The Trials of Tribalism


Occasionally, I’ll hear a bit of weird tribalism I just don’t understand. Like, I believe Donald Trump recently said something about how you wouldn’t like it if you lost your job to an undocumented immigrant.

I don’t want to lose my job to ANYBODY; I’m not sure why it matters where they’re from and whether they have papers. If you lost your job to another American-born white guy, would it not matter as much? That’s not even getting at how the people to blame are the ones who fired you and hired someone else, not your actual replacement.

Or how I keep hearing about people wanting to stop the “Christian genocide” in the Middle East. I’m obviously against genocide and murder in general, but what about all the non-Christians? Aren’t most of the people being killed by ISIS other Muslims? Don’t they matter just as much? It’s like people can’t feel sympathy for murder victims unless they happen to belong to the same group in some way. How often have you heard statistics about how many Americans have been killed in another country, ignoring the fact that a lot of non-Americans are also dying? I get that there’s a lot of bad stuff going on in the world and you have to choose your issues, but why choose them based on nationality or religion? Even when I agree with the basic position, I don’t get why the Us vs. Them mentality has to come into it. Sure, I’m against outsourcing, but not because Americans deserve jobs more than the Chinese do. It’s because it’s a sleazy way for businesses to get away with paying workers much, much less than they should. And no, Republicans, I don’t think lowering corporate tax rates will bring jobs back to American soil. Do you really think that makes a huge difference when compared to being allowed to pay people ten cents an hour?


While pretty much everybody gets compared to Hitler at some point, and usually it makes no sense, I can’t help thinking it’s somewhat apt for Donald Trump, mostly because of his emphasis on scapegoating those who are somehow Other. The Mexicans are rapists, and Muslims need to be kept out of the country until we find out what’s going on. (What’s going on is that Muslims aren’t a monolithic group any more than Christians or Jews are.) Trump isn’t the only one spouting rhetoric like this, but it seems to be the main thing he has to offer. That and making deals, and I’m not sure he totally understands that when his response to the Mexicans saying they wouldn’t pay for a border wall is, “The wall just got ten feet higher!” That’s, like, the exact opposite of how negotiation works. For the most part, politicians will disavow the over-the-top racists, although Trump apparently was hedging his bets on whether a David Duke endorsement could be a good thing.

They’re still promoting similar ideas, however. Think about how upset Bill O’Reilly and others are about how white people are no longer a majority in the United States, as if they’re some sort of precious natural resource. I’m white, and I’m not sure how that gives me any natural advantages. Societal advantages, sure, but that’s because white Europeans have spent so many centuries establishing a position of privilege. It’s natural to an extent to identify more with people who have something in common with you, those you consider your tribe, but the basis some people have for deciding this seems bizarre to me. “Hey, you were also born in the United States? Your ancestors are from Europe? You went to a church? We’re practically twins!” And I’m not trying to hold myself up as enlightened here. I might not identify people as Like Me due to skin color and birthplace, but I still live in a pretty white culture and have rather white interests. I think we all participate in tribalism to some degree, but at least we can be aware of it. You could perhaps say hate groups are more honest in that they at least KNOW they’re saying some people are better than others for reasons they can’t help, but I don’t think I’d actually be willing to go that far.

Another political issue I’ve been thinking about is how liberals will say that they’re thinking in the long term, while conservatives are mostly concerned about themselves in the short run. There’s certainly some truth to this. Take climate change, for instance. The Republican position is basically that we don’t need to do anything about it because more regulation would hurt businesses in the short run. Then they’ll laugh at those who say it’s one of the greatest threats of our time. Well, sure, if a terrorist gets hold of a nuclear weapon, that’s likely going to result in more immediate deaths. Climate change, however, is a problem that affects everybody over the long term. That said, I think the divide is much more prominent for rich people. Corporate tax cuts aren’t going to benefit me personally in either the long or the short run. On the other hand, I want to have access to health care, decent working conditions, and a safety net if I fall on hard times. I also want gay people to be allowed to marry, which doesn’t affect me personally, but does affect people I know. So for me, the liberal position makes more sense even from a selfish, short-sighted position. I’m not going to support deregulation and tax breaks for billionaires out of self-interest because these things don’t help my self-interest. What I don’t get is when people who also aren’t affected by such things vote as if they MIGHT become relevant in the future, because someday they could be rich. Hey, you never know! So these people ARE trying to look to the long-term, and have the complete opposite view of what you might think. Of course, the odds of humanity continuing to affect the climate for the worse are much greater than those of any random person suddenly striking it rich, but try telling them that.

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8 Responses to The Trials of Tribalism

  1. Brilliant essay, Nathan!! And some of those memes, especially the last one, are priceless!

  2. marbpl2 says:

    When one is a part of a persecuted minority that no one cares about (think European Jews prior to and during WWII or the Yazidis or Rohynga today), thinking about looking out for your own tribe above may make more sense than universalism.

  3. Bryan T Babel says:

    Do people in power have no rights?

    • Nathan says:

      I would think they generally have MORE rights, by virtue of being in power, no? That’s kind of the problem. And yes, there have been cases of people in power totally losing it, but I just don’t think that’s a danger for modern white Americans. The problem isn’t that this group is being marginalized, but that they want to marginalize others.

  4. Bryan T Babel says:

    If everybody has human rights (and I believe they do), then they all have them absolutely. People who were slaves had the right to liberty, even when they were slaves. Women had the right to vote, even when it was illegal for them to do so. These rights have their basis in Natural Law or were bestowed by some Deity, depending on what you believe. They are not granted by governments; they are either recognized or denied by legal systems. Human rights are not something you either have or that you need some more of, like a collectors set. You have them absolutely.

    It is definitely a great evil that ISIS is killing both Muslim and Christian. The Muslims they kill seem to be the ones that cross them or that they deem somehow not Muslim enough. But Christians are targeted simply BECAUSE they are Christians ; this is what makes it “genocide.”

    People have to start their concern for other people somewhere, and it seems to me that “tribalism” is at least a step closer to “universalism” than “free individuality” would be. (The Greeks had a legend about free individuals. They called them Troglodytes.) The appeal for “fellow Christians” might step up opposition to the brutalities of ISIS, which could help the Muslims that are being killed as well. In this case tribalism might just be useful as a starting point.

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