In modern usage the term “tribalism” usually refers to a way of thinking or behaving in which people are loyal to their social group above all else. Historically and sociologically, tribalism has played a huge role in the development of the human race. Family groups that started to come together during prehistoric times for mutual protection and support is what ensured the success of civilization. Sociological studies have demonstrated time and time again that one is nearly always going to show a positive bias for a fellow group member while almost showing a negative bias to a member of a different group.
Sticking together to work for a common goal is a good thing. It is often even necessary for success. So it isn’t right to say that all tribalism is bad. Even today, being a loyal part of a group is a good thing. After all, if you are a member of a football team, or a sales team or in the military or whatever, you should be trying to win for your own team, not your opponent. The problem comes in, which is not unique to today, when the group becomes more important than the truth, or more important than the intrinsic God-given value of another person. This is bad.
Whether it is sports, politics, religion, race, gender, wherever there are “sides,” all too often today the sides display a kind of “hyper-tribalism” that demonizes and dehumanizes the other side. This hyper-tribalism also refuses to even contemplate that any voice that comes from the “other side” can have any merit at all. Constructing an impenetrable wall between “us” and “them” isn’t really new, but it has become ever more hostile and ugly.
More and more often, the gulf between sides is so great that it is nearly impossible to have some sort of convergence. There is no room for intellectual debate, for an exchange of ideas. In fact, the problem is today we won’t even debate the ideas; we just attack the other person. It seems that in today’s world, the “sides” are drawn up much quicker and the requirements to remain a member of the tribe become more and more radical. It doesn’t help that algorithms used in social media platforms push at us a steady diet of posts and articles that feed exclusively the ideology of the “tribe” to which we belong, forever ramping up the conflict.
This hyper-tribalism is flat out contrary to Christ. It’s good to be loyal to our “tribe,” but an irrational loyalty that does not permit our side to ever be wrong or the other side to ever be right is toxic and immoral. The key to this immorality is precisely its irrationality. When we refuse to look at ideas or concepts through the lens of our reason (which is part of our soul) we are abandoning one of the most valuable gifts that God has given to us. It’s impossible to make good judgements about anything by depending on how we feel about something. Put some antifreeze into a glass with some ice and it will look like an enticing drink. But it’s deadly. We need to “know” what’s in the glass. That’s the use of our reason that helps us to discern the truth about things and to make good judgements. Abandoning reason and deciding by means of appearances and feelings will have us drinking poison.
Well, bodily poison isn’t the only poison out there. There is spiritual poison as well. Spiritual poison kills the soul as easily as physical poison kills the body. Spiritual poison has at its source not really irrationality but “anti-rationality.” This anti-rationality has its source in pride, a pride where we demonize every member outside of the tribe to which belong. Sure we are always going to think we are right and the other is wrong, no problem with that. But to think others on the “other” side (whatever that is or seems to be to us) have nothing to say, no merit, no value, are 100% wrong — this is pride. And it’s sinful.
So, be passionate about what you believe and be ready to intellectually and charitably debate your ideas and be open to the possibility that you are wrong. All of that is good and healthy. But we have to stop attacking and judging the people on the “other” side. It does no good and poisons our soul. Remember that those on the “other” side are children of God just like you; remember that Jesus died on the cross for them as well as for you. Perhaps with a bit of understanding and openness and love we can build a few bridges. We might change their minds, and they might change ours, or perhaps not. But even if we still end up disagreeing, we can learn they aren’t necessarily “bad” people but people just like us, and we can learn to value them as human beings. This is something, though, we will never learn if we let pride fueled hyper-tribalism get in the way. May the Lord give us the grace to see the God given humanity and value in everyone, including those with whom we disagree.
Father Joseph Byerley is pastor of Saint Rose of Lima Parish, Haddon Heights.