Can Humanism Stem the Rising Tide of Tribalism?

By Pat Duffy Hutcheon

The news magazines and papers are full of it. From the quagmire of Yugoslavia to the tribal wars in Somalia and the Congo and SudanC to the lawless frontiers of Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Punjab and KashmirC to the longstanding face-offs in Northern Ireland and the West Bank and Gaza StripC to the Separatist movement in Quebec and the War Council of the Assembly of Canadian First Nations with their threats of armed uprisings. Something quite appalling is happening. In the September 2000 issue of The Atlantic Monthly we read that A Pakistan could be a Yugoslavia in the making, but with nuclear weapons. The bewildering complexity of ethnic and religious divisions is what makes it so fragile.@ And I would add that the now-universal availability of sophisticated technical, biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction is what makes this surging tide of tribalism so appallingly dangerous.

What does it all mean? What is causing this surge of tribalism? Why is it worsening even now as the world is getting ever smaller in practical termsC and ever more interdependent? I believe that most humanists are concerned about this revival of obsolete forms of tribalism throughout the world, even though we might not all define the problem in the same way. In the first place, we need to recognize that there is really nothing > unnatural= about these urges. Tribalism is simply the deeply ingrained human habit of identifying oneself in terms of the group; of viewing one= s own in-group as somehow > special= and superior to others; and of discouraging social intercourse (or any other type of intercourse) with members of the > out-group= .

In many ways we are all prone to tribalism. It is deeply rooted in our evolutionary history and biological heritage. It stems from the > kin selection= that evolved in response to the ever-present dangers to self and family in primitive times: a process resulting in the encouragement of adult members of the clan to sacrifice themselves, if necessary, for the survival of their own offspring and those of their siblings. Because of the way evolution works, this pattern of behaviour had the consequence of preserving the genes of those individuals who behaved in a tribalistic way, while eliminating the others. Accompanying this propensity to kin selectionC and being transmitted along with itB B was an evolutionarily effective > us-them= response to surrounding clans. The Other (or Stranger) was recognized as dangerous and threateningC to be either avoided or destroyedC and one= s own clan had to be ever-ready to attack and repel any such strangers in their territory. It is easy to see how, in the early stages of the development of the human species, these essentially tribal drives served to sustain and protect the group. Groups that did not respond to outsiders in this way failed to survive to reproduce their kind. This is why tribal feelings make us feel good in the deepest recesses of our being. And feeling good in the midst of our own group is a luxury in this time of dislocation at the new millennium= s birth. But feeling good in the midst of one= s own group by building fences against surrounding groups and demanding special privileges on the basis of one= s tribal membership may be a luxury that humankind can no longer afford!

The key feature of tribalism is this instinctive tendency to recognize, judge and reward people according to their group identity, rather than their characteristics as individuals. We are all familiar with it. The group in question can be based on any number of things, the most familiar, however, being ethnicity; that is, a supposed common ancestry. Or it may stem from an oral tradition of group ownership of a particular land base from > time immemorial= . This is often accompanied by a culturally reinforced memory of having been exploited throughout history by neighbouring Others and/or invading conquerors (no matter that, as individuals, we have each only been here on earth for a few short decades and may even, personally, be comparatively privileged). A third source of tribalism is a set of sacred beliefs identifying the group= s members as uniquely gifted or > chosen= by history or the gods. Along with any or all of these we usually find a religious mythology and rituals that have celebrated the group= s claim to distinctiveness and served to preserve and transmit it down the ages.

Shared by all these variations on the theme of tribalism is a deeply ingrained sense of > belongingness= . At first glance, this may appear to be a very positive thing. But, as the Canadian writer Michael Ignatieff pointed out in his book, Blood and Belonging, the more strongly you feel the bond of belonging to your own group, the more hostileC the more violentC will be your feelings toward outsiders. It does not require much of an imagination to see a connection between the re-emergence of tribalism today, and the resurgence of the killing fields throughout the world.

Robin Fox, the noted evolutionary anthropologist, has written a moving poem about tribalism. Written in 1997 and titled The Legacy, it refers to the Irish troubles. The first four stanzas go as follows:

We laud the selfsame God and praise

His bloody, sacrificial son;

Then put our bibles down and raise

the barrel of the loaded gun.

With this religious argument

we settle questions which the years

have so obscured, besmirched and bentC

not much is left but primal fears.

These are enough, yes quite enough

to overheat the fevered brain;

and cook to boiling point, the stuff

the xenophobic cells contain.

We do not need excuse to fight.

We are not them; they are not us!

This is sufficient to invite

the musket and the arquebus....

