The holiday season is upon us, and my thoughts drift to my family’s tradition of spending time together in the small Pennsylvania town we lived in for more than 30 years, where our children were born and raised. We have a fuller house these days with our grown children, their spouses, and our new grandchild. During this precious time, we gather with old friends and neighbors, exchanging holiday greetings and seasonal treats while our children visit with their childhood friends, many of whom now have families of their own.
Another part of the holidays I enjoy is uninterrupted time to read, think, and conduct research on subjects I am eager to learn more about. I have a (somewhat peculiar) habit of reading several books at once and, in most cases, rotating between fiction and nonfiction—typically alternating a beautiful piece of literature or history with a deep exploration on a scientific subject or a socioeconomic study.
This technique, which I discovered in my years working as a scholar-researcher, helps to keep me fresh and focused. I realized that by switching the modality of my thinking not only am I better able to concentrate, but I am also inspired and more creative. Over time, I realized that my reading habits also changed the way I think. Science and humanities—both products of human ingenuity—complement each other by offering a distinct and nuanced understanding of the world and human experience. I will come back to this point later.
Recently, I have become interested in one of the newest and yet oldest phenomena: what is commonly known as tribalism. While it has been in existence since the earliest humans, tribalism—which is parochial by nature yet universal across cultures—has recently gained new life due to its rapid rise across the world’s political spectrum. The social psychology of intergroup conflicts helps to establish a framework around how this phenomenon emerges.
Is This How We Are Wired?
Following Socrates’ idea of “understanding thyself,” each of us should recognize and try to understand tribalism—a psychological phenomenon that occurs when people strongly identify with a group, such as a social, ethnic, or political faction. This powerful identification can lead us to prioritize the interests of our group (i.e., race, culture, gender, religious, political, or sexual orientation) over the interests of others, even to engage in behaviors that are harmful or discriminatory to those outside the group—thereby overlooking our shared humanity.
Scientists believe that cooperation is crucial for human evolution since it is essential for holding the tribe together—a necessary condition for survival. There are both positive and negative aspects of this evolutionary heritage, however, as cooperation is essential for unity and yet kindness and consideration do not always extend beyond members of the tribe. Some scientists believe “tribalism” might be related to the way our brains respond to threats. When we perceive a threat to our group, our brains may release stress hormones that increase feelings of fear and aggression. This response may lead us to act in ways that are harmful to others in order to protect our own group.
Continuing the theme of my November blog, “the more we learn, the more we are able to appreciate the beautiful complexity around us—and in us,” tribalism offers one of many explanations of a much more complex social psychological phenomenon—a combination of cognitive and emotional processes—that lead us to instinctively prioritize our own group over others. But human beings have demonstrated, time and again, that we are much more than that.
How We Act Can Change How We Think
French literary giant François de La Rochefoucauld wrote: “We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others, that in the end, we become disguised to ourselves.” That is, in order to adhere to social norms or to seek social acceptance, we may go along with ideas or activities that contradict our personal values and beliefs. However, we may not realize the price we pay for just going along. Consistently professing to be someone else bleeds into our intrinsic self, and over time, we unconsciously adopt patterns of behavior that alter the way we think and feel.
Modern psychological discoveries, supported by thousands of research trials, took this notion even further and suggested the idea that our thoughts, emotions, body sensations, and behavior are interconnected—if we change one (of these), it is possible to alter the others. We already know that what we think can change how we act, but we may not realize that how we choose to act can affect the way we think as well. A simple example might be that my reading habits (an act) actually change the way my brain processes information (how I think).
What this tells me is that human minds are adaptable. They can and have evolved to expand our association with “our tribe.” That is, if we act to provide the setting, the mechanism, and the environment to interact with those outside our tribe in a positive and engaging way, we can emotionally expand or redefine our tribal membership. You see evidence of it everywhere, some right here in New York City.
Who Is in Your Tribe? It Is a Choice
The conscious decision of acting out a certain instinct while suppressing others is a choice we make on a regular basis. I would argue that tribal hatred and resentment as opposed to peaceful, harmonious, and collaborative coexistence are among the oldest and most primitive decisions we make as humans. Just like breaking any habit, seeing beyond tribalism may not come naturally at first, and it may not be easy. Nevertheless, let us try to remember that the way we choose to behave can actually change the way we feel and think—and that has a fundamental impact on the way we experience the world.
I previously shared that it was my late mother’s nature to be kind and compassionate to people. Throughout my childhood, we would go on walks through our neighborhood streets, and it seemed she would frequently stop to chat with everyone, remembering every detail of their families and concerns. I never understood why she did this and often stood by feeling impatient. I also shared the ethnic conflicts in my native Taiwan during my youth. It did not escape me that my mother’s love and appreciation for people never differentiated between those who were in or outside our ethnic tribe.
