The Trouble with Tribalism

We live in angry times. 

“You’re with me or against me!” “What’s your real political agenda? What colour are you? Red? Yellow? Blue? Green? Yellow-Blue?” You’re either Leave of Remain. You’re a Tory or a Tory in disguise. It’s all colour, party, faction; faction within a faction. We find the need to pigeonhole and write off at every turn.

If only real life were so simple.

 Our human need to pick a side, pick a colour is primeval, reinforcing our animalistic ‘fight or flight’, eat or be eaten. Even in our (so-called) civilised society, the gloves are off for many. Add communications technology that is expanding at an astonishing speed (perplexing many, giving anonymity to the ‘fighters’ amongst us), and with just a few taps of our thumbs it’s now fight! Fight! FIGHT!

 But are we all really that two-dimensional in real life? In reality, much of what gets said on social media wouldn’t get aired face-to-face. It’s an enabler – for good and for bad. Give me 240 characters and I can sum up what I think of you. ‘I know your type’… ‘You lot’… It’s your gang against my gang. ‘Which are you?’ ‘Show your true colours’.

Distance emboldens.

The symbology of colour, and our need to write someone off as X or Y, and move on with our day, has become rife in the years and months since the EU Referendum. We now have all the new gadgets of our age by which we can utilise the virtual world to mask our identity, to be personal without the person necessarily being there in front of us.

Technology enables. 

But aren’t these soundbite and clickbait approaches to interaction exactly what have got us to where we are today? (Take media blaming of immigrants for just about everything as a case in point.) Media platforms have been at the heart of disseminating stereotypes of ‘others’ since the dawn of print. In politics, identifying with or dismissing someone solely on the basis of what political ‘colour’ they are, or from what emoji they use, or which particular leader or figurehead they stand by, come what may, reinforces that primal instinct, and it dehumanises those about to be the receiving end of an online attack.

We have to be better than this.

Neotribalism and the internet

The French sociologist Michel Maffesoli was probably the first to reconsider how tribalism works in civilised societies, coining the term ‘neotribalism’. (My own research looks at religion and politics in civil society, past and present, and the extent to which ‘othering’ has determined political allegiances.) Maffesoli utilised the term ‘neotribalism’ to predict the ways in which fractures in society would enable disenfranchised sections to embrace nostalgia. New tribes would emerge or older one mutate.

As the pace of life and communications technologies expand, the need to hold on to a group, a tribe, and to identity with others you think are like you, becomes paramount. ‘Take Back Control…’ ‘Blitz spirit…’ Soundbites reinforce this primal need and comfort us in our insecurity, giving us an ‘other’ to blame. So many underestimate the power of rhetoric to manipulate and to incite. ‘It’s a simple message and sounds right to me; why should I challenge it? Let me get on with my day.’

Community and communication

The previous structures of community and a sense of place are shifting. The virtual world is a place we can go to look for others no longer to be found (or known) on our doorstep. As commutes become longer for so many, with technology in hand, some of us look less to our neighbours and more to that community in our pocket or bag – to be found on our phone, our laptop, our tablet. Available 24/7. No worries that I may be in my pyjamas. They’re out there. I can communicate any time I want to.

But do we really know them? We can chat with those with whom we see commonalities but a symbol, an emjoi, an affiliation of political colour, has someone pinned into a particular tribe in the eyes of many without a second thought, so they are seen as ripe for the picking by those with no filter but with an agenda. Those attuned to and comfortable with ‘othering’ take no moment of pause in which to get to know about the person – just a desire to attack this other tribe.

Social media and the human condition

Social media platforms are reinforcing this neotribalism and the taking of sides. There are people like us and ‘others’. (Take media descriptions of immigrants as a case in point.) And oh how often we can pin our disappointments and anger on ‘others’. We offload, we jab, we walk away or turn off the screen, feeling victorious. But are we not just filling a void? Pushing down our insecurity? Are we not blaming others for our woes so that we don’t actually have to go and do anything or face someone in person?

This hasn’t come out of nowhere. Social media is the offspring of a press that for generations has drip-fed negativity about ‘others’ in a changing Britain. It has given individuals an amplified voice and a wider audience, where once it might have just been a grumble down the pub or in their work break.

Social media is the offspring of a press that for generations has drip-fed negativity about ‘others’ in a changing Britain.

