A Tribe as Big as the World - by Ray Waddle

Ray Waddle

It’s a word that bares its teeth and refuses to negotiate. It is heard every day now to describe the smoldering social world: tribalism.

Tribalism is regarded as a window on the human heart and a danger to democracy. Seen this way, everyone hungrily adheres to a like-minded group. Our tribal instinct makes snap judgments about others’ personal style, music, slang, and religion. It is willing to lash out and twist facts if we feel our team, and whatever is sacred to us, is threatened. It is addicted to conflict. It doubles down rather than listens up. It is aggrieved and unappeasable. It stirs grim predictions that society is splintering into subgroups fired up by online fabrications and hardened by hatred of compromise.

Global and Local

This description is the new orthodoxy. Can it be challenged? Could tribal identity be stretched into some larger group? What if tribal loyalty could be extended even to the whole planet, so that everyone is in the tribe? Psychologist Daniel Shapiro thinks it’s not so far-fetched.

“In fact, there is no inherent tension in having every person on our planet identify as a citizen of the world, because the category of inclusion is so broad,” he writes.1 “The core principle of identity formation remains the same: We imbue emotional significance to our membership in the group and commit loyalty to that entity.”

Human survival likely depends on forging a larger tribe of citizens who care about creative problem-solving, mutual learning, and meeting grave global problems such as climate change and nuclear terrorism. The aim, Shapiro argues, is to expand tribal identity beyond the local one – without threatening the local.

“We can emotionally attach to a global identity with as much fervor as to a national one,” he writes. “Mitigating such tension requires that our systems of global cooperation build a strong institutional sense of camaraderie while simultaneously ensuring that members feel sufficiently free to determine fundamental aspects of their provincial identity.”

This kind of hopeful analysis is still uncommon. New warnings keep surfacing – the worry that our institutions are fragile against modern misinformation, and we are descending deeper into political shrillness and spiritual corruption.

Ominous New Trend: Disgust

Writing on the eve of the 2016 election, Yale social psychologist Jonathan Haidt observed that angry disagreement had mutated into something more alarming: disgust.

“The disgust expressed by both sides in this election is particularly worrisome because disgust dehumanizes its targets,” Haidt and co-writer Ravi Iyer argued.2 “That is why it is usually fostered by the perpetrators of genocide – disgust makes it easier for ordinary citizens to kill their neighbors.”

But Haidt and Iyer say civic norms are still within reach. “Is it possible for Americans to forgive, accept, and carry on working and living together? We think that it is. After all, civility doesn’t require consensus or the suspension of criticism. It is simply the ability to disagree productively with others while respecting their sincerity and decency.”

In her new book about political tribalism, Yale Law professor Amy Chua suggests the American model is resilient despite some dire ethnocentric trends. Historically, tribalism doesn’t get to have the last word in this immigrant land of dreams of dignity and opportunity.

“America was able to elect Barack Obama as president because this country is a super-group, a group in which membership is open to individuals of any background but that at the same time binds its members together with a strong, overarching group-transcending collective identity,” she writes.3

“Historically, there have been super-group empires – Rome, for example, and, arguably, Great Britain. In theory, there have been super-group ideological movements (communism, for example), and super-group religions (Christianity, for example), although of course ideological movements and religions are not open to individuals with the wrong beliefs. But for a country to be a super-group is extremely rare.”

Memory and Mandate

Behind appeals to transcend the fevers of tribalism is the conviction that transformation is possible because human-to-human encounters still count.

In Christian terms, the idea that the image of God dwells in all people retains its power. It stirs the imaginations of millions. It commits them to honor the souls and destinies of others. Its theological memory and mandate go deep. Still, it has not halted trends that are intensifying divisions, trends including winner-take-all economics and widespread gullibility around false rumors and misrepresentations. Christian ideas have lost their share of the discussion. One way the faith can be a real presence in society is to act as a counterbalance to in-group deliriums. The awe and rebuke of the Gospels, the counsel of restraint in Proverbs, the beauty of the Trinity all point to a horizon, an identity, beyond the self-canceling noise of the tribe.

The struggle of life in a 21st-century republic rages on, the ethical endeavor to find the right combination of pride, self-criticism, and compassion. In late November 2016, the nation’s most prominent Christian (and its commander in chief) said this about citizenship and character:

“Societies and cultures are really complicated,” said President Obama after leaving office. “ … These are living organisms, and it’s messy. And your job as a citizen and as a decent human being is to constantly affirm and lift up and fight for treating people with kindness and respect and understanding. And you should anticipate that at any given moment there’s going to be flare-ups of bigotry that you may have to confront, or may be inside you and you have to vanquish.”4


  1. Daniel Shapiro, “Can We Overcome Our Tribalistic Nature?”, Psychology Today, March 7, 2017. See psychologytoday.com.
  2. Jonathan Haidt and Ravi Iyer, “How to Get Beyond Our Tribal Politics,” The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 5, 2016.
  3. Amy Chua, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations (Penguin, 2018), p. 22.
  4. David Remnick, “Obama Reckons with a Trump Presidency,” New Yorker, Nov. 28, 2016. See newyorker.com.