Growing up, I prided myself on trying to understand the world cerebrally, but it was years before I was able to rouse myself from my stupor of self-preoccupation and start paying real attention to those around me, listening to their stories and concerns. I realize that by changing the way I acted, it also changed the way I feel about people—and about life.
Throughout this holiday season, let us remember the ancient wisdom in all human cultures: The best remedy for feelings of fear, hostility, and aggression may be acts of kindness and compassion. Happy holidays!
Note: I will take a hiatus until February 2023 to resume my monthly blog.
Wonderful and insightful blog. I believe it is possible to be both universal and particular at the same time. I can have emotions and actions that both serve the needs of my tribe and have emotions and actions that serve the greater good of humanity. I have seen such behaviors among UN officials. Happy Holidays and my best wishes for a healthy, peaceful and successful 2023.
Thank you, Walter, for that keen observation!
Thanks for sharing your thoughts and enlightenment.
All The Very Best wishes for a Happy and Healthy New Year !
I personally think it’s important to encourage children to step outside the comforts of their tribe. If they interact and learn from different types of people, they will be more empathetic and compassionate to those who are different from them.
Nearly 20 years after graduating President Wu’s blog drew me back to the Baruch community again. Such inspirational writings!
Thank you, Aiting, for your comments. One of my key motivations to write my monthly blog is to find ways to bringing our community together. Your encouragement means a great deal.
GREETINGS ALL: Mediation and Arbitration are my professional fields, above and beyond my former career as an attorney. President Wu’s article on Tribalism was a wonderful guide to opening oneself to another level of sensitivity when dealing with anyone, in any field. Our country has entered an era where racism and anti-semticism are being lauded by a large part of our population; and I expect passed-on to their children. I believe that these have been latent and over the recent years been given greater “approval”. Anything that leads us to being sensitive to, and better understanding these types personalities will assist in leading-away from them. My gratitute to Dr. Wu for expanding our awareness. Jerome Allan Landau
Thank you, Mr. Landau, for your comments and your distinguished work as a mediator, arbitrator and group facilitator. We all bear responsibility for bringing people together–with greater sensitivity and better understanding of our limitations and fallacies as humans.
I appreciate Dr. Wu’s comments. Would that more people would follow his lead. We are a society that is going in the reverse direction and there is plenty of gult to go around. As the saying goes, “People vote with their feet,” and many are leaving New York, California, New Jersey and other “Blue” states for places like Florida, Texas, and Tennessee. They are seeking “like minded” individuals, or at least people who will not do things to which they object. This has been called, “The Great Sort”. It is the beginning of “tribalism” writ large, and it is not good for the country.
I am so proud to be a part of the Baruch Tribe. It is inspiring and rare to have a President who is consistently humble and curious.
Dr. Wu, Thank you for this piece on tribalism. It raises some fascinating questions.
You write that tribalism, “has been in existence since the earliest human cultures – which is parochial by nature yet universal across cultures – has recently gained new life due to its rapid rise across the world’s political spectrum. . . I would argue that tribal hatred and resentment as opposed to peaceful, harmonious, and collaborative coexistence are among the oldest and most primitive decisions we make as humans.”
Yes, that is commonly thought to be the case. But I am not so sure. According to Anthropologists, if I am not mistaken, the earliest human societies were nomadic bands that lived in harmony with nature, and with the other groups they encountered. There are still small, scattered communities in remote areas living, thusly. It was, I’ve been led to believe, the competition for increasingly scarce resources that generated animosity. This eventually led to warfare, at first ritualistic in nature, which over time became wars of attrition that eventually morphed into conflicts aimed at total annihilation.
If we view original human societies as living in, what Marx called primitive Communism, today we also find some modern developed societies, like those in Scandinavia, moving towards what Marx would call fully developed Socialist economies, a return to our original state.
This passage particularly resonates. “French literary giant François de La Rochefoucauld wrote: ‘We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others, that in the end, we become disguised to ourselves.’ That is, in order to adhere to social norms or to seek social acceptance, we may go along with ideas or activities that contradict our personal values and beliefs. However, we may not realize the price we pay for just going along. Consistently professing to be someone else bleeds into our intrinsic self, and over time, we unconsciously adopt patterns of behavior that alter the way we think and feel.”
This is the socialization process. Children are naturally open, friendly, and kind to all, like your mother, and mine too. But as we become adults (note “adulterate” means to make impure) we tend to, more and more, hide and mask those original human traits and assume the mask of our particular tribe, in each and every context.
Thus, there are political tribes, ethnic tribes, class tribes, the tribe that is each academic discipline, that is each department, that is each level of the hierarchy in academia.
