Tag Archives: tribalism

America’s history of tribalism

A Tiny Revolution has a collection of quotes that demonstrate the way white Americans have dehumanised others to justify imperialism, conquest, and slavery.

The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner.

[T]he Iraqis don’t on the whole say “darn it, you shouldn’t have blown up all of our houses.” They sort of accept that.

[Sheikhs]… do not seem to resent… that women and children are accidentally killed by bombs.

Marine major Julian Smith testified that the “racial psychology” of the “poorer class of Nicaraguans” made them “densely ignorant… A state of war to them is a normal condition.”

Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them.

The third quote there was actually from a British commander. Any cursory glance at history will tell you that my country is also among the experts at “othering” foreigners to the point of redefining them as entirely separate species.

And that last one? Thomas Jefferson, talking about black slaves.

Holy crap people are good at hating other people.

And we’re not over it yet. Not by a long shot.

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Slaughter in Afghanistan

I’ve written a very brief post over at my main blog, concerning the recent mass killing one particular recent mass killing by a US solider in Afghanistan.

It’s worth noting just how much this incident brought out the repugnantly tribalistic side of many supporters of the military. When one of our side goes off-message and slaughters innocents while they sleep, we expect it to be taken for granted that this was one rogue, isolated individual, unrepresentative of us as a whole, and it’d be completely unfair to judge the rest of us based on this one guy. Obviously we’re still the good guys and we’re doing what’s best. The idea that we should act even for a moment as if our position as moral defenders of freedom and goodness weren’t totally assured is ridiculous.

But whenever one of them attacks us, well, that’s entirely typical behaviour, it’s just what they do, it’s what we have to expect from them.

A post at Practical Doubt in particular exhibits some truly staggering examples of othering from commenters on the Fox News website. The first exemplifies the general attitude taken to foreign victims of US military action:

How “innocent” were they really? Any proof ? ? ?

If someone were to question the “innocence” of the 9/11 victims, and ask for proof that they didn’t deserve to get blown up before offering them any sympathy, I wonder if this person would take a similar position.

There are no “others” here. There are lots of people with lots of ideas and lots of feelings and lots of ways of dealing with their ideas and their feelings. Some people died, and that’s horrible. Someone killed them, and that’s tragic. It was just one event which doesn’t stand out much in an ongoing conflict, and that’s…

I don’t even know.

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The Difference Between Us And Them

This post by Popehat could almost serve as a manifesto for this blog. It’s framed in the context of American politics, but summarises many major points of self-serving tribalism and othering which can be seen in every kind of discussion imaginable.

Sample quote:

They are constantly saying vile, racist and sexist, and threatening things about Us. That’s unacceptable. To make things worse, because They don’t understand humor, satire, parody, or context, and because They are willing to misconstrue things for political profit, They are constantly and unreasonably whining about Us of saying allegedly vile, racist, sexist, and threatening things about them.

What he’s not bluntly and dully spelling out, of course, is that there really is no “Us” and “Them”. There are no “Others”. But breaking that habit of thought – the habit by which we tend to make excuses for ourselves and cast our own group in a favourable light, while condemning the “enemy” at every opportunity and granting them no such leniency – is difficult and unnatural, and requires a good deal more reflection, study, and humility than many of us are capable of or inclined towards.

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Othering 101: What Is “Othering”?

By “othering”, we mean any action by which an individual or group becomes mentally classified in somebody’s mind as “not one of us”. Rather than always remembering that every person is a complex bundle of emotions, ideas, motivations, reflexes, priorities, and many other subtle aspects, it’s sometimes easier to dismiss them as being in some way less human, and less worthy of respect and dignity, than we are.

This psychological tactic may have had its uses in our tribal past. Group cohesion was crucially important in the early days of human civilisation, and required strong demarcation between our allies and our enemies. To thrive, we needed to be part of a close-knit tribe who’d look out for us, in exchange for knowing that we’d help to look out for them in kind. People in your tribe, who live in the same community as you, are more likely to be closely related to you and consequently share your genes.

As a result, there’s a powerful evolutionary drive to identify in some way with a tribe of people who are “like you”, and to feel a stronger connection and allegiance to them than to anyone else. Today, this tribe might not be a local and insular community you grew up with, but can be, for instance, fellow supporters of a sports team or political party.

It’s probably not quite as simple as the just-so story we’re describing here. But there’s no doubt that grouping people into certain stereotyped classes, who we then treat differently based on the classes we’ve sorted them into, is a deeply rooted aspect of human nature. Intergroup bias is a well established psychological trait.

“If you’re not with us, you’re against us” is a simple heuristic people often use to decide whether someone is part of their tribe or not. If you are, then you can be expected to toe the line in certain ways if you don’t want to be ejected; if you’re not, you can be dismissed and hated as an “other”, the enemy.

A number of psychological experiments, such as the Asch Conformity Experiment, demonstrate the extent to which we feel compelled to make sure we fit in, as part of the tribe, in some situations.

Other research into, for instance, the Benjamin Franklin effect, shows that we have a startling tendency to come to hate people who we treat badly. If we’re experiencing guilt about our treatment of some person, or group, or class, and having trouble reconciling that guilt with our notion of ourselves as good people, our brains are extremely adept at resolving the situation by othering the people we feel that we’ve wronged. If we dehumanise someone, and distance our empathy with them, then we won’t have to feel bad about the shabby way we’ve treated them.

Political partisanship is a common area for othering to be found, and will likely be a prominent focus on this site. Any American readers will surely have noticed a tendency in many of their countryfolk to speak of “Democrats” or “Republicans” with derision, imagining this “other” to be a homogeneous group. The desire to associate with one party or the other is so strong that people will even support the other party’s policies, when they believe they’re identifying with their own group. To some extent, one’s political allegiances seem to have more to do with the label somebody has adopted than their actual opinions. (This has also been noted by Howard Stern, although he seemed to miss the point that this is something we’re all capable of, not just Obama supporters in Harlem.)

Furthermore, experiments such as the Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes exercise demonstrate just how readily we can be swept up in a group identity, learning to embrace only those of our tribe and reject the “others”, even when the difference is entirely arbitrary and meaningless.

The concept behind this site, then, is that a) humans have an undeniable and insidious inclination to engage in “othering” thought patterns for the purpose of self-preservation, and b) learning to avoid and counteract these thought patterns is integral to greatly reducing the world’s hatred and suffering. Our intent is to raise people’s consciousness about othering behaviour, to make them more alert to these thought patterns, and to encourage alternative ways of addressing the problems that we often seek to avoid by dehumanising any one group.

This site is still in the early stages of its development, and is not created or maintained by any experts in psychology, or anything else for that matter. We will be as science-based as possible, but if you want to read some more about the relevant psychological subjects by browsing around on Wikipedia for a while, this might be a good place to start.

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