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When two tribes go to war

March 18, 2021

Goodness, I’m worried about writing what follows, because I’m bound to upset someone and I would prefer not to. If, like Piers Morgan, I made it my business to upset people, I would probably have more readers. But actually I don’t care too much about having more readers, so there you go. A deep breath then.

Poor Sarah Everard was clearly much loved. Just one of thousands of women of her age who walk through London on a regular basis. Her death sends a shudder through me, as the father of another woman of a similar age who also walks regularly through London. It’s a city that thanks to congestion charges, punitive parking rates and the explosion of delivery vans has become a hostile zone for cars and car ownership. If Sarah had taken an Uber, or owned a car of her own and chosen to drive it that night, she would still be with us today. Unknown to most of us, but still alive.

If, if, if. That little word might precede so many thoughts going through the minds of those who loved her.

But I have another “if” that might not slip out so easily. If Sarah had been a black woman, murdered by some random creep, would her story have been across the front pages of all the newspapers? Only after she had been found dead, I suspect, and only for twenty-four hours. After that, she would have become a statistic.

Would that be evidence that we’re a racist society, or merely that we have a racist media? If you believe the Black Lives Matter narrative, it’s the former. If you listen to Meghan, it might be the latter.

But wait. Did we grieve so much for Amelie Delagrange, one of Levi Bellfield’s victims, who was French? What of Nahid Almanea, a thirty-one-year-old Saudi woman who was stabbed to death in Essex? Neither was black, but where were the floral tributes and vigils after their deaths?

It’s no more tenable to deny that we have racists among us, and that many institutions are tinged by racism – be it conscious or unconscious – than to claim that our climate isn’t warming up. But here’s a question. Would the difference between media coverage of murders of black people and the killing of a young white woman lie in the perception that Sarah, from the perspective of white consumers of the media, was one of “our tribe”? And that what motivates much of the racism in our society can actually be described as tribalism?

Is there a difference between racism and tribalism? Of course. You could argue that most racism is tribal, but not necessarily that all tribalism is racist. Hence, Hindu extremists in India attacking Muslims and Sikhs would probably deny that they’re racist. Likewise Hutus who massacred Tutsis in Rwanda. These acts of violence don’t seem to be based on ethnic origin or skin colour. You could also argue that political factions, religious sectarianism, and even football fanbases are tribal. And when tribal sentiments lead to violence, are they more or less worthy of condemnation than racist sentiments?

I don’t wish to play down the evil of racism, but I think we should remember that it’s a part of a much bigger problem. Which is that if we’re encouraged to do so, we, whoever we are, are naturally inclined to discriminate against people who don’t look like us, don’t speak like us, don’t behave like us, don’t believe in the same god, don’t listen to the same music, don’t admire the same leaders and don’t follow the same football teams. And when that discrimination becomes active, you have the basis for violence, sometimes deadly. What’s more, when a tribe is threatened, be it physically, economically, environmentally or mentally, it’s more likely to turn in on itself and attack other tribes as a form of defence.

The triggers for racism, on the surface, are obvious. The most common perception is that it’s about differences in physical characteristics, most notably skin colour. Tribalism is messier and more insidious. Two tribes might go to war without there being any visible difference between them. Protestants in Northern Ireland don’t dress differently from Catholics. In the UK, in which tolerance has been raised over the past century to a national virtue, not so long ago Jews were not admitted to certain golf clubs and landlords were allowed to put signs outside their properties specifying “no Irish”. David Baddiel, in his book Jews Don’t Count, contends that anti-Semitic sentiment is racist, but often discounted because it doesn’t conform to popular perceptions of what racism means. But you can just as easily argue that it’s tribal. So is an attitude easier to denounce when it’s racist? And should we not equally be denouncing the malign effects of tribalism?

And what of violence towards women? Is that tribal too? Yes, inasmuch as many tribes have members whose attitudes towards women derive from common values, sometimes shared even among female members. Such values can include Belief in the subordinate role of women, in the distinction between family and non-family, and between women as mothers and sisters as opposed to sex objects.