In the coming year, if you’re not doing so already, I encourage you to regularly walk the campus without any handlers, and casually observe the life of the college. Visit the student clubs. Visit the classrooms. Stride into the cafeteria. Walk into Department offices. See what’s happening on the ground level across, between and within the various groups and “tribes,” if you will, here at the college. Students, Teachers and Administrators, may play different official roles, but it is absolutely essential that we listen to, and learn from, each other. The first step is to see, really see, one another.
Thanks again for the thought provoking piece.
Thank you Arthur, always appreciate your thoughtful and thought provoking comments! When I started writing this blog, I suspected that some of our real scholars in anthropology may disagree with my simplistic characterization of tribalism, or using the term to describe what we see in modern society. These are indeed fair points. But it seems that we do agree on the key points–the way we choose to behave can actually change the way we feel and think—and that has a fundamental impact on the way we experience the world. And, yes, I do “walk the halls” these days whenever I have a chance. Happy Holidays!
Thus, the title was quite appropriate, “On Tribalism—It May or May Not Be What You Think.”
David—As a working anthropologist and ethnographer who’s lived and researched on and off for a half century in tiny, remote Pacific islands—with people who most readers of this blog would think of as “tribal”—I must disagree with much that you’ve said here. I see that Arthur Lewin has already done so, and made many of the points that came to my mind as I read your thoughts.
It is probably a lost cause to protest abuse of the term “tribe,” which I have been doing for years, but those who know me understand that those are the sorts of causes I love the most. It is my perspective that much of what is called “tribalism” today is in fact “nationalism” and is very much a product of nation-states’ politics. What we’re encountering here is a classic case of projection: We find in ourselves feelings that discomfit us, that run against the grain of so much of what we’re taught as we grow up within our society, and we try explain them away by saying that they’re atavisms, things that have carried over from an imagined primitive past, that is, back in the supposed days of tribes.
My 2009 book Traditional Micronesian Societies: Adaptation, Integration, and Political Organization is all about the ways peoples of the tiny mid-Pacific islands known as Micronesia have managed to survive in a region beset by typhoons, tsunamis, and El Niño-driven droughts by making sure they never lose sight of how intensely they depend upon the peoples of other islands. Among their most important values is hospitality and they readily and repeatedly welcome most outsiders.
And this is hardly peculiar to them. If we look at Homer’s Odyssey, and get past the attention-grabbing adventures with Cyclops and sorceresses that are scattered through the story, what we see is that Odysseus’s ten-year saga of trying to return home from the Trojan War is filled mostly with feasts of welcome and gift-giving as he travels throughout the Mediterranean islands. Most readers experience peaceful welcomes as less exciting than battles and monsters (that is, exactly the sorts of things so many of today’s movies seem to be about) and so this essential theme of reaching out to connect peacefully with others gets lost among the clanging of swords and shields.
One of the most memorable moments in my career as an anthropologist came when a group of Rukai (an indigenous ethnic group in southeast Taiwan) leaders took me far up into the mountains to visit their ancestral village. They spent most of the trip querying me about the Micronesians with whom I work. They wanted to know how these people, who they see as distant cousins, were able to work together, forging unity among the inhabitants of multiple islands, and thus cooperating effectively enough to achieve independence from the United States (which long held control over their islands). They clearly grasped a basic attribute of humanity: that to compete and to oppose successfully, cooperation with others is utterly necessary. So-called tribal people are in fact wedded to vastly more harmony and integration than we see in our own contemporary world, where, for instance, Russians have overrun their next door neighbors in Ukraine.
Thank you, Glenn, I very much appreciate the insights from an anthropologist like yourself. As I mentioned in my reply to Arthur, when I chose the title of the blog, I suspected that real experts on the subject may take exception on my use of the term “tribalism” to describe intergroup conflicts in a modern setting. So your point is well taken. Moreover, I fully acknowledge what I described is only one aspect of “a much more complex social psychological phenomenon.” Terminology aside, the main point I was trying to convey is that there are strong evidences to suggest that the way we choose to behave–such as the hospitality and generosity demonstrated by so many human societies–actually change the way we feel and think. Perhaps there is a reason why kindness and compassion is among the lasting wisdom shared in all human cultures.
Thank you, President Wu, for your thoughtful post. Tribalism is, among other things, a social organizing structure to nurture a sense of belonging among a group of people. Belonging is a critical human need, and third (in tandem w love) in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Belonging is a particular focus of mine, and I encourage you to read Love 2.0 by Barbara Frederickson who looks into the neurological mapping of love and belonging.
In her book, you will find that if you have a special connecting moment with a random stranger – for instance, smiling on the street at one another or at a networking reception – the same part of the brain lights up as if you were with a loved one. Therefore, on a rather simplistic level, you can actually fill your life with belonging/love-like feelings just by sharing a moment with a stranger, and that feeling can buoy you throughout your day.
