Skip to main content

The Good and Bad of Tribalism

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Sometimes tribalism can go horribly wrong.

Sometimes tribalism can go horribly wrong.

The Evolution of Tribalism

Tribalism is a natural human condition. For almost all of the time humans have inhabited this planet, we have done so in tribes. Our early tribes were small, usually, no more than 50 people, who were linked by language, family, and the territory we occupied. We developed myths around our tribe’s creation. Being loyal to our tribe was hardwired into our beings.

It is only relatively recently that humans have been drawn to the idea that we all belong to a single tribe―the human one. But there are plenty of people who reject that notion.

Most of us still identify with sub-tribes. We belong to a particular nationality, or we gather around a particular religious faith, or we associate with people whose political convictions are the same as ours. There are plenty of other tribes with which to identify: feminist tribes, labour union tribes, vegetarian tribes, white people tribes, finance tribes, regional tribes, sexual orientation tribes, and on and on.

The Necessity of Tribalism

We, humans, evolved to be tribal. As social animals, we learned to depend on one another for safety and survival. Jane Howard is a biographer of anthropologist Margaret Mead. She has written that “Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family: Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.”

That was certainly true when we depended on hunting skills to kill our food and to avoid being something else’s food. That is less true today, but the behaviour is planted in us through thousands of years of evolutionary experience. So, if we feel threatened by events that seem out of our control, we turn towards our tribes. We circle the wagons and get ready to fight for tribal success; we believe our tribal membership will keep us strong and safe.

Tribalism becomes dangerous when it creates blindness.

Tribalism becomes dangerous when it creates blindness.

Tribalism’s Blindness

There is nothing wrong with being tribal except when it blinds us to reason; sadly it does this quite often in the modern world. Writer Michael Adams says the tribe tells people the following:

“Don’t step outside the bounds. Don’t draw outside the lines. Don’t do anything that your tribe wouldn’t do. For example, if you’re gay, then you have to be progressive. You can’t be a gay conservative . . . If you are with Black Lives Matter you are not allowed to support police officers.”

This is enforced by tremendous social pressure and the need to belong. It is reinforced by the fear of being isolated and alone in the world. Mr. Adams points out that social scientists have noted that “People will agree with the herd and go along with the social pressure in contradiction to the things which they see with their own two eyes.”

David Ropeik of Harvard University writes about tribalism and violence:

“Wars are essentially, and often quite specifically, tribalism. Genocides are tribalism―wipe out the other group to keep our group safe―taken to madness. The racism that lets us feel that our tribe is better than theirs . . . ” (Big Think, 2016).

Tribalism's dark side

Tribalism's dark side

We move towards such violence in stages, as outlined by Marcelo Gleiser (National Public Radio):

“I am part of a group that shares my values. Being part of this group makes me strong. Those who are not part of my group, that don’t share my values, are a threat. They are the enemy. If we don’t destroy them, they will destroy us. We, thus, must convert others to our value system or, if that fails, destroy them by any means available.”

When another tribe is deemed to be a threat, bad things start to happen. Professor Gleiser points out another important fact:

“Only the most extreme would adopt the those-who-don’t-belong-are-enemies value system, and only the most aggressive within these will opt to destroy their opponents. Most tribes actually feed on each other’s strength and motivation to pursue a common goal.”

The street gang Start F***ing Running proclaims its tribal territory in Perth, Australia.

The street gang Start F***ing Running proclaims its tribal territory in Perth, Australia.

Tribal Thinking

Psychologist Camillo Zacchia (HuffPost, December 2016) has said the following:

“What you say becomes irrelevant as long as you are wearing the right uniform, or speaking the right language, or wearing the right religious symbol. That’s why the rise of identity politics is so disturbing. We travelled that road many times in the last century and always to a horrific destination.”

The greatest tribal obscenity of all time occurred less than a century ago. Adolf Hitler persuaded the German people that they belonged to a master tribe. Once that was accomplished, it was time for the next step; to protect the purity of the master tribe from people deemed to be inferior, they had to be exterminated.

So, between 1933 and 1945, the “defective” people were murdered on an industrial scale. Jews were the primary victims; up to six million were slaughtered. But, as the Jewish Virtual Library points out, other targets “included LGBTQ individuals, the physically and mentally disabled, Roma (gypsies), Poles and other Slavic peoples, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of political opposition groups.”

Jewish women on their way to a death camp.

Jewish women on their way to a death camp.

History Repeats Itself

After the horrendous episode of the Holocaust, humanity should have moved on and not repeated the same behaviour, but it hasn’t. Camillo Zacchia notes that “History is there for the teaching, but sometimes it seems we’re just too damn stupid to learn from it.”

So, we have seen further genocides:

  • 1975-79―A man called Pol Pot came to power in Cambodia. His goal was to set up a Communist peasant farming society. The result was that a quarter of the country’s population died of starvation or execution.
  • 1992-95―The patched-together ethnic nationalities of Yugoslavia started fighting. The Christian Serbs turned on the Bosnian Muslims, and the world heard the words “ethnic cleansing” for the first time. One hundred thousand people were killed.
  • 1994―In the African country of Rwanda, ethnic Hutu people attacked the Tutsis. Wielding mostly machetes, the Hutus slaughtered an estimated 800,000 Tutsis.
  • Since 2003, government-supported militias have killed about 400,000 people and forced 2.5 million more to flee in the Darfur region of western Sudan.

Somewhere behind these atrocities is a leader who has converted his people’s tribalism into fear of others. The leader feeds on the devotion of his followers, and the followers feed on what they see as their leader’s devotion to them. It's an old pattern, and it never seems to lose its effectiveness.

Bonus Factoids

  • In his 1994 book Death by Government, political scientist R. J. Rummel documents the murders of more than 133 million people in the 20th century that can be attributed to extreme tribalism.
  • In 1568, the Catholic Church, through the offices of the Spanish Inquisition, condemned the entire population of the Netherlands, with a few exceptions, to death for heresy. King Philip II of Spain ordered the executions to begin immediately. The number of victims is impossible to calculate, but it was sure to have been many tens of thousands.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Rupert Taylor