The idea of tribalism goes back to ancient times when bands of hunter-gatherers were following the animals they ate and searching for edible plants and fruits. Peoples clashed. They probably didn’t always clash, but if food scarcity was at levels that threatened survival, they certainly would have clashed. Compassion was enough of an instinct that killing would have troubled them, so they needed to carry a tribal god with them that told them they were a select group and other groups they ran into were not in that select group, which gave them permission to kill that other group without guilt or with diminished guilt. There are remnants of the tribal god thinking in the Western religions, which derived from the hunter-gatherer style of living. In the Bible, there are lists of foods appropriate to eat. These lists are worse than arbitrary, these were lists of the foods these people were already eating, so that when they ran into peoples eating different foods, they could kill them for violating religious law. There are other lists in the Bible, for how to sew etc. The Western religions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism) have adapted to a more unified globe and now teach messages of peace, but this tribalism origin shows in their texts and that influence probably affects our thinking, whether religious or not, we’re all influenced by Western religion.
A close equivalent to tribalism, in modern times, might be people who take sports rivalries way too seriously and imagine the campus of a rival college team or the city of a rival team a completely other set of people, even when everything else about those two cities or campuses would point to them having a lot in common (similarly sized, same region of the country, etc.). Tribalism would be if I eat Wheaties for breakfast and I have a neighbor who easts Mueslix, and I think, What kind of an asshole eats Mueslix for breakfast? I don’t even have an issue with this neighbor, I’m just looking for arbitrary distinctions so that when the end of times comes if we’re down to one loaf of bread and one bottle of water between the two of us I can not share without guilt.
The problem with explaining the divide in America today with tribalism is that it attempts to establish a false equivalency, kind of a buzz phrase through the 2016 election and continuing after, but a buzz phrase because the tactic is used constantly. There is a tribal element to the divide in America, because those Western religion influences are so powerful, but the distinctions of tribalism exist solely so that there are distinctions. They exist to create us and not-us, other. What divides America today is where we align on actual issues and what the influence of tribalism allows us to ignore is that there are objective truths behind those issues. This predates Trump. Jenny McCarthy used a study, later determined to be based on manipulated data and fraudulent research, to convince people vaccines cause autism. Many probably still believe this. Vaccinating a perfectly healthy baby is frightening, so it can be tempting to believe someone who tells you not to do it, but read up on how terrifying Polio was before a vaccine to prevent it existed. Climate change, caused by human activity, is no fun to think about, so when someone claims we’re just in a natural warming period, it’s tempting to believe. If you’re a Trump supporter, believing, as he said, that millions of people in California illegally voted for Clinton is tempting to believe, because winning the popular vote would be a nice feather in the cap of the person you voted for. Similarly, believing his inauguration was more well attended than Obama’s.
The scientific method allows us to eliminate our biases in how we observe. It has ways of eliminating that we might like to believe Trump’s inauguration was more well attended than Obama’s with what we can clearly see in pictures, that it wasn’t. Science has ways of studying how and why the planet is warming and was able to establish an extreme likelihood that digging up millions of years’ worth of fossil fuels and releasing them into the atmosphere as a gas is, inconvenient as it is to learn, the how and the why. Science establishes extreme likelihoods because science doesn’t deal in certainties. Certainty ends the search for potential new information and our ability to integrate that new information with what we already believe or to change what we already believe completely. We seem to be in a new age where people are comfortable believing whatever they choose to believe, and those people take advantage of science not dealing in certainties and use that to create irrational doubt, which is not the same as skepticism.
Soon after Trump was elected, he made the claim Obama had wiretapped him. An interviewer made every effort to nail him down on this, as Trump tried to be oblique, as he likes to be, you might remember this clip, Trump kept saying “you can figure it out,” and the reporter said, “I want to know what you think, you’re the president.” At one point, Trump said, “I don’t stand for anything,” and then he told the reporter, “I can have my own opinions. You can have your own opinions.” This is the problem in America, and Trump is just an expression of that problem. Whether or not Obama was illegally wiretapping Trump is not a matter of opinion, it either happened or it didn’t. That clip is here; it’s hard to watch:
After Trump’s win, a lot of Americans questioned how people could have voted for him and the response to that questioning was often, “Apparently people aren’t entitled to an opinion anymore.” That’s nonsense. Of course, everyone is entitled to an opinion but respecting others’ opinions doesn’t require not questioning them. As much as people were entitled to vote for Trump and defend that vote, I was and am entitled to state that they voted wrong. Russian paid for millions of ads on facebook manipulating Americans into being for Trump and against Clinton and, more relevantly, which doesn’t get the mention it deserves, those ads were shared by American citizens millions of times. We got duped. Russia rigged our election for president taking advantage of our willingness to believe whatever we like to believe.
If we’re not allowed to challenge each other to be better voters, our democracy is threatened. I hope everyone who’s read this far reads the quote below from David Foster Wallace. What comes through even more than his wish for his fellow citizens to maintain a Democratic Spirt is his compassion at how difficult it truly is, how we all fail, sometimes, how the trap of failing to maintain a Democratic Spirit is universal. Compare how his words below try to unite us at the same time as they try to make us better. Compare that to how our current president uses that same trap to try to divide us and make us worse.
“A Democratic Spirit is one that combines rigor and humility, i.e., passionate conviction plus a sedulous respect for the convictions of others. As any American knows, this is a difficult spirit to cultivate and maintain, particularly when it comes to issues you feel strongly about. Equally tough is a DS’s criterion of 100 percent intellectual integrity – you have to be willing to look honestly at yourself and your motives for believing what you believe, and to do it more or less continually. A Democratic Spirit’s constituent rigor and humility and self-honesty are, in fact, so hard to maintain on certain issues that it’s almost irresistibly tempting to fall in with some established dogmatic camp and to follow that camp’s line on the issue and to let your position harden within the camp and become inflexible and believe that the other camps are either evil or insane and to spend all your time and energy trying to shout over them.” – David Foster Wallace, from a 1999 article, “Authority and American Usage”