Worse Than Racism

With the rise of reactionary right wing parties in Europe, Brexit and now Donald Trump, there has been much talk about racism.  And that is certainly a term that can used to see the commonality between those movements.  But it actually goes deeper than that, and reflects something actually worse than racism.  Tribalism.

Tribalism is deeply rooted in the human psyche.  When oxytocin burst on the scene as the “cuddle hormone” researchers quickly found its oxymoronic effects.  Yes, it makes you disposed to move closer to those you love, but it also moves you push away the “other.”

Clearly if we have a neurohormone that prompts in-group versus out-group behaviors, this is a phenomenon of deep evolutionary significance.

Tribalism is worse than racism because it has no boundaries.

It certainly true that there are no “sub-species” or biological “races” of human beings.  But it is true that there are some physignomonic differences between people: skin color, eye shape, hair texture that might indicate “races.”  We know this to be literally skin deep, but it is understandable that people might see these as real differences.  But tribalism is much more insidious.

Let’s look at Brexit for a moment.  I saw that one person reported that some elderly people seemed to think that voting “Leave” would mean that the Polish people in their village would literally have to leave (sorry, can no longer find the reference, so this will have to do.)  Poles, Italians and Britons are all “white” are they not?  Perhaps, but they are not of the same tribe, so, for some folks, they have to be separated.

The same is true here in the US.  At the turn of the 20th century, Poles and Italians were considered as “non-white” or “ethnic” much like the Irish before them.  Even the infamous KKK doesn’t really believe so much in “White Supremacy.”  Historically the KKK has opposed Jews, Catholics and immigrants.  Mostly such people are clearly of European “white” heritage.  So what gives?

It is tribalism, pure and simple.  And the tribe gets to decide who is and who is not a member, which is why tribalism is actually more dangerous than racism.  Racism has its limits, tribalism does not.

For example, relating to Islam we have a sliding series of definitions.  For some Americans, all Muslims are the same and clearly not a member of “our” tribe.  But within Islam there are several (many?) tribes.  The two most famous are the Sunni and Shia and each thinks the other “not true” Muslims.  So much so that they are willing to kill people in the other tribe.

We see a similar thing here in the US.  We are used to thinking of Evangelical Christians as group who share common beliefs.  But it turns out, in surveys carried out the Christian polling company, Barna, that evangelicals don’t really believe their own stuff.

“The Bible does not refer to any person as an ‘evangelical,’” researcher George Barna noted. “This is a construct created within the religious community many years ago to differentiate a group that possesses a distinctive theological perspective. Over time, people have become sloppy in the measurement process, as evidenced by the fact that one out of every four self-proclaimed evangelicals has not even accepted Christ as their savior.”
“Evangelicals” are less a religion and more of  a tribe.  There are markers of their tribe: voting Republican, being anti-gay, being anti-abortion and so on.  But it is not even clear that they really believe those things or are just using them as markers of tribal membership.  Markers of tribal membership is actually a huge problem.
Take the white supremacist “movement.”  Think Progress profiled the “Most  Important White Supremacist of 2016,”  Matthew Heimback.  Heimback thinks that “races” should be separated because they each have their own characteristics.  “All races should be the dominant political force in their region. That is why America needs to be divided into smaller, ethnically and culturally homogeneous states … We need to stop the hate and separate.”
But this just begs the question, where does one “race” begin and end.  What is “white culture?”  Is it pickup trucks, funnel cakes, beer and guns?  Or is it nuclear physics, space exploration, Shakespeare and classical music?  I hate to say it, but a large gathering of Americans like you are likely to see this weekend does not scream “cultural superiority” in any meaningful way.  White “supremacy” is simply tribalism, and Heimback’s statement above is the purist distillation of that tribalism.Tribal US Map
It is tribalism we must fight.  Yes, at first the separations are large, say, blacks from whites.  But the fault lines then become more numerous.  Jews from Christians, Shias from Sunnis, gays from straights, French from Germans.  And so on, down to the family unit?  Even there people can be expelled from the tribe.  Happens all the time.
As the tribalists rise, all over the world it seems: UKIP in Britain, Le Pen and the Front National in France, Hofer and the Freedom Party in Austria, the danger is clear.
Hofer, which Donald Trump echoes, uses the phrase “Austria First” as his political slogan.  But this is but the first step, as we have seen before.  First is “Austria First” and then the right kind of  Austrians and then the ethnic cleanings begin.  There is no practical end to the divisions that tribalism can bring between us.
Stop Tribalism ImageIf we are to learn the lessons of the 20th century, we free thinkers have to fight the tribalists tooth and nail.  That is the real fight on our hands, between those who want to make the tribes smaller and smaller and those who want to see our common humanity and expand the tribal borders.
Tribalism was the underlying issue of Brexit.  It is an underlying issue in many U.S. elections.
Which side are you on?


