The West is in decline: growing populism, polarisation, inflation—you name it. Online, there is a growing sense of existential pessimism about the future of (Western) civilization. Recessions and other economic hardships have made Millennials uncertain and pessimistic about the future, and Gen Z apathetically jokes about the collapse of society on TikTok and Instagram. Amidst all this dystopian realism, the word ‘tribalism’ emerged as a sociological phenomenon typical of the post-truth, post-modern society. The concept usually refers to the notion of an ‘in-group, out-group’ way of thinking: the idea that our complex, diverse societies are divided up into smaller communities of like-minded ‘in-groups’, consisting of people of your ‘tribe’, those who belong to you. These ‘in-groups’ are diametrically opposed to ‘out-groups’ or ‘Others’, those who fall outside of your tribe.
Group identities are a part of how we evolved throughout history. As hunter-gatherers, we lived in small nomadic tribes, protecting each other against the merciless forces of nature. As humanity expanded, so did our notion of who and what constituted a ‘tribe’. When empires rose and fell, we were linked by a common sense of identity, and those who strayed from the cause, strayed from the tribe. Similarly, religion and nationality provided abstract but conceivably clear demarcations of who belonged, and who didn’t. Although not every individual associated the same characteristics or norms with this national identity, they perceived it to be so, therefore creating an ‘imagined community’, where every individual imagines themselves as a part of a greater, united whole.
In contemporary society, tribalism still works similarly: you share a set of characteristics and norms with a group of people, you are loyal to the tribe, and in return, you belong, which creates a deep sense of security. Back in the days of the hunter-gatherers, belonging to a tribe was essential for survival, which might explain why social exclusion still hurts so much to this day. We are hardwired to live in groups, we are dependent on it for our wellbeing and survival.
However, there is a crucial difference between ‘traditional’ notions of tribalism and our current understanding of tribalism in popular discourse. This has everything to do with the age we live in and comes from the same root as the current populist waves in the West. That is — you may have guessed it — the rise of the (social) Internet.
There is a common misperception regarding the influence of the digital sphere on polarisation. Originally, it was thought that polarisation is caused online because people get stuck in ‘filter bubbles’, where they only see one opinion over and over again. But overall, current findings show that actually, the opposite is true: online, you are more exposed to differing views than in your direct, day-to-day surroundings.
However, this also means that the opinions you come across derive from complete strangers. When we used to live in actual tribes, we were united by proximity and local customs. Even if you were not fully morally aligned with your neighbours, you had to see through the differences to live harmoniously, or even to survive. Online, we miss the shared customs found in our peers by proximity, which formed the foundation for our ability to work through our differences. We engage in what social scientists call ‘social sorting’, where we automatically categorise new phenomena or people into groups. If you disagree with someone, and you lack the context of local custom and day-to-day necessity, your disagreement becomes the central identifier for that person. Because you have nothing to associate with the ‘Other’ but your intense disagreements, it is significantly easier to villainise or even dehumanise those who think differently than you.
Anger is a driving force for online engagement, so algorithms tend to encourage this emotion. Meanwhile, multiple studies have shown a link between social media use and loneliness. And in turn, loneliness is a big cause of (political) extremism. Therefore, current researchers recommend a more fragmented, community-moderated approach to social media, without algorithms that encourage negative emotions. However, focusing on social media alone is not enough. While isolating ourselves in online tribes helps with processing information and limiting the amount of online conflict, this also further solidifies (extremist) collective identities, which can cause even deeper polarisation.
To really solve the problems of tribalism, we should not just look at solutions in the digital sphere. We should also consider how we are currently living in the real world.
Don’t get me wrong: the Internet can be a beautiful place. Social media can also increase a feeling of connection with friends and loved ones and provide a new kind of support system with tribe members from all over the world. But we are forgetting that this is not the same as real-life connections. In fact, it causes our real-life interactions to erode. We no longer need to rely on our peers for survival – or so we think, and we think wrong. The rise of tribalism is a symptom of our age. It shows us that this is not how humans need and want to spend their lives. In real life, we become increasingly more isolated from each other. Our current (Western) cultures are especially individualised nowadays, and relying on your community is a relic of the past. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Tribalism connotates the need for us to connect to our direct surroundings; to rely on each other, to care for our kin. Constantly reiterating only the negative connotations of tribalism may cause the phenomenon to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, where it becomes normalised to discriminate against other tribes, where originally this was not the norm. We should reframe the term so that we do not only see it for what it destroys – the polarisation and hatred it causes – but for what it sheds light on: an awareness that we need to create a stronger connection to those around us, and an acknowledgement of our interdependence.
In terms of our real-life interactions, (Western) society needs to re-prioritise face-to-face contact. Your known day-to-day surroundings may have a lesser variety of opposing views than your digital environment, talking to strangers can still lead to unexpected conversations or introductions to other opinions. This is also known by some as the ‘traveler’s mindset’. An openness to new experiences and meeting new people helps us to humanise those who (strongly) disagree with us.
We need a re-emphasis on the importance of local community initiatives. A community can consist of people that have differing views, but who gather for a common purpose. For example, food waste initiatives where people cook meals together, or (volunteering) projects united for a common cause. The philosophy behind a community is to have a network of people around you who support each other, much like the online communities we see on social media today, but then for real.
The Internet created a plethora of digital communities to identify with, at the cost of our actual, real-world communities. As a result, we seem to be angrier and more isolated than ever. Aside from holding Big Tech companies accountable for the negative effects of their platforms, we should see tribalism not just as a threat, but as a sign that we need to acknowledge our interdependence and in-person peer-to-peer support. By prioritising meaningful real-life connections and community initiatives, we can counter the divisive nature of tribalism, and harbour its potential.
Cover image: Tribalism and the populist wave. A Trump impersonator in front of the White House.
Se vuoi leggere l’articolo tradotto in italiano, clicca qui.