‘I’m entitled to my opinion.’ Sure – how many times have we all heard that? Everyone is entitled to their opinion but in voicing it you are also entitled to be challenged if someone can demonstrate you’re just plain wrong, or being offensive, or both. It is a public forum, with rules of engagement. Platforms now offer us the ability to report. But they remain a band-aid on the deeper issues facing communication in a virtual world. Providers are playing catch-up with human instinct, even now.

Social media and tribalism

Which all leads me to my central point: the persistence of tribal behaviour on social media is part and parcel of the trouble in which we now find ourselves. More than three years of picking and biting and snarling and judging and hating. It’s intoxicating for some, and it’s addictive in its own way: a quick rush, a buzz – ‘I put them in their place. Ha!’ ‘Bloody Remoaner!’ ‘Stupid Leaver!’

Yet if we want to see meaningful change in how we do politics, how people engage with politics, we cannot build walls thicker and stronger and more impenetrable, and we cannot stick to the over-simplification of tribal instinct. We have to find a way to break through – to change the way we communicate with each other across political parties or tribes.

Everyone sticking scrupulously to a set of ideas and mandates detailed in a party’s manifesto, utilising the whip: where has it got us? If politicians are discouraged from voting with their conscience, being made to vote against what they know (through research and data) to be in the best interests of their constituents, do we not turn each of our representatives into mere acolytes of their highest power – the top dog? That comes dangerously close to dictatorship, whichever way you look at it.

The same holds true for those who pin their colour on social media – a red rose or an orange diamond, for example. Do we really know what that person stands for? What they are like? What their hopes and fears for their own lives and for this country are? Really? Just from an image or a single comment, or the past record of someone entirely different who happens to use the same symbol? Really? And what happens when we do?

All this does is reinforce tribalism, ‘othering’, blame. It does not seek dialogue, it seeks attack, to shut down, to dismiss. It does not give a jot for the personal lives, worries, health (mental or physical) for their mark. It’s all about crushing a perceived enemy.

Brexit has broken Britain. The way forward?

Brexit has broken Britain, as many now say, whichever way you voted – if you even could vote, of course. But there are those prepared to make a stand – to look beyond their political colour, to find others willing to talk, to engage, to find a way.

As the children’s television presenter, Mr Rogers, once famously said of how his mother taught him to deal with scary reports in the news: look for the helpers. They do not utilise the language of hate. They look for a common humanity, for empathy, for understanding, for a way forward together. 

There was an outpouring of rage by some when I took the decision to identify when it was members of my Communications Team writing tweets on my timeline. No one bats an eyelid when someone in Comms at, say, a bank or some other service provider, signs who has responded. ‘Politicians don’t do that.’ ‘It makes you look bad.’ ‘Do you have a split personality?’ Heaven forbid I should do something different, even in this tiny way. And how many stopped to think there might be disabled people in my team? Ableism is rife when people are quick to judge.

It’s just one small example of how people fear change or the unexpected: attack is a common response. I get it. As a team, we continue undeterred, determined to shake things up in our way, to provide transparency – something so lacking in politics of late. Do I think Mr Johnson sits down with a cup of tea and a Kit-Kat thinking, ‘I’d best respond to Larry in Croydon; he’s been waiting an hour’? No. It’s not feasible and it’s not how it’s done. We are just honest about it, that’s all.

If your biggest worry in that moment is that my team and I are doing something different, I suspect we are merely bearing the brunt of something else that’s going wrong in your day, or it’s the change factor, or you can’t see past an orange diamond. It’s always been done this way; don’t rock the boat; don’t be different to me… And if identifying who writes a tweet annoys you more than the state of this country in the lead up to 31 October, then I suggest, respectfully, that you look to your priorities.

The same holds true for those politicians looking to find helpers across the political spectrum. Look at how so many people have reacted on social media. Heaven help a politician should they decide to move into another colour or reach out to a different hue. Oh how the internet nigh-on loses its mind when those so ready to attack see that happen. How dare they!

Look at how Dominic Grieve has been treated (it must annoy the heck out of so many that he doesn’t have a handle). Look at the attacks on Chuka Umunna’s credibility: he’s in it for himself, he’s a hypocrite, a traitor. The attacks will come because it’s easier to attack than stop and listen to someone who’s done something differently.

Be the change you want to see…

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we need to be the change we want to see. We have to do something, to find a way. Communications technology has revealed much about human behaviour on a massive scale, and is in many ways an open goal for those who want to attack, to hate. But it is also communications – online and in person – that will hold the key to making cross-party dialogue. Difficult conversations need to be had, transparency needs to become the norm, and, perhaps more importantly, people need to stop and listen before they judge.


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