What are the origins of this explosion of tribalism in the late twentieth century? I think that a perilous situation has been created by the technological and economic imperatives of the approaching global village, largely because of the speed at which this is happening and the absence of a worldwide governmental infrastructure for managing it. We have simply been too slow in getting the necessary political system organized, given the totally unprecedented rate of technological change. In place of the world federalism that humanists have long envisaged, we are caught in a runaway business- and computer-led globalization that is viewed by many as a threat to the sovereignty of the nation-state. This has set off a spiral of instability and fear throughout the world. Although the United Nations has been evolving gradually to meet these challenges, its organizational adaptations have perhaps inevitably failed to keep pace with the rapidly expanding need for democratically controlled global rationalization.

I want to emphasize that what is fueling this retreat to tribalism is not so much the direction as the pace of the change; and the feeling of dislocation and danger to established structures of authority and privilege and ways of doing things that this engenders in people the world over. If citizens perceive that the integrity and protective capacity of their territorial governing authority is threatened, for whatever reason, they will look inwards to the clan and tribe for security and a sense of belonging. Worldwide movements of refugees and immigrants have similar results, both in those seeking a new home and in those who come to feel their established lifestyles endangered by the newcomers. Each > in-group= tends to retreat into its past traditions, and turn away from all the > out-groups= whom they view as different and therefore as threatening their own way of life.

This regression into tribalism, accompanied as it is by the rapidity in which communication, travel, economic production and distribution and business ownership are becoming global, is making for a potentially explosive situation. The history of the past two centuries has taught us that, whenever the power and authority of a territory= s civil state is threatened, for whatever reason, the inhabitants tend to turn back to the clan or the tribe for emotional support and moral order; and for a sense of social stability. Contrary to what is often imagined by our visionaries and romantics, human beings do not feel comfortable with anarchy. Combined with the need for authority structures, our species apparently has a fundamental biological need for feeling part of an > in-group= , and for establishing a safe distance from the outsiders. We can all recall examples of how we have found ourselvesC at one time or anotherC in one group demonizing the other group and feeling rather good about it. This is a very natural tendency!

The development of the nation-state was an extremely important landmark in the evolution of civilization. It marked a movement away from ever-expanding empires as a means of providing the centralized government necessary for keeping the warring tribes within the land base from murdering each other; and it opened the way for more democratic governance of the territory occupied in common. In the early nineteenth century Napoleon= s conquests overturned the fragile national balance of that time. A couple of generations ago Hannah Arendt (a political philosopher who escaped to America from Nazi Germany) wrote a book called The Origins of Totalitarianism. In it she did an excellent job of explaining how the upsurge of tribal distinctions and hatreds in Germany, France and Italy that ultimately exploded into Fascism and Nazism had its roots not only in the underbelly of nineteenth-century Romantic Idealism, but also in the earlier destruction of the old political order in the period following the Napoleonic Wars.

After Napoleon, the major threats to inter-tribal cooperation within a shared geographical territory came from colonialism and totalitarianism. The disruptions in our own time that have accompanied the end of Western European imperialism throughout Africa and AsiaC and the more recent collapse of Communism and of the Soviet UnionC are having similar effects. We are now reaping the harvest of these, for both systems actually nurtured tribal hatreds by subtly reinforcing strife among the native tribes in a ploy to prevent a unified opposition and/or by imposing an authoritarian order that merely drove them all underground.

The current unprecedented rate of change in means of communication and transportation has resulted in a sudden massive contraction in the size of our social world. This is why our instinctive tribal urgesC important though their evolutionary function was during the childhood of the human speciesC are now dangerously counter-productive. Technological advance has thrust us all into a planetary proximity calling for a vastly different set of responses from the tribal ones so deeply embedded in our genes. It is imperative that our inherited tribalism be overlaid with an acquired set of more appropriate premises, ideals and values. More than anything today, we need a world view that forces us to acknowledge all humans as membersC and not of one exclusionary tribe, but of an all-inclusive global village where the problems besetting any of us must be faced and conquered by everyone, working together. Isaac Asimov put it tellingly when he said, A The kick you aim at your neighbour= s rear will now hit your own as well.@ The worsening problems that we face, worldwide, must be solved in as mutually beneficial a way as possible, in full recognition of the depleted resources of the planet and our collective propensity to over-breed and over-consume, and to justify our special right to do so in archaic spiritualistic and tribalistic terms.