This is part of the philosophy behind my work in Alumni Relations, and the related joy I get from meeting our Baruch alumni. And it all comes from that common experience of being part of the great Baruch “tribe” or “family” of students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents, and friends of the College. You see it when alumni sport a Baruch baseball cap or show up for an alumni event. They experienced a sense of belonging before, and want to experience that feeling again. And hopefully again and again.
While tribalism has its deficits, cultivating belonging could be seen as work towards a universal good. Food for thought.
Wishing you a wonderful holiday season filled with happy connections and joyful family time together.
The sheer volume of anonymous strangers one passes on a busy New York street is staggering, if you really think about it. But we don’t. We basically move like thoroughly oblivious automatons down the rabbit warren of congested thoroughfares.
However, even in the Big Apple, if a stranger approaches, and seems like a normal individual, we are more than happy to tell them how to get to such and such, or what the time of day is. Likewise, if we, in turn, are approached by a normal looking stranger, asking for the same, we brighten at the opportunity to come out of anonymity mode.
I remember one time a few blocks from Baruch, I saw a young lady sitting at a sidewalk cafe with two little dogs. As I approached them, I saw that one of them was looking up at her expectantly. And she was looking down at him in stony silence, with a look like, “You know what you did!” And he was looking like, “Please, please forgive me, won’t you?” When I got up to her table, right out of the blue, I turned to her and said in an insistent voice, “Talk to him!” She was shocked. And then she just busted out laughing. We all laughed, including the dogs.
Thank you, Prof Lewin, for your reply and story. We can all very easily bring joy to one another through such simple, momentary connections. May your holiday be filled with such joyful moments!
Thank you, Janet and Arthur, for enriching the conversation with the ideas of love and belonging, and their presence in our day-to-day life. I am particularly appreciative of Janet’s points about connecting with the Baruch alumni community to create that sense of belonging. It is through the shared experiences and common bonds that we overcome the sense of “otherness” that alienates us from one another. We need many more ways to bringing our community together–one of my key motivations to write my monthly blog.
Thank you for opening up space for what I take to be very pressing issues. I agree with my departmental colleague, Glenn Peterson, that lingering associations of this term, «tribalism” , with anti-modernism, primitivism, racial chains of being, and developmental perspectives on society (which always tend to flatter Western-style democracy, capitalism, and Protestant secularism or else fetishize and romanticize the non-Western, illiberal “other”) are to be strongly avoided. The term itself unnecessarily detracts, however, from what I take the main thrust of your discussion to be—that, to paraphrase— perhaps one way of conceiving of the human condition is through the lens of what I think of as intersubjectivity. We are always caught within dialectics of self-other, insider-outsider and the like. As your mother understood, in the end, particularity and universality are not mutually exclusive sensibilities or intellectual frameworks. They are ways (modalities) in which we frame historical and culturally mediated experience.
Given the material reality of structural inequalities (along intersecting axes of race, gender, sexuality, class, religion, disability, etc.) as well as the tendency of consumer capitalism to ritualize us into taste groups, market segments, and networks, “identity” is today a fulcrum and a lightening rod. I would urge you and the readers of this blog to consider what you have written through that lens.
I was fortunate to have been trained by an anthropologist who has given these questions much consideration. I thought of his latest book when I read your blog post, President Wu. Below is a review of that prescient book.
Thank you, Professor Gonzalez, for joining the conversation and offering the lens of intersubjectivity to frame these complex phenomena. As someone who has experienced multiple cultural and intellectual traditions, I very much appreciated that framing. Thank you for sharing your excellent review of Michael Jackson’s book Critique of Identity Thinking, which I just added to my reading list.
Taking off on a bit of a tangent from this balanced, nuanced discussion . . . The idea that we are inherently warlike can perhaps be seen as what’s commonly called a meme.
In the same vein we find the notion that capitalism is the natural state of economic endeavor.
Likewise, whenever the question is asked, “Why is there so much sex and violence in the movies,” the nearly universal response is, “Because that is what the people want.”
And then there’s the reply to the query, “Why do the less well-off have so many more children than the middle class?” “Because they’ve nothing better to do than (you know what).” How about the widespread belief that, even just the suggestion that there has ever been a political conspiracy is somehow just a wild, raving piece of imagining.
Thus, the status quo reinforces itself, despite the fact that all of the above is demonstrably false. Well, can anything be done about this unfortunate state of affairs? Why, yes, of course, if, that is, we ignore the most hypnotic meme of them all, namely, the one that claims “You Can’t Fight City Hall.”
You all make me very proud… I mean it!