My Tribe, Right or Wrong

The situation is tense, as the two groups glare angrily at each other, sometimes spitting insults and curses. They have travelled long distances to get here, with the sole intent of gaining victory and not just defeating the enemy but inflicting abject humiliation too. At any second, something’s going to give, and then the deadly fight will begin in earnest.

What’s going on here? Is this the scene of some armed conflict, barely contained? A peacekeeping force faced by an armed insurgency? Or perhaps a couple of street gangs about to take each other on? Nope. This is two groups of sports fans ready to do metaphorical (and sometimes literal) battle even as their teams battle on the field or the ice or the court.

In recent weeks, many of us have gone through the playoff season of leagues like the NBA and the NHL. And these attitudes are typical of the deep tribalism that surrounds the local sports team. For the first half of each calendar year in particular, the air is thick with them. Every league that started play in the late summer or early autumn begins working its way toward the playoffs, and the tribalism ramps up to a fever pitch by the time they arrive.

Vancouver Canuck hockey fans riot on the street after a playoff game

Must’ve been some hockey game! (By Andy L (DSC_0466 Uploaded by Skeezix1000) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

We’ve all seen it (or done it ourselves): people in a city or town focusing on the sports team as a way to express their identification with their home. The team becomes “us” and “we” (“We won the game!” or “That referee robbed us!”), people are euphoric when the team is up and depressed when the team is down, and at game time, they get a sort of “mob mentality” that can sometimes override their rationality. (Soccer riots, anyone? Fist fights in the stands? Burning cars after the team loses the cup? Or even after it wins?) In recent years, fans of particular teams have even been called “nations” (“Maple Leaf Nation,” say, or “Red Sox Nation”). We’re all in this together, baby! Let’s go paint our faces in the team colors!

But of course, most people, maybe a majority, are not sports fans. That sort of fan behavior is just too, too childish and unsophisticated, and these people, at least, are more into the arts or cooking or business or other types of interests. Thank goodness they’ve escaped that primitive tribal mentality.

The Alma Mater statue of Columbia University

Our school — so obviously superior to all those other schools

Hold on, there! Not so fast. It’s not that easy to escape tribalism. If you’ve ever felt personally insulted when someone has said something bad about your hometown or your alma mater or your country—sorry. You’ve got the virus too. You may not overturn cars or paint your face, but you are probably in as deeply as anybody. Like it or not, human beings seem hardwired to form tribes, originally based primarily on kinship, but these days, based on everything from the happenstance of people’s birth location to their choice of entertainment genre (Star Trek or Star Wars? Comics or manga?) to the happenstance of the religion or school loyalty they were raised in. And once a tribe is formed and one’s membership is rooted, all bets are off.

It’s all in good fun, though, right? Well, aside from the occasional brawl in the stands or prank pulled on the other school’s mascot. Nobody ever takes it too far these days, do they?

Au contraire. Since tribalism is so visceral and so often bypasses the rational mind, if something goes wrong, it goes really wrong, and things can get pretty ugly, pretty quickly. Freud’s ideas about in groups and out groups really hold up here. Being part of an in group gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling. Everybody in the group is your sister or brother, and you’ve got each other’s backs. But what does that make people in the out group? The exact opposite of the in group. Those people don’t make things “warm and fuzzy,” but “cold and prickly.” Rather than being your fond siblings, they are the anti-family. They may, in fact, become The Enemy.

Margaret MacMillan, in “The War that Ended Peace,” her book about the factors leading up to World War I, talked about many of the peace organizations that existed in Europe just before the war. Their membership and declared brotherhood crossed national boundaries, and many of these groups resolved that even if some kind of war broke out, their members would refuse to take up arms. Yet when the moment came, the tribal pull of country was stronger than the pull of the cause, and it was irresistible. “My country, right or wrong” prevailed, and a great many of these former peace crusaders answered the call to war despite their pre-war principles.

But don’t forget that if a person feels let down by his or her tribe or “nation,” the intense loyalty can quickly turn to hatred within the tribe itself. That’s another ugly side of tribalism: despite extravagant protestations of loyalty, it rarely lasts if a tribe member screws up. You may not know the name, “Mitch Williams,” but Philadelphia Phillies baseball fans certainly do, and so do Toronto Blue Jays fans. It was the Phillies’ Williams who threw the pitch, in the final game of the playoffs in 1993, that Toronto’s Joe Carter hit to give the Blue Jays both the game and their second Major League Baseball championship in a row. Phillies fans turned on Williams in a raging instant, egging his house and even sending death threats. Most forgave him within a couple of years, since he openly acknowledged that he had messed up, but that doesn’t always happen.

Stylized designs of American Democrat and Republican party logos

Two very familiar tribes

In today’s political atmosphere, all it takes is one person on one “side” to express an opinion that the “tribe” isn’t supposed to hold, and the attacks from the person’s own tribe rage in from all over the Internet and may never stop. Just ask a conservative pundit who admits that a progressive person may be right about even one small thing what sort of death threats they get from their own tribe. Ask people in the tribe of a single political party how thoroughly they can hate others in their own party who pull for a different candidate in the presidential primaries.

Is it possible to escape tribalism? Maybe, a bit. If one holds to a rational position with all one’s strength, the tribal temptation can sometimes be held at bay long enough for opposing “tribes” to negotiate a compromise or sign a peace treaty or even understand and empathize with each other a little. That’s the only way real progress is ever made in any human endeavor, and it’s a testimony to the courage and strength of many great people, through history, that humans have overcome their innate tribalism often enough to accomplish what they have.

But we know what lurks beneath the surface. Let just one person say something like, “Your mother smells like elderberries” or “you must abandon your preferred candidate and vote for mine, or you will guarantee that the bad guy gets elected,” and boom! Off come the gloves again, and tribalism rules once more.

(A version of this article was previously published in the February 2015 issue of the now-defunct Zen Dixie magazine.)

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