Political tribalism has been bandied around a lot lately in echo chambers of public discourse. Red versus Blue, Liberal versus Conservative, Democrat versus Republican—distinct socio-cultural identity groups with increasingly rigid beliefs and values. Vilification of one group toward the other becomes seemingly more escalated and outrageous each day.
Deeply inherent in our tribal nature, psychological processes operate beneath the surface of conscious awareness. When reason and rational thought become subject to the mercy of anger, these processes have the potential to unleash unbridled destruction and blood-letting. Closer examination of tribalism and its proneness for manipulation by aberrant political leaders and ideologues, particularly in the new age of media technology and evolving artificial intelligence, reveals that we are within a sociopolitical landscape unknown to history. We’re near an unfamiliar precipice. In this regard, it’s worth taking a closer look at the nature of tribalism and its interplay with the influences of propaganda masters in the age of modern media technology.
A Simple Definition
A straightforward definition of tribalism includes the behavior and attitudes that stem from strong loyalty to one's own tribe or social group. In large part, these behaviors and attitudes are wrought by evolutionary design and set within bone and blood. To survive, or put another way, to genetically perpetuate our species, humans banded together. Emotional and psychological defenses that promoted the ability to defeat and destroy external threats were refined over the millennia. Our inherent quest to stay alive provided the environmental press for our species to form well-bonded groups. Banding together, cooperating in order to help stave off threats of death and destruction from outside sources, be those the threats of bestial predators or competing groups of humans, increased the probability of group survival. The greater our bond and resolve to stand against an enemy who threatened to destroy us, the greater our probability to pass on our genetic material. In this sense, tribalism is good and functional for sticking around on a competitive planet. But as with all things evident in our natural world, it’s not a simple black and white picture of meaning and purpose.
Powerful and violent behavioral mechanisms are genetically ingrained within our tribalistic nature. Ask those who have gone to war, especially those exposed to repeated or prolonged combat. The enemy must be reduced to the level of denigrated objects and negative stereotypes characterized by ethnic slurs, such as gooks, krauts, nips, sand monkeys to remove their face of humankind and kill them. Viewing people of another tribe as subhuman and demonic enables one to press the trigger—or to look away without compunction when the deeds of horror are performed. These destructive abilities became essential dimensions of tribalism. Unconditional trust toward those outside the bonded group didn’t serve well in the Darwinian model of selective adaptation. Rather, being able to kill threatening members of the other tribe with exacting conviction became a plus on the side of perpetuating our species. And with this ability, a corresponding psychological trait necessarily evolved that enabled us to enact the murderous actions—the ability to switch off the empathy and compassion centers of the brain when we are pressed to punish or kill members of the opposing group. Warmer, brighter attributes of humans, characterized by altruism, are generally rationed to fellow tribe members and less so to the people on the other side.
Karl Marlantes, author of the novel Matterhorn, stated, “One of the things that I learned in the war is that we're not the top species on the planet because we're nice. We are a very aggressive species; it is in us. People talk a lot about how well the military turns kids into killing machines, and I'll always argue that it's just finishing school. What we do with civilization is that we learn to inhibit and rope in these aggressive tendencies, and we have to recognize them.”
The extent and degree of how this trait may manifest can be witnessed in genocidal behavior. David Ropiek, an instructor of risk communication at Harvard University concisely described the intimate connection between tribalism and genocide: “Genocides are tribalism - wipe out the other group to keep our group safe – taken to madness.”
Exploitation of Tribal Dynamics: Hello Scapegoatism
And this brings us to the ability for these evolutionary tribalistic traits to be exploited by masters of propaganda and those in high realms of power—dogmatic figures bent on shaping public beliefs into the images begot by his or her ideology. Granted, the manipulation of our inherent tribal psychological mechanisms through propaganda is nothing new and readily revealed in historical context. For example, Hitler devoted three chapters of his book, Mein Kampf, to the dynamics of propaganda. Historians can point to tribalistic patterns marked by great wars and genocidal conflagrations on one extreme to the good-natured tribalism seen in athletic competitions at the other end of the spectrum.
