We are All Tribalists

I am back in the dentist’s chair for a routine cleaning after a pandemic-induced hiatus. My usual hygienist is gone, and in her place is a self-described “temp,” a white woman who appears to be in her early thirties.

Making small talk before I am deprived of speech, she mentions she had a hard time finding the office and I mention that I live nearby, in downtown Baltimore. The hygienist shudders.

“So dangerous!” she says. “All those murders.”

“Actually, it’s very safe,” I reply. “I go out all the time.”

“Oh, yeah? What about the guy who was pushed into the harbor?”

I’d never heard about a guy pushed into the harbor — and I live a few yards from the water. I’m sure she made it up. Our exchange abruptly ends when I open my mouth so she can wield a very sharp scraper against my teeth.

I lie helplessly in the chair, thinking about how much I dislike — no, actively despise — this misinformed suburbanite after a two-minute conversation. The hands inside my mouth that very moment are perhaps the same hands that had cast a ballot for Donald Trump and would do so again.

This person hovering two inches away from my own face likely believes that the Black Lives Matter movement isn’t real.

I cannot stop seething. And assuming.

But look, am I really ready to write off my dental hygienist as a bad person?

And if I do, doesn’t that make me a hypocrite?

My uncharitable thoughts about the hygienist place me on a continuum that includes the armed self-styled militia men who allegedly planned to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. We’re all thinking: I’m right, you’re wrong, and your position is offensive to all that is good and true.

As a judge in Baltimore said recently at a bail hearing for a man accused of firing his shotgun at a Trump sign, “How did we get to this point?”

The answer is, we’ve always been here. We never left. We may never leave.

Call it whatever you want: demonizing, stereotyping, or “othering.” It’s tribal behavior. We’re biologically hard-wired for it. The human mind was “forged by the crucible of coalitional conflict” over many thousands of years, observes social psychologist Cory J. Clark, a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Over time, “selective pressures have consistently sculpted human minds to be ‘tribal,’” Clark notes. She goes further, claiming that “tribal bias is a natural and nearly ineradicable feature of human cognition, and…no group — not even one’s own — is immune.”

An avalanche of research suggests we do not select our social networks and “in” groups — the people we call friends and choose to associate with — entirely by choice. Rather, “many social behaviors have foundations in our genome,” reports Nicholas Seltzer, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Reno.

We don’t seem able to function any other way: Tribes are us.

“‘We’ cannot belong to any group unless ‘they’ (other people) do not belong to ‘our group,” says the Peruvian-Austrian applied sociologist Zuleyka Zevallos (italics hers).

George Orwell called it nationalism, which I take to mean tribalism on a political stage.

In Orwell’s Notes on Nationalism, written in the ominous year of 1945, he defines this as “the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’.”

Orwell sees the stubborn partisan — just this side of a bully — in all of us. “[H]aving picked his side, he persuades himself…to stick to his belief even when the facts are overwhelmingly against him.”

He adds a damning thought, still playing out in real time today. “Nationalism is power hunger tempered by self-deception.”

Power hunger — such a striking notion — is an ugly consequence of biological tribalism. It signals that we will do literally anything to retain our perceived grip on superiority, from lobbing silent insults at a dental hygienist to launching weapons of mass destruction.

Philosopher Hannah Arendt, forced to flee the Nazis as a young woman, told us where power hunger leads: to “the withering away of everything between us.” (Italics hers.)

What should I do? Invite the dental hygienist out for a drink?

Perhaps, as the writer George Packer suggests in The New Yorker, I should “try to keep two thoughts in my head at the same time,” aware that “the other tribe needs to be crushed, and I have to talk and listen to them.”

Or as Toni Morrison advises, “We must do all we can to imagine the Other before we presume to solve the problems work and life demand of us.”

Well, I don’t know if I’m morally equipped to do that work. In truth, I don’t want to add to my “in” group someone like my hygienist who dismisses my majority-Black city as a dangerous, lawless wasteland.

I am tribal to the core — but I hate that. My tribal instincts make my world smaller, not larger.

I crave neutral territory, a place from which I might begin negotiating with the Other. Maybe from the balcony that novelist Natalie Bakopoulos envisions as a liminal space between the public and the private.

“I periodically move out to the balcony to think,” she writes, “both part of the world and outside it, observer and participant, as if this in-between space will help translate ideas into language.”

Perhaps from my balcony, I can call out to my dental hygienist on her balcony. And we can begin by saying to one another what playwright Heidi Schrek imagines saying to her would-be murderer in a bold attempt to forge a connection: “Just like you, I am a human being.”

After all, I have to start — we all have to start — somewhere.

Hannah Busing for Unsplash



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Amy L. Bernstein

Amy L. Bernstein


I write stories that let you feel and make you think. Fiction, essays, poems. Whatever the moment — or zeitgeist — requires. More at https://amywrites.live.