Given all this, one would expect that our political and intellectual elites would be doing their utmost to establish the kind of planetary world view and global infrastructure required for combatting these > ties of blood and soil and belief= in all jurisdictions and on all fronts. But that is very far from the case. What appears to be happening, instead, is that tribalism, in a variety of versions of > identity politics= , is actually being encouraged in most jurisdictions. It is being encouraged by two types of practises occurring within a number of those settled, stable societies that should be setting an example to the world of how we must all learn to live together. Today we encounter the kind of practises that tend to create and encourage tribal behaviours chiefly within various forms of exclusive religion and in certain governmental policies of multiculturalism, especially in Canada.

TO begin with what is possibly the lesser of the two evils, let us consider the implications of what we have come to call multiculturalism. All this began, in Canada, as a very laudable aim for interculturalism: a desirable and necessary goal that humanists would all applaud. Interculturalism denotes a sharing of cultural attributes and values and ways of doing things, a willingness to learn from those with different histories and subcultures, and an appreciation of what immigrants and other previously exploited minority groups have contributed over the years to the cultural whole. But the push for multiculturalism has turned into something quite different. It is based on the premise of cultural relativism: the idea that every culture is of equal worthC with equal rights to be protected and preserved intact within the containing societyC and that cultural practises cannot be judged by objective or universal standards of any kind. In adopting this well-intentioned but fundamentally flawed program with such abandon and disregard for internal contradictions and predictable consequences, we may have launched ourselves upon a government-sanctioned road to tribalismC rather than to the cultural pluralism that it promised, and that humanists consider so necessary.

Canadians take pride in being known as the world= s leading multicultural nation. We have been lauded (usually by ourselves) as the first immigrant country to have become thoroughly pluralistic, in guiding policy and philosophy as well as in the obvious fact of an ethnically diverse population. Not for us, we said, that > melting pot= of the Americans! However, the actual situation is much more ambiguous and complex than it appears. It may be that what we have actually been institutionalizing these past three decades is not an example of a peaceful co-existence of the tribes, but something much darker and more dangerous to humanity. What we are moving toward is beginning to look suspiciously like a situation of race-based apartheid, in what could amount to a mere geographical territory housing a multitude of isolated ethnic groupings. In the process of institutionalizing multiculturalism, we may have been encouraging a drive that is buried deep within us all, because of our evolutionary history. It is the drive that helped humankind survive in the childhood of our species. However, now, in this era of our late (some would say, retarded) adolescence, that drive is fraught with danger. The tribalism that we have actually been fostering is a threat, not only to the continued welfare of our species, but to that of the entire ecosystem. The Americans are making the same mistake, although in the United States it tends to assume somewhat different forms. Throughout North America we have been witnessing a movement away from the goal of equality of opportunity for all citizens as individuals toward one of equality of outcome for ethnically identifiable groups.

There is, of course, a much older source of tribalism: religion, and especially ethnic-based religion. Not all religions are equally guilty here. We can define a tribal type of religion as one which attempts to infuse its followers with a sense of superiority and essential > differentness= from the mass of humankindC whether the source of that differentness is its claimed monopoly of the path to salvation or the God-given uniqueness of its followers because they were chosen in some long-distant past to perform some kind of special role for humanity.

It is no accident that belief in gods and spirits readily translates into claims for the superiority of a culture which celebrates a particular version of Supreme Being or of immutable Truth. This in turn invariably leads to the unquestioning acceptance of the authority of those opinion leaders and priests and so on who are expressly designated by our tribal tradition to define that culture and to reveal its religious rules and rituals and to pass them down the ages. Of course the obverse of all this is the need to identify all other groups as the OutsidersC strange, and misguided and possibly even dangerous. In fact, one of the major functions of these types of religions has been to preserve and transmit a sense of the specialness and chosen nature of a specific group of peopleC a group assumed to be related by ties of blood and soil and history.

It is difficult to imagine a more powerful weapon in the arsenal of tribalism. Consider for a moment the sorts of myths on which the majority of traditional religions are based. How superbly have those exclusionary myths provided fuel for tribalism all through history! We must not be naive about the common human need for myths of origin, however. They do, in fact, make the members of the group involved cohesive. And they do make the members willing to sacrifice themselves for the collective. But this has a scary and dangerous side as well. We need only think of the Islamic suicide bombers who happily go to their deaths and take many innocent citizens with them, because they are assured of the reward awaiting them in some heavenly afterlife for doing this. However, as previously noted, there is a good reason why these kinds of divisive beliefs have been central to all human cultures. Those early hominids who were not held together by such myths did not survive to reproduce. Everyone alive today is descended from individuals who adapted to the challenges of their environment by functioning as successful tribalists on the basis of just such myths.