One of the most relevant propaganda strategies for engendering political movements or, put another way, intensifying darker tribalistic forces, is scapegoating. Blame is assigned to an individual or group for the ills of one’s own tribe. The most favorable conditions for scapegoating to potently manifest is during a period of social-cultural discontent, when the populace perceives itself as having lost a previously acquired degree of power and privilege. Certainly, these conditions are present today. A recent study by Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University illustrated the remarkable disparity between what most Americans wish to happen in the public domain and what elected representatives create. While the economic upper crust, business interests, and others who can afford lobbyists have gained significant influence of the political body, the average worker has lost practically all sense of control. Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor, reflecting on the powerlessness felt by so many Americans, observed: “Our economy and society depend on most people feeling the system is working for them. But a growing sense of powerlessness in all aspects of our lives – as workers, consumers, and voters – is convincing most people the system is working only for those at the top.”
Thus, the opportunity for the charismatic figure to enter the political scene and exploit tribal dynamics by whipping out the scapegoat tool. Blaming another for one’s problems and woes provides anxiety relief and a plausible solution for one’s problems by either controlling, punishing or destroying the identified enemy. Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford described scapegoatism as “a horrifyingly effective stress-reduction mechanism.” The accompanying vengeance directed toward the enemy (imagined or real) releases significant emotional fuel into one’s sense of cause. Eric Hoffer, author of True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, wrote: “Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil.”
Hate appears to inculcate a sense of unification remarkably well. Additionally, a person achieves an immediate sense of purpose and of belonging as his or her group identity solidifies. Hoffer further relates that when we intimately identify with such a group, we experience a strength greater than anything we can feel as an individual. No longer are we a diminished self but instead part of something eternal – a party, a religion, a race, a nation. Becoming part of such a movement can engender us with the belief in a new life and a new meaning. These psychological mechanisms are powerful and can consume all reason. Facts and rational discourse become subjugated to the power of tribal blood.
Nothing New? The Advent of Modern Media Technology
Optimists convey that this period in American history will resolve itself within the dialectics of a viable democracy, as proven in the past. But this is where the cautionary button needs to be struck. A primary difference exists between the thens of the past and the nows of the present that may dim the fine light of historical perspective. An unimaginable media technology now inadvertently provides the infrastructure for rapid destruction of our ability to recognize what is accurate and true. And with such instantaneous truth decay, the capacity for a populace to right itself during turmoil, much less effectively govern itself, crumbles. The remarkable influence of oligarchical ideologues loaded with cash and emboldened by labyrinthine organizational networks coexists with the advanced media technology. Information, false or true, is now conveyed to us in ways that were unimaginable hardly a few years ago. It comes in rapid and constant bursts that don’t engender rational discourse but, rather, emotional reflexiveness. Scapegoatism becomes imbued with the steroidal nature of the new and still emerging mass media technology thus flaring our tribal tendencies. There are devils for everyone.
Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves to Death, was the primary oracle who saw it coming. In 1985, he wrote that the current media infrastructure was not designed to convey meaningful information. (He was primarily focusing on television.) Rather, its parameters were mainly set to provide entertainment, to amuse. He prophesied the loss of our ability to separate fact from fiction in the realm of public discourse. Television had embedded itself seamlessly into the culture and shaped the way we process information. He conceded that television is great at fulfilling its purpose of entertainment. But here’s where the side effects come rising up through the social body. Because it is technologically geared to entertain, it can’t provide thorough, meaningful analysis and synthesis of information for public discourse. As a medium it demands heavy editing, non-stop stimulation, and quick decisions rather than rational deliberation. These are its inherent biases. And then there are the almighty drivers of revenue and ratings which have pushed what may have been considered reasonable public affairs coverage toward infotainment qualities. Nonsense and sensationalism sells. Rational discourse does not.
It’s been 33 years since Postman warned that trivia and the entertainment values promoted by television were creating distractions that threatened to subvert public discourse. His prophetic heralding is best illustrated in the following passage: ’’When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture -death is a clear possibility.''
