They aren’t to be trusted. It’s an emotional reaction that we are predisposed to have because that’s how tribal thinking works. That behavior was important to the survival of human beings in prehistoric times. However, that kind of reaction is not important to survival in 21st century Connecticut; in fact, it’s detrimental to the health and vitality of the community where we live.
We have that tribal reaction even though, rationally, we understand that there really isn’t a whole lot of difference between the people we elect to govern our town and the people others elect in neighboring towns. They’re all trying to build and operate their towns in the best interests of the people who live there. We have that tribal reaction even though, rationally, we understand that our neighboring towns pose no threat to us. We all face a common threat, namely that the current economic conditions in greater Hartford are not, and have not been for decades, conducive to the long-term well-being of this community.
The problem is that by governing ourselves as we do, with the town boundaries that we have drawn, we focus our tribal energies on the wrong group of people. Our future well-being is not promoted by tribal West Hartford or tribal South Windsor going it alone. Our future well-being is promoted by everyone in greater Hartford identifying themselves as being in the same tribe – only in that way can we expect to make progress together for our common good.
We must think of ourselves as one tribe, not ten or fifteen. We will think of ourselves as one tribe only when we actually become one.