No wonder the > song of the tribe= has the power to stir us! It resounds in the most fundamental part of our emotional being, even against our better judgment. In fact, we have many examples of how people can turn away from earlier-held religious myths of their ancestors having been somehow chosen by the gods while still insisting on defining themselves in terms of a more general mythology concerning the historical distinctiveness of those same ancestors, based on claims of prehistorical ties to a particular homeland. Even humanists are sometimes reluctant to give up such claims to special status. How easy it is to fall into the trap of believing that one= s ancestral group was, in some mysterious sense, special! It feeds the remnants of childhood egocentrism buried deep within us all.

I recently engaged in an email discussion with a very intelligent, self-defined > Jewish humanist= author, on precisely this point. He failed to convince me that it is necessary to identify himself in this way, rather than simply as a humanist. My argument was that, if we define ourselves according to an ethnic/religious tribal affiliationC in spite of having relinquished the religion concernedC we must expect others to define us in that way as well. And in the real world, where demagogues all-too-often prevailC and invariably look for scapegoats when things go wrongC one day we will become either the perpetrators or the victims for no other reason than our claim to tribal identity. My protagonist accused me of blaming the victim. What I was trying to say, rather, is echoed in the words of Charles Simic, the Yugoslavian poet whom I quote in the chapter on tribalism in my 1999 book, Building Character and Culture. A Sooner or later or later,@ Simic wrote, A Our tribe always comes to ask us to agree to murder.@

I find it strange that so many humanists persist in distinguishing themselves by the use of adjectives implying categories derived from dualism and/or tribalism: categories that contradict the essential evolutionary and naturalistic philosophical basis of their own world view. Thus we continue to have self-defined > secular= versus > religious= humanists: a distinction rooted in the pre-scientific notion of two incompatible and discontinuous realms of realityC the sacred versus the secular, or mind and spirit versus matter. And we have > Jewish= humanism as distinct from ... what? From that of > Gentiles= ? Or from the Persian-influenced Renaissance humanism spread throughout Western Europe in Medieval times by scholars within the Jewish religious tradition? Or from that of all those framers of modern scientific humanist thought with Jewish family backgroundsC people such as Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan and Paul Kurtz?

A good reason to resist the insertion of any dualistic or tribal adjective in front of the word > humanism= is that, by its very definition, the humanist world view acknowledges no meaningful division of humankind on the basis of either > realms of being= or of race. We accept the findings of modern biology, archeology, anthropology, evolutionary science and neuropsychology in recognizing the existence of only one gene pool for the human species. And we accept the fact that life has been evolving continuously for at least 3000 million years from extremely simple micro-organismsC possibly drifting in from outer space. This means that we are all related, if we go sufficiently far back in geological time, and that we are all the results of the same evolutionary process. Of all the world views on which people > bet their lives= today, humanism is one of the few actually founded on the belief in the oneness of all humanity, and in the origin and home of our species within nature rather than above it. And in the continuity of our species with other forms of lifeC even, ultimately, with non-living mass and energy. What distinguishes humanism from all other world views is its premises that all of humankind is one, and that our species is an integral part of nature. These constitute our > ontological= or reality premises. We can call them, simply, our reality beliefs.

The key > epistemological= premise of humanism is extremely significant as well. It has to do with the superiority of the scientific method of knowledge buildingC that combination of empiricism and deductive logic involving the gathering of evidence and replicable testing of hypothesesC as the only dependable means of approaching universally objective (although tentative) > truth= . We can call such premises our knowledge beliefs. The consensus among humanistically oriented thinkers throughout the world today is that no method other than the agnostic one of scientific inquiry has ever been able to construct knowledge that is not only workable, but universally reliable.

The third foundational premise of all world views is termed the > axiological= one by philosophers, but we can refer to it more simply as our value beliefs: those having to do with ethics and morality. Reality beliefs, value beliefs and knowledge beliefs: the three prongs undergirding a world view that, taken together, explain the world and the human role within it to our satisfactionC and thus provide the meaning for our lives. All of us live out our lives in terms of one world view or another, whether we are conscious of it or not. And all world views are built upon this foundation of three sets of ultimate premises: essentially untestable beliefs about existence, knowledge and human values. Everybody operates in terms of them; most people do it unknowingly. Philosophically oriented peopleC or people like us who are a dissenting minority within a hostile majority cultureC strive to identify theirs clearly for themselves and others, and to make sure they are internally consistent and compatible with the findings of science. Of course, the precise nature of the premises varies from world view to world view. Most important, a vast gulf exists between the premises held by supernaturalistic, mystical and transcendental thinkers and those of scientific humanists who view the universe as orderly and governed by natural laws that cannot be circumvented by arbitrary whims of gods or by any other magical and mysterious forces.

