Overcoming Tribalism: A New Way of Thinking


The most important thing to understand about tribalism and gang warfare is that it is deeply damaging to human societies and that it always has been for tens of thousands of years. We like to think that tribalism is somewhere else. It’s not where we exist; it is very far away and primitive. But the fact is that tribalism is something that we all naturally fall into for various complicated reasons in human nature. We tend to affiliate with groups that will make us feel protected, initially the family and the family unit. But it constantly expands to include people we trust in more significant circumstances, expanding to community, culture, and nation.

Studying the impact of tribalism and its consequences is an important part of the sociology and anthropology of all normal human communities. At the same time, we need to think about the destructive aspect of tribalism that results in social fragmentation, violence, and insecurity.

Gang warfare in urban settings or rural settings leads to high levels of violence and insecurity, instability, and psychological problems; it also shortens lifespans. The economic consequences of this can be devastating in terms of disrupting regular business and the infrastructure of society. It takes resources away from other valuable things humans can do together, such as defense, security, and policing. It ultimately leads to political instability because people take sides, and politicians promise a better life on all sides. Some will focus on the victims, and some will focus on people who are bystanders.

Before long, there is a division of society along tribal lines over the subject of who the real perpetrators are and who the real guilty parties are in terms of the causes of the damage. This has implications for contemporary politics in advanced societies, where they think they are not tribal. Still, they do become very tribal along political lines, along the lines of political parties. And this, of late, has overtaken the damaging effects of tribalism along religious lines. Religious tribalism used to cause so many deaths and so much warfare that it was eventually overcome by the idea of the liberal state and of people of different religions having equality.

Yet, we still have not overcome the tendency to revert into tribes, as expressed through political parties. Political parties have become the new form of tribal and religious warfare. We need to think about the possibilities of shifting direction once again to avoid a repeat of catastrophic history, with the new decades-long war not being between Protestants and Catholics but between Republicans and Democrats.

Let’s explore how tribal de-escalation has been achieved in various parts of the world. One way that tribal entities have become more understanding is through communication, relationship-building, and peace-building initiatives, which have worked for thousands of years.

All the great cultures of the world record ways in which dialogue, communication, and the use of words are prevented. One of the most essential forms of conflict and tribalism is due to misunderstanding, inability to understand other people and their needs, or misinterpreting precisely what they say. Losing control of one’s temper based on what you think another group said, implied, or advocated is a prescription for war.

This is true of family, true every day. But it’s also true of whole tribes, communities, and even cultures and civilizations that can end up in massive warfare because of the simple misinterpretation of words.

This requires extensive dialogue until you fully understand whether or not you misunderstand or actually disagree. If you disagree, then precisely what? The clear disagreements can be seen as a gift because studying them can lead to a greater possibility of peace-building. The disagreed-upon points allow for the prevention of needless violence and conflict based on misunderstanding and miscommunication. It focuses the whole problem towards actual conflict and disagreements, which lead to the possibility of compromises or the imaginative possibility of new realities where everyone can achieve their objectives and needs.

There’s also been a great deal of work on policing rationally and better forms of rationally dealing with situations once they’re getting out of control. The more that police are trained for a few years, like in many countries in the world, the opportunity to prevent violence of tribal warfare goes up dramatically. The well-trained police can resist those moments of excitement, anger, and miscommunication and be there in the middle. They can force pauses and say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, what’s going on here’? I’ve had many conversations with police over the last five or ten years, seeing their skills when they would walk into an apartment filled with conflict, and then they would say, ‘Hey, wait a second, what exactly did you say? ‘ And ‘what exactly do you need from this other guy’? Just by being a professional agent of clarity, they would diffuse the conflict. That’s the same thing as the skills we need between whole tribes, gangs, and nations.

We need people with the skill set to police our relationships between our tribes, between our political parties, and even between our religions. These people are skilled at the space in between, which keeps us all safer. That polices our human tendency to misunderstand, miscommunicate, and demonize the other side.

Another successful methodology that has been used in tribal warfare is judicial reforms. Even if people have a severe fight, they can transform the justice system into something that can work for everybody. The more that lawyers and judges are honest, the more likely people will see themselves resolving their differences through the law rather than taking it into their own hands. We must ponder how to de-politicize and regulate lawyers and judges into better agents of nonviolent change going forward. Certainly, training in mediation techniques and the suggestions we are making here should be a first priority. This is crucial for any stable society, and whatever tribes have been formed, those tribes can go to court, and the court can be a less violent alternative. This is something we all have to work on.

Cultural and educational programming, where we focus on what binds us together, must be the subject of a separate article. I have addressed it previously on election celebrations, for example. Cultural events and educational materials that emphasize what we share in common instead of what splits us apart are essential. In addition, we need strong psychological support because tribal and political conflict leads to a great deal of triggering, gaslighting, and a basic fear of the future. You start to not know who to trust or what to trust because of all the misinformation that comes along with tribal warfare.

All of these things are essential for a better future. But I want to return to something even more critical than these methodologies of dealing with tribes. And it comes to our very minds and how our minds work.

I want to ask everyone to ask yourselves: What kind of questions come up in your mind when you think of the word ‘what’ or when you think of the word ‘how’ versus the type of things that come up in your mind when you think of the word ‘who’? A new approach to changing minds is determining what and how questions are positive.

The constructive questions are the ones about what is to be done. They’re very future-oriented. They’re thinking about what we can do together. How can we do anything that will lead to less conflict between our tribes? But a ‘who’ question is constantly thinking about who you are versus me. Who are these people?’ The kind of questions about identifying the ‘who’ is usually the ‘who’ that is against me, and such a question is based on fear. I suggest the reader take the time to check your own mind’s ways of asking questions.

One of the ways of overcoming tribalism may be an essential self-examination of the way we think when we see problems in front of us, in current events, as we watch the television, as we read the news, as we look at social media, we must start to try to ask ‘what’ questions, such as ‘what is the problem?’ ‘How is it to be solved?’ Or ‘What is going on, and how can I find out?’ ‘What is the possibility for the future, and how can I get there?’ As opposed to immediately looking at social media or the television and saying, ‘WHO did that?’ ‘Who’s responsible for this?’ ‘Who needs to be attacked here?’ ‘Who’s really behind this?’ All of those questions are basically about searching for enemies, searching for conspiracy, searching for evil in the world, and searching for the simplicity of hate.

The brain’s questions in its higher regions of ‘what; and ‘how’ are much more focused on our rational minds and the future instead of looking for scapegoats or somebody evil. If we can focus on, instead of the ‘who’ of tribalism, on the ‘what’ of a future civilization that we share that survives and flourishes, we can start to pull away from constantly fracturing and fragmenting. More, every day, we fragment as nations in a political situation that is out of control in many countries, including the United States. Social media has made us constantly move towards ‘who’ questions, towards ‘Who is responsible’ and ‘who is to blame’, instead of the basic scientific, rational, and compassionate questions of ‘What’s going on?’, ‘What is to be done?’, ‘How can we do that?’, and ‘How can we do it together?’

First and foremost, we have to take responsibility for our minds. With our minds, ways of thinking, and ways of speaking, we set the model for everyone around us. If we do this more, it will likely change the tribalism that afflicts us now.


© Marc Gopin