Main Content RSS Feed

The Resurgence of Tribes »

Evolutionary processes have always created a tension between the welfare of the individual and the welfare of the tribe. To be a dominant individual in the tribe is to advance your welfare and that of your progeny and is no doubt a great advantage. But if your tribe is of little significance even being a dominant member does not confer much relative advantage. Inherent in such an understanding is a desire to not only to promote oneself but to promote the tribe to which we belong.

In modern democratic capitalist societies the same tensions between individuals and the collective are evident. Capitalism attempts to provide individuals with opportunity for commercial or material success whereas democracy seeks to ensure that individuals can’t unduly undermine the welfare of the majority. This uneasy partnership has resulted in an unprecedented increase in the standard of living in those (largely) Western countries that have had the courage and the discipline to live out these ideals. (One source quotes a tenfold increase in the last two centuries.)

As societies progressed broader allegiances were demanded of the individual. Rather than loyalty to the tribe, the individual was expected to pledge allegiance to their country (and/or perhaps to their religion). In some respects this facilitated democracy. As democracy was predicated on the basis of advancing the “Common Good”, it became easier to understand what indeed the Common Good was when making political decisions. It was whatever advanced the welfare of the democratic society as a whole.

But there have always been minority groups who believed that their interests were subsumed by the democratic principle of advancing the collective welfare of society. Such special interest groups found that they were able to appeal to the sense of fairness of their fellow citizens to right the most obvious wrongs.

Early in the Twentieth Century women, for example, advanced their cause by attaining universal suffrage winning them the right to vote alongside their male counterparts.

Similarly coloured people in the USA and elsewhere agitated to remove segregation and be recognised as equals to the white community. In Australia a referendum in 1967 recognised indigenous Australians as equal citizens with other Australians and among other things recognised they should be counted in the census.

Homosexual acts between consenting adults were largely uniformly legalised. Those people who found themselves attracted to others of the same sex had been pilloried since time immemorial.

But more and more specific interest groups have begun to proliferate, all demanding their own form of specific recognition and considerations in our society.

In many respect it amounts to a reformation of tribes who form particular parts of our society but want special consideration from the state. This renewed partitioning of our society has resulted in what we have come to know as “identity politics”. These special interest groups have served to make democracies almost impossible to run in the time-honoured tradition of advancing the common good.

What has transpired is that identity politics, far from defending the marginalised and the powerless, renders most significant social changes almost impossible. The underlying theme in today’s politics is not that we should pursue the common good but that we should avoid upsetting any of the tribes that inhabit the sphere of identity politics.

It is not hard to find examples of this perversion of democracy. Let me give you a couple of examples to demonstrate my thesis.

The issue that has dominated Federal politics for at least twelve months is same sex marriage. I can’t remember exactly the statistics, but if my recollection serves me right, fewer than 1% of Australians are likely to avail themselves of this option if it is legalised. Homosexuals are equal under the law with heterosexuals in almost all respects. But now they want the right to title their same sex unions as “marriage” and equivalent to the unions of heterosexuals.

Surely there are more Australians concerned about high unemployment, the prospects of higher taxation and the burgeoning national debt. But these issues are jettisoned to attend to the demands of an increasingly vocal tribe, the LGBTI community.

And let us talk about environmental issues. For seven or eight years Adani have been fighting to establish a large coal mine in Central Queensland. The company has been consistently challenged in the courts by environmentalists. This week the environmental movement has sent protesters to demonstrate at Abbott Point which will be the coal terminal from where it is proposed the mine’s output will be exported. Well over 60% of locals support the mine development but Green supporters who largely emanate from the inner city areas of our capital cities are trying to impose their will on the local population by thwarting the project. That doesn’t sound democratic to me but merely an exaggerated act of virtue signalling.

Biologist and sociologist Edward O Wilson in his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Social Conquest of Earth wrote:

People must have a tribe. It gives them a name in addition to their own and social meaning in a chaotic world. It makes the environment less disorientating and dangerous. The social world of each modern human is not a single tribe, but rather a system of interlocking tribes, among which it is often difficult to find a single compass. People savour the company of like-minded friends, and they yearn to be in one of the best – a combat marine regiment, perhaps, an elite college, the executive committee of a company, a religious sect, a fraternity, a garden club – any collective that can be compared favourably with other, competing groups of the same category.

So now at the beginning of the Twenty First century we have a plethora of tribes demanding to be heard. But they are far more potent than Wilson’s garden clubs or membership of elite colleges.

They are more likely to be environmental activists, LGBTI proponents, groups promoting indigenous victimhood, and so on.

On the political front it has become almost impossible to reconcile their conflicting demands. And of course, superficially, their demands seem desirable. Who doesn’t want to protect the natural environment? Who doesn’t want people of different gender orientations to express their sexuality as they see fit? Who doesn’t want to advance the welfare of indigenous people? But these single issue tribes want to advance their causes without regard to other impacts.

The empowerment of minorities in this resurgence of tribalism is appropriately called “identity politics”. This is because tribal members define themselves largely by their allegiance to the causes of the tribe to the detriment of their relationship with humanity in general. Threats to the ideology of the group are treated as existential threats to the identity of the individual.

In this way tribal formation brings with it another attendant problem.

Experiments conducted over many years have revealed how swiftly and decisively people form into groups and then discriminate in favour of the one to which they belong. Even when experimenters created groups arbitrarily, labelled them so that the members could readily identify themselves, and even though the interactions prescribed were trivial, prejudice quickly established itself.

Whatever the circumstances or the criteria for group formation the “in-group” invariably finds the members of the “out-group” less likeable, less fair, less trustworthy and less competent.

In this way tribal formation militates against tolerance and obstructs the likelihood of reasonable debate. When one’s identity is so closely linked to the ideology of the tribe, members of the tribe can’t afford to hear opposing points of view unless their very identity should be challenged. Tribal members thus avoid debating the prevailing beliefs of the tribe but seek to shut down dissenting voices.

Wilson, quoted above writes:

In its power and universality, the tendency to form groups and then favour in-group members, has the earmarks of instinct. …………..if the propensity to in-group behaviour has all these criteria, it is likely to be inherited and, if so, can be reasonably supposed to have arisen through natural selection.

This demonstrates some of the shortcomings of evolution. Human beings lived for eons as hunter gatherers. The advantages of belonging to a strong, coherent tribe in that environment are glaringly obvious. The advent of cities, nations, and democratic forms of government are very recent historical developments and evolutionary processes have not yet had the time to shape our behaviours to be congruent with the requirements of modern society.

The re-emergence of tribes with narrow interest bases and a disproportionate ability to influence our democratic processes poses a real threat to modern government. In many respects their power is far more negative than positive and their ability to prevent things from happening far outweighs their ability to make things happen. Governments are coming to the realisation, that as a result, meaningful reform is almost impossible.

The French historian and student of democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville presciently in the 1840’s wrote:

A nation that asks nothing of its government but the maintenance of order is already a slave at heart, the slave of its own well-being awaiting nothing but the hand that binds it.

Unless we can encourage governments to fearlessly progress the “common good” in the face of strident minority interests we will likely lapse into the “slavery” that de Tocqueville anticipated.