We have seen the darkest side of tribalism. The Hamas terror attacks against Israel were the most extreme, most horrifying expression of that tribal instinct. The global political reaction to those attacks, and to the ensuing Israeli assault on Gaza, has been profound, and has prompted an increase in tribalist sentiment. The brief moment of unified condemnation following the attacks has been followed by political polarisation in the UK and around the world.
Tribalism is destructive, irrational and dangerous. And yet it is unavoidable. A democracy such as our own, with its party political system, could not operate without a certain amount of tribalism to fuel political debate, competition and action. Where does the boundary lie between an acceptable and productive measure of tribalism and destructive excess?
In short, we go past the point of “normal” tribalism when we stop seeing the other side as having legitimacy. At this point, any dialogue with the opponent is ruled out. They cease to be a competitor or an adversary, and become the enemy. All sense of community is gone. At the furthest extreme – but never so far away as we would like to imagine – we question the other side’s right to existence and with that, their very humanity.
How else could you explain Gazans celebrating the murder of Israeli children? How else could you justify Israelis bragging on TikTok about their access to clean water and electricity, while innocent Palestinians go without?
The simple answer is tribalism. They see the other side as a collective, a single entity, to which a single value is applied. Instead of a collection of innocent and guilty individuals, there is only one guilty group, tarred with the crimes – real, exaggerated and imagined – of anyone and everyone in that tribe.
Those two examples are both real and recent and yet some people reading this will be outraged by one or the other. That alone represents the strength of the tribal impulse, even for those of us who are distant from the conflict.
No one is immune. We do not have to cast our eyes too far to see other examples past and present. For decades during the Troubles, Northern Ireland was torn apart by a cycle of violence and recrimination. Individuals and families were punished not for their actions but for their collective culpability, for being born on the wrong side of the sectarian divide – part of the wrong tribe.
This sense of division is not confined to “obvious” traits such as religion or ethnicity, or purely connected to historical grievances. Just look at the way the United States has driven headlong into volatile, violent tribalism, driven on by political identity and populism.
No one is immune – and that includes you and me. We are never so far away from the sharp end of political tribalism as we like to think.
It happens on the right when second- and third-generation British citizens are referred to as “them”, over there, who don’t fit in to “our” community.
It happens on the left when people on the right are reflexively labelled “Tory scum” – a label that sweeps up everyone from Rory Stewart to John Redwood. And once you have decided your opponents are “scum”, what then? Where does that judgement take you, other than towards division and conflict?
It happens – whisper it – in the liberal centre, when we decide that the opposition is so clearly irrational or extreme that we might as well ignore them.
I repeat – no one is immune to tribalist instincts, and the fact that each of those examples is not equally severe should not distract from how dangerous that tribal “othering” can be – whoever is doing it and whoever they are doing it to.
But tribal divides are simple, which makes them attractive, and somehow comforting. Righteous anger is easy. It feels good to feel you are on the “right” side and fighting against the “wrong”. It feels good to be able to blame your woes on some faceless, amorphous enemy.
Life outside tribalism is complicated. It takes years – decades – of dedicated effort to move past old divides. The case of Northern Ireland shows us just how hard that can be, how much support is required from the international community, and how vulnerable even that hard-won peace can be.
Extreme tribal instincts can push peoples and nations down a slippery slope. It can happen in Belfast, or Jerusalem or Washington. If there are those ready to step up and lend a hand, however, it is always possible to climb back out. The cure for tribalism is simple – acknowledging and challenging the tribal mentality itself. The cure only works, however, if you want it to work. But perhaps the toughest lesson of all is that many of us do not want to be cured.