And Now the Internet and Artificial Intelligence
Since Postman’s prophetic work, media technology has exponentially morphed into the internet realms of social media which has become an explosive breeding ground for misinformation. In relation to the internet and, in particular, its social media manifestations, the dissolution of a fact-based world becomes more probable. The infrastructure of the social media allows not just a swift and heavy stream of information but a deluge. The technology guides us by way of algorithms to information that will confirm our biases and solidify our (here we go again) tribalistic beliefs. If you believe something, whether it be logical or senseless, you’ll find information within the internet world, or the television world for that matter, to confirm your belief. All you are compelled to do is…well, believe it. Forget principles of verifying evidence and checking sources. The algorithms construed from your clicks on the computer will keep guiding you in the direction of the ideas you hold dear. In this process, we become more compartmentalized in our views of the world, our values. We become more separated and intolerant of the other tribe(s). Our ever escalating anger further subjugates the virtues of reason and compromise. In exchange, we have the passion and purpose of a true believer.
And looming on the horizon, something far worse, the distortion of reality itself. Aviv Ovadya, chief technologist at the Center for Social Media Responsibility at the University of Michigan, warns that the capacity to distort reality is swiftly approaching. He writes: “Advances in communications technology and artificial intelligence are making it easy to create audio or video content with potentially dangerous consequences, from making it appear that a world leader is ordering a nuclear strike to simulating your spouse’s voice on the phone asking for a bank password.” In other words, our ability to assess evidence and facts out there in the physical realm will be but another illusion. Try surviving, much less governing, in such a world.
Questions from Better Angels
But there are the better angels of our being. One can see heroic and reasoned attempts to fight back against the divisiveness of misinformation that escalates our nation’s progression into tribalistic factions. Organizations at grassroots levels are materializing like small Davids confronting Goliaths of distortion.These initiatives such as Living Room Conversations, AllSides, CivilPolitics.org, Hi From the Other Side, Mismatch, and the Village Square, have a nonpartisan mission to encourage politically dissimilar Americans to interact respectfully. The goals appear not to forcefully change the beliefs of the other, but through respectful interaction, come to realize what may have been lost, that we’re all endowed with the face of humanity.
Another admirable quest is a movement to help students world-wide learn how news is created and how to recognize its credibility. Over 3,300 educators from the US and 69 other countries have adopted a curriculum created by the News Literacy Project to teach youth how to distinguish facts from fiction. It has 12 lessons which teachers can incorporate into their current classes and a virtual classroom with online courses and exercises. Relatedly, a bright example of another movement within the educational sphere can be seen by the efforts of the Italian government to counter the dangers of the digital media. It’s launching a program on October 31 to train a generation of students steeped in social media how to recognize fake news and conspiracy theories online.
As the public becomes more uncomfortable with the negative potential of social media calls have arisen for greater control to manage these platforms. A primary response in the US has been to put pressure on Twitter and Facebook to change their algorithms and enforce stricter community guidelines. In Europe, a reaction has been to limit what can be said on social media platforms by coercive legislation. Some European governments have moved quickly to adopt this strategy. (In Germany the executives of social media platforms that fail to delete racially incendiary comments—or, for that matter, blasphemy—now face steep fines.) Whether such responses, with their likelihood for an array of both positive and negative consequences, will modify the toxicity of misinformation and fake news is still far out there for determination. But such movements do reflect rational reasoning, a recognition that our tribalistic tendencies are being exploited and we must seek better footing to offset a bloody plunge downward.
In speculation, it will probably be a turbulent back and forth process to try and manage the unleashed devils that inhabit the sphere of today’s elaborate media infrastructure. We are at a historical point whereby crucial questions pose before us: Are we indeed captive to the modern media technology, its potential for manipulation and exploitation of our tribal nature; its addictive aspects of amusement, entertainment, and beguilement that circumvent mindful analysis of our nature, our world?
Or are we capable of turning off the smart phone, the television or tablet computer long enough to look within and realize that we’re all one tribe on the pale blue dot?