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    Tribalism is worse than racism because it has no boundaries.

    True (sorta), but a helluva thing to say about a nothing-but-boundary-setting process.

    • Midwest Humanist says

      If people didn’t act on it the way they do, I would agree with you. But unfortunately, in setting these boundaries all kinds of actions are taken, including life and death ones.

  2. says

    Racism is just another form of tribalism. And racism has changed over time. The KKK probably believed in an Anglo-Saxon race distinct from Italians, eastern Europeans, and others.

    • Midwest Humanist says

      I would partially agree with you that the terms are somewhat interchangeable. I think tribalism is more descriptive because of the ever shifting boundaries. I think it is useful that even people we think of as overtly racist aren’t really, they simply don’t like people they think are different. So, a gay Nordic white guy is just as despised by a “white” supremacist as is an African-American. Really what tribalists are is “self” supremacist, which in most cases is clearly delusionary.

        • Midwest Humanist says

          I absolutely agree with you. My parents adopted a “bi-racial” child in the 70s. There was lots of interesting issues with that. But in her case her main identity seemed to be more African-American than open to interpretation.

  3. Holms says

    Say rather that tribalism is the superset to racism, as it is the general term for drawing ‘us vs. them’ lines along a given criterion.

  4. Dr Marcus Hill Ph.D. (arguing from his own authority) says

    This is one of the reasons I despise football (the sort we have in the UK where you use your feet to kick the ball, not the US Rugby-in-armour). The culture around the sport fosters a far greater degree of tribalism than any others I’m aware of – nobody has ever heard of a cricket hooligan.

  5. Almalexia says

    You say there are no races (or sub-species) of humans but there are physiognomic differences between people. I don’t mean to be offensive, but I honestly don’t understand what the difference between these concepts is. Are physiognomic differences not what defines race? So if they exist, doesn’t race? If you have time to answer this question, thank you.

    • Midwest Humanist says

      In biology, the most common definition of “species” which is actually very fluid, is a population that is both able to and is very likely to breed together. So, we are a different species from chimps in that we don’t really want to breed chimps and if we did (presumably) we would not get viable offspring.

      Dogs, even though they have huge differences in appearance (physiogonomic differences) are considered a single species because they both can (and naturally do) interbreed across pretty much all “breed” lines. That is to say that sheepdog will almost certainly try to mate with, say, a poodle. Humans are the same way, we are a single species, the so-called races can and do freely interbreed.

      And while there are some surface differences between the “races” biologists say that these differences are so tiny that they do not justify identifying “races” or sub-species. Regardless of “race” all (normal) human beings are put together pretty much exactly the same way, the same muscles in the same places that react the same to food (or lack thereof) and exercise (and lack thereof.) The same is true of our brains. Wired almost exactly the same and react the same to environmental influences.

      This is not to say that there are no differences between people, there certainly are. But “race” implies real biological differences between people who look different and there is no evidence for that.

  6. Rex says

    Great article. I follow a youtube channel hosted by an independent journalist named “Tim Poole” who has been throwing around the term “Tribalism” and wanted to find a good definition online for it and ran across this article. Whether the term “Tribalism” is just a superset or subset of “Racism” or defined on its own as a whole new category of which side I’m on its awareness needed a new name like “Tribalism”. Tribalism has been apart of all social interaction in America and I honestly don’t know what America would look like without it or how we would function without it but I definitely know it isn’t a good thing and obviously holding us back in our social evolution.

    • says

      The problem that racists have, as I stated in another one of my rambles, is that because racial boundaries don’t really exist, even they have trouble denying that they are fluid. And if “racial” boundaries are fluid then racism can’t really exist.

      For example, they might want to claim that “European” blood (or culture, or whatever) is the thing they can cling to. But what about Mexico. Certainly has deep European roots as does the US and Canada. Certainly has a “Judeo-Christian” heritage, but some how none of that counts.

      So, really it does amount to tribalism — you are in, but THEY are out. By what criteria? Who knows and really who cares, as long as we have THEM and US.

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