Beware of Tribes

Social media is better at dividing than uniting

Tribalism is on the march in America. It’s stepping all over our social fabric and dragging it through the dirt. Instead of seeking commonality – those seed-shaped spaces in a Venn diagram – too many of us are too often retreating into factions, refusing to respect opposing views, eyeing the “other” with distrust and anger.

Half of Republicans and Democrats report in polls that they literally fear the other political party. Was 1994 really that long ago? In that year only 17% of Republicans had a “very unfavorable” view of Democrats. Now 43% do. Then, only 16% of Democrats had a “very unfavorable” view of the G.O.P. Now 38% do. What happened in the intervening 24 years to so polarize our polity?

Before I try to answer that, let me observe that this is not the first time the United States has been less united. One of my current projects is writing a book about the settlement of the Utah Territory, a 19th-century migration my ancestors on all sides participated in. Most came from the U.K., but one branch left Alabama right after the Civil War. In reading about that era in Alabama, I have discovered the South was not homogenous in politics. There was a sizable faction, including some slaveowners, including my great-great-grandfather, who opposed secession, even if that meant abolishing slavery. One historian writes, “The stance a man took on the question of secession thus became a brand; it was as telling about him as who his parents were and what church he attended. When ‘strong-headed secesh’ taunted loyalist neighbors with epithets like ‘damned union son of a bitch’, ‘damned submissionist’, and ‘Lincolnite’, they acted in keeping with longstanding southern traditions for intimidating the wayward.” How familiar are those emotions today? For “secession” try substituting gun control, or abortion, gay rights, immigration, climate change, universal health insurance. Where the historian writes “brand,” we could easily put “tribe.”

An Arab proverb goes “Me and my brother against our cousin. Me, my brother and my cousin against the stranger.” Two impulses wage war inside us. We are born with a predisposition to put people into categories. While this doesn’t mean we always deem “the other” inferior, it doesn’t take much for that predisposition to broaden into fear of difference. In America, with its original sin of slavery, racism is one form such fear readily takes. Though it must be said – as a current glance at Syria, Iraq, Myanmar, or Sudan demonstrates – shared skin color does not guarantee social cohesion.

Research done by Rebecca Bigler, psychology professor at the University of Texas, has found that when randomly selected schoolchildren wear red and blue t-shirts, within a few months the reds have a higher opinion of reds and blues a higher opinion of blues. In a related experiment, when teachers treated the blues as superior, blues outperformed the reds in academic and behavioral measurements.

The good news is that science has found that we are also wired for fairness. Furthermore, we are born with a brain capable of reason, which in turn is capable of overriding unconscious bias. But we have to constantly work at that and we don’t always succeed. Bias exerts a powerful influence.

Economic inequality also contributes to tribalism by fostering a condition of scarcity for the financial losers. Scarcity causes stress and often a sense of grievance, a toxic combination that makes one more susceptible to divisiveness and hostility. Jared Diamond has argued that scarcity can amplify xenophobia and even lead to genocide. He posited a link between a period of drought and famine in Rwanda before 1994 and the genocide Hutus committed against Tutsis that year.

America’s weak social safety net, which does contribute to scarcity in difficult times, such as occurred after the 2008 economic collapse, can fuel anger in the financial losers (unemployed coal miners, to take one example) toward “the other.” A politician posing as a strongman savior can also seem more appealing.

The tech world likes to tell itself that when all the planet’s people and data are connected, peace will reign. That dream has started to look like a nightmare. Many high-tech executives are now claiming that the social media tools they helped develop have actually eroded the social fabric. “Popularity” appears as “truth.” Social media dangled the promise of ending loneliness but has actually increased solitude and social exclusion. Texting and Facebook posts may give one more control over social interactions but those interactions are shallow and reduce engagement with live humans beyond the phone.

The contemporary vogue for identity politics gives me pause, as it too easily segues into oppressed/oppressor narratives. Just about everybody, if they try hard enough, can find evidence for their being a victim of one sort or another. Victim leads to grievance leads to resentment leads to hostility leads to tribalism. Us against them, instead of recognizing that we are all flawed and then seeking a way to support each other. Identity politics tends to view the world as a zero sum game. To elevate my tribe, your tribe must suffer. What kind of nation does that attitude foster?

Gerrymandering, now aided by computers – thank you again Silicon Valley – has created a situation where candidates choose their voters instead of voters electing their candidates. Political parties thought they were so clever in rigging voting districts. What no one saw was the unintended consequence of politicians smugly taking extreme policy positions and refusing to compromise. Want a congress that gets nothing done? Just make every voting district safe for incumbents. If politicians won’t seek compromise, why should I?

All these factors represent a big win for tribes. But a tragedy for a populous democracy built on diversity, a shared narrative, and social trust.

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