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We Are Multi-Tribal

Network of connected people, with lines and circles
image credit: iStock / metamorworks

I’ve been reading a lot lately about human tribes: Sebastian Junger’s excellent book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, and The Dawn of Everything, by Graeber and Wengrow, to name a couple. And all of these works make good points about our basic need to be part of a small, supportive community.

But here’s one observation that seems to me to be getting too little consideration, among all this interest in early human tribes:

We modern humans are multi-tribal.

That is, we tend to belong to, not one, but to many tribes.

As examples, here are some of the tribes to which I belong:

  • My immediate family;
  • My extended family;
  • The neighbors on my block;
  • My local neighborhood organization;
  • Fellow alumni of the University of Michigan;
  • Fellow alumni from Big Ten schools in the Midwest;
  • Fellow liberal arts majors;
  • Fellow programmers;
  • Fellow fans of computing devices made by Apple;
  • Fellow owners of big dogs;
  • Citizens of Seattle, the city where I have lived for the past sixteen years;
  • Citizens of the state of Washington;
  • Citizens of the US;
  • Fellow humans.

And, although these don’t apply to me currently, many would add:

  • Their church;
  • Their coworkers.

Now Junger points out that:

The earliest and most basic definition of community – of tribe – would be the group of people that you would both help feed and help defend.

Can this definition be applied to the tribes I’ve listed above?

Well, yes, although the types and degrees of food and defense I would expect from each would vary, based on the circumstances. So I would count all of these as legitimate tribes.

So why does our modern, multi-tribal nature matter?

It strikes me that there are a few important implications here.

First, when we compare our modern human society to early human tribes, there is a temptation to conclude that we have strayed from our basic natures, and that the answer to our societal problems requires us to somehow return to this early mono-tribal state, or at least to certain aspects of it.

This seems to me to be a mistaken impulse. There are certainly valuable lessons we can learn from studying early human societies, but if we fail to realize that, to be useful, such lessons must be adapted to our modern multi-tribal condition, then these learnings are apt to lead us down the garden path – perhaps even down the garden-of-Eden path, on which we construct wishful fantasies about some ideal early human state.

Mono-tribal societies of the past were certainly simpler, even as varied as they were, and simplicity is always appealing. And yes, modern human society is anything but simple and, in fact, tremendously complex and often confusing and sometimes dysfunctional and almost always, it seems, suboptimal. But, as modern humans, that’s where we’re at. We need to apply ourselves to improving the tribes to which we belong, and the ways they operate and interact. It’s not an easy task, but it’s part and parcel of being a human in the 21st century. And trying to return to some sort of mono-tribal society is not likely to help get us where we need to go.

Which leads me to the second important implication.

One of the good things about a multi-tribal society is that our tribes help us to form crosscutting alliances, to borrow a phrase from Levitsky and Ziblatt. That means that, when I meet a stranger, even though we may not share membership in all of our tribes, we may well share membership in some.

I’m reminded of an encounter with a stranger in our neighborhood a few years ago. I was wearing the Michigan maize and blue, and he was wearing the Ohio State scarlet and gray. But I had a large Golden Retriever and he had another large dog of some kind. So as he and his canine companion approached, he tried to warn me that his dog ate Wolverines for breakfast, or something like that. But then his dog walked up and licked my hand, rather undercutting his threat. So we both ended up laughing together and moving on in our respective days.

Now anyone who knows even a little about the history of conflict between the University of Michigan and The Ohio State University would realize that, based on those tribal associations, we should have been mortal enemies. But hey, we were both residents of Seattle, we both owned large, sociable dogs, and we had both gone to Big Ten schools in the Midwest. So we focused on those tribal associations, had a friendly exchange, and then moved on.

Now you may think this conclusion, and this story, to be no big deal: sure, happens all the time.

But that’s not what happens in mono-tribal societies.

In mono-tribal societies, warring tribes will often fight to the death, with the winners slaughtering and raping the losers.

So yes, in multi-tribal societies, tribes still compete with one another, and there are sometimes winners and losers, but the winning tribes don’t exterminate the members of the losing tribe.

And this, I can’t help but feel, is a good thing.

Which leads me to my third important implication.

Many of our current political leaders, media outlets, and social media platforms keep trying to pull us back into mono-tribal structures.

It’s a bit as if we were seniors on the Michigan football team and every morning our coaches were trying to work us into a fighting frenzy before we went out onto the field to face the team from Ohio State.

Which works when you you are college football players and you have one epic battle per year.

But in the current state of our society, it’s as if our news outlets, our social media and our political leaders were all trying to get us to wake up each morning frothing at the mouth for an epic battle against The Other to be fought on that very day.

This is great for those making money off of all this: we are in a constant state of engagement, as they say.

But it’s not so good for society at large.

Because the reality is that, in order to live together productively and fruitfully in this day and age, we need all these different sorts of tribes in which we participate, we need to be able to shift smoothly from one to the other, and we need them to interact peacefully and productively in a whole host of different ways.

Sure, competition is good, and democracies host competitions to see who receives the most votes, and capitalism hosts competitions to see who can sell the most products. But once we decide that membership in one particular tribe – be it Republicans, Democrats, Christians, Muslims, whites, whatever – overshadows all other affiliations, and we deny the importance of those other tribal memberships that might keep us connected, then we are only a few short steps from believing that members of the opposing tribe do not deserve the same rights and freedoms that we enjoy… may not, in fact, even deserve to live.

And then we have terrorists taking down the Twin Towers.

And then we have a crowd attacking our nation’s capital, killing and injuring those charged to defend it, threatening to do the same to the “traitors” who are not members of their tribe.

And then we have the Russian assault on Ukraine, bombing apartment buildings, hospitals and schools and killing civilians in order to establish the dominance of Russians over Ukrainians.

So don’t believe those trying to tell you that reverting to a mono-tribal society is the only answer to the social ills of today. Sure, it’s an appealing sales pitch, but it’s a dead end.

We modern humans have become multi-tribal because this is the best and in fact only was to manage our complex affairs in a society with advanced and still advancing technology.

So don’t be afraid to find crosscutting alliances with those who might at first seem to belong to another tribe.

We are all better off when we find ways to connect and learn from each other, ways to work together, rather than reasons to annihilate one other.

August 1, 2022