The most common misunderstanding concerning humanism appears to be in the area of morality or ethics. This may be because we are neither absolutists nor relativists where values are concerned. We reject the claim of moral absolutists that values are immanent in nature or super-nature, waiting to be discovered and obeyed by human beings. We also reject the conflicting claim of the moral relativists that all values are merely subjective and > perspectivist= or situational. We assume that reliable and workable values, like the basic bricks of scientific knowledge, are built by human individuals and societies in the course of making sense out of experienceC values that are universal or, more precisely, universally applicable.

Where the content of values is concerned, humanists subscribe to two interrelated ideal ends. The first of these is the fulfilment of the individual, but only so long as this is considered in the context of consequences for the complete life span, the lives of other people and health of the culture on which all individual > selves= dependC not merely on whims of the moment. Our second ideal is the long-term welfare and survival of life on earth, and of the diversity of species within that stream of life. For guidance here we look to history and tradition as sources of past experienceC as well as to the findings of modern science; and to that uniquely human imagination which provides us with a glimpse at future possibilities and long-term ends for humanity

We justify the need for universal values on the basis of three unarguable facts. One is our common biological heritage of needs and drivesC many of which require overlaying and redirecting by cultural ideals, ethical principles and moral guidelines that can only be learned through appropriate experience. In the second place, we recognize that humans, being social animals, must be able to live successfully in groups. We all need to learn ways of behaving that ensure that the group can work and thereby survive. And third, we humanists are aware that scientific knowledge and the technology issuing from it have empowered our species to the extent that we now possess the means to destroy the entire globe. This makes a sound and wise and universal morality imperative as it has never been before in history. In fact, modern humanists, if true to our scientific world view, are impelled to be concerned with morality above all else, realizing as we do that, like it or notC and wittingly or notC our species is now responsible for the very direction of biological as well as cultural evolution.

Unfortunately, the organized humanist movement has not always sufficiently emphasized our concern for morality. In fact, the atheism of many members has too been often associated in the public mind with at best, moral relativism, and at worst, outright amorality. For example, I= ll quote a few lines from a column by a political scientist that appeared recently in a national newspaper. He refers to the fact that most people think that belief in God supports morality. A And rightly so, in my opinion,@ he writes. A A noisy public atheist ... is an infantile show-off and a troublemaker. And almost every great political philosopher has concurred with the American public on this point: While a given atheist may be moral, atheism is bad for public morality.@ (Note the bind in which he places atheists. If they remain silent about their beliefs, this very reluctance to engage ensures that their views will be ignored; but if they speak out, they are nothing but A show-offs and troublemakers.@ ) Nevertheless, I suspect that we who do not believe in gods and spirits have been responsible for at least some of this negative perception, due to the preaching of an irresponsible moral relativism by many self-declared > free-thinking= humanists in the past.

A major plank in our modern humanist world view, therefore, must be an ethic that is truly universal. Thanks to our historically and scientifically based knowledge of the all-too predictable consequences of building wallsC rather than of building bridges across cultural dividesC we know that the > dance of the tribes= is not for us. We are aware of the danger to life posed by this dance, especially todayC and thus the extent to which it conflicts with our ultimate values. But precisely because our humanist philosophy is grounded in biological and social-psychological knowledge from the life and social sciences, we realize the common animal source and the social seductiveness of that tribal urge. So we can recognize the importance of refraining from institutionalizing policies and programs that serve to reinforce rather than to discourage such destructive biological drives. This, then, is the gist of my argument against the type of multiculturalism and identity politics being played out in Canada and in many other countries today. The tribalism that evolved out of kin selection functioned as a successful survival mechanism during the childhood of our species. But now the evidence is all around us that it is the Achilles Heel of modern humankind, and now threatens to destroy us all.

This brings us back to the role of humanism in the global village of the new millennium. Apart from its emphasis on reason and scientific inquiry, what else is there about humanism that makes it uniquely capable of combatting tribalism? First and foremost, our world view offers an inspiring and workable foundation for meaningful living and life-sustaining support for that village. There would appear to be no competing frame of reference that can, as adequately, provide the guiding principles capable of promoting peaceful relations among the varieties of human cultures that now must interact and work together. The speed of technological advance has forced the world= s myriad competing tribes into a coexistence for which their religions and ethical traditions have left them dangerously unprepared. The world cannot afford to wait for these outmoded belief systems to alter and advance. Only humanism has a planetary perspective already in place. It is up to us to try to persuade the more open-minded members of the world community to join us in rejecting tribalism before it is too late.