The concept of tribalism is often used to explain the current state of American politics, but it is also wielded as a weapon. An expert might note that the unwillingness to compromise is due to tribalism, while a critic might deride the tribalism of the other side. While this short essay is not intended to explore the complexities and formalities of a rigorous definition of the concept, I will endeavor to discuss the matter in a neutral and rational way.
Tribalism is, obviously enough, characterized by loyalty to the tribe. This differs from loyalty to principles or values. After all, a person loyal to a tribe because it is their tribe will typically retain that loyalty even when the tribe shifts values. In contrast, a person who is dedicated to certain principles and values that a tribe happens to have at a certain time will typically cease to be loyal to that tribe if it comes to reject these principles and values. Since the values professed by tribe’s shift, tribalism involves value fluidity: as the tribe changes values, those who embrace tribalism shift their values. For example, the tribe of Republicans endorsed the values of free trade and thus opposed tariffs. They also professed a dislike of deficits and spending. Trump, however, shifted these values and now the Republican tribe largely embraces tariffs, deficits and big government spending. Such is the power of tribalism that it generally trumps professed values.
It might be contended that tribes need values and principles to define them, hence this fluidity is an exaggeration. However, the ease with which tribes shift values shows that such fluidity is real. People even develop the myth that the values they have now, have always been—when a look at history shows that this is not the case. There is also the fact that group identity and hostility to other groups is easy to manufacture. Divide a group of people into two teams, give them different colored
Tribalism certainly has its origin in biology; humans are social animals and tribalism is the human equivalent of unthinking pack loyalty. Animals, after all, generally do not have abstract principles or values. This is one reason that tribalism trumps values—it is unthinking instinct. Tribalism is also, not surprisingly, fuelled by cognitive defects (or biases). The most important is in-group bias, which is the tendency of people to see members of their own group as better that the members of other groups. This bias makes it easy for people to attribute positive qualities to members of their own tribe while easily assigning negative traits to those of other tribes. This probably also helps support value fluidity: whatever changes occur in the values professed by the tribe, they will still generally be seen as better than the values of other tribes. As might be expected, fallacious reasoning also plays a role in tribalism.
There is a fallacy, often called the “group think fallacy”, in which it is inferred that a claim is true (or something is good) because members of one’s group believe the claim (or hold to the values). This is obviously fallacious but has considerable psychological appeal. This also helps fuel value fluidity, since the truth and values are not based on objective assessment, but by reference to the group. While tribalism seems to be a mental defect, it might be wondered whether it is problematic.
One problem with tribalism is that it tends to render the professed values of the tribe meaningless. This is because loyalty is to the tribe rather than a set of values. This does raise some interesting philosophical questions about the basis of tribal identity and some ship of Theseus style problems about when a tribe changes so much that one might wonder whether it is really the same tribe. There are also some other interesting metaphysical problems about identity here as well in terms of what makes a tribe the same tribe across time and value changes.
A second problem is that tribalism tends to encourage irrational behavior on the part of tribe members. That is, they can act contrary to their own interests and against the general welfare because of the dictates of their tribal leaders. On the positive side, tribal leaders could issue commands that do coincide with the interests of the tribal members and the general welfare. However, this is a matter of chance.
A third problem is that tribalism makes it easy for tyrants to gain ready-made followers who happily serve them, no matter how terrible the tyranny. Because of these problems, it would seem best to find ways to counter tribalism.
One obvious solution is improving critical thinking, so that people can recognize the defects behind and of tribalism. However, mere logic is obviously enough—people also need training in values and commitment to values, as per Aristotle. Of course, this also raises a possible problem: people committed to terrible values can be worse than mere tribes.