It seems to me that you can criminalise and drive racist behaviour under cover, but unless you also address the latent tribalism within societies, you will not stamp it out. It will simply lie in waiting for an opportunity to express itself without penalty.

And how do you mitigate tribalism? Much more complicated, as Americans are discovering. It’s perhaps significant that Joe Biden’s American Recovery Plan has met with widespread support beyond partisan boundaries, even though not a single Republican voted for the Stimulus Bill in Congress.

The easy answer is that you can mitigate the effects of tribalism but you can’t eradicate the phenomenon itself. It’s built into the human condition, whether it shows itself as rival groups of hunter gatherers competing for the same prey or as Sunni and Shia competing for dominance in Iraq.

But here’s the thing about tribes. They’re fluid. They overlap. They evolve. Sometimes people pay allegiance to more than one tribe at the same time. How otherwise has the United States (despite Trump’s best efforts) absorbed whole communities of Arab Muslims who declare themselves to be staunchly American? And how come so many migrants who in the 50’s and 60’s arrived in Britain from the Asian subcontinent consider themselves to be more British than those of us who were born here?

Tribalism also comes in different strengths, depending on the bonds that link people together. There’s a difference between national separatist sentiment and supporters of one football club who chant insults at the Jewish supporters of another.

It seems to me that the lubricants that allow different tribes to rub along together are firstly values – behavioural norms that people hold dear – and secondly what we usually refer to as culture, which as I define as values translated into actual behaviour: how we do things around here. Culture is what drives members of a tribe to regulate the actions of fellow members, through praise, disapproval, reward and punishment. Culture in action is when a builder up a scaffold in a busy street catcalls a woman walking below, and his colleagues tell him to shut the hell up.

Culture does evolve, and so do tribes. Read How Was It For You, Virginia Nicholson’s social history of the 1960s from a woman’s perspective. It tracks the evolution of women in society during that period: from being patronised, protected, oppressed and marginalised to sexual liberation (of a sort); from gaining meaningful footholds in higher education and public life to the formation of influential Women’s Liberation movements at the end of the decade. These changes didn’t happen of their own accord. They were helped along by legislation that banned forms of sexual discrimination, which themselves were the result of a groundswell of discontent caused by changing values.

So it was with racism. In Britain, Boris Johnson’s government, for all its many failings, is the most racially diverse in history. But yet again, tribalism complicates the picture. Two of his cabinet ministers, Rishi Sunak and Kwesi Kwarteng, are products of elite private schools (Winchester and Eton respectively). Is their success the result of a diversity policy or because they happen to be talented members of the dominant political tribe? Ironically, one of his Cabinet Ministers, Priti Patel, is among the most enthusiastic promoters of laws that curb further immigration, despite having been a personal beneficiary of more tolerant immigration policies in previous decades.

That said, racial discrimination laws have made it impossible for TV comedies mocking bigotry, such as Till Death Us Do Part, to be shown on TV, let alone commissioned. The same laws have made overt acts of racism, such as the landlord’s sign which indicated that, in addition to Irish tenants, no blacks would be welcome, unthinkable.

Yet laws can dictate what the hand does, but not what the heart feels. Values and culture do that. Look also at Ireland, where people will tell you today that the nation was suffocated until recent decades by the dominant role of the Catholic hierarchy. Not so much today, after the Church was discredited for its attitude towards child abuse by the clergy, its treatment of unmarried mothers and its overbearing dominance of social policy on issues such as divorce and abortion.

Can we hope that Britain, with its multiplicity of tribes, including those that are tinged with racism, will similarly evolve? Will racism largely dissolve as barriers between tribes become eased by common understanding and aspirations? Not so easily, I fear.

We are a nation under stress. Battered socially and economically by the pandemic. Divided and potentially diminished by Brexit. The opportunity to escape from poverty stunted by new economic models built around the gig economy. Encouraged by the social media to be querulous and bitter. We fear for the future. Under such circumstances tribes look inward, and seek to protect their own interests at the expense of others.

Yet for all the evidence to the contrary, I see reasons for optimism. In the wake of the pandemic, we have cause to reflect on what sort of society we want to become. We’ve struggled against a virus that, all things being equal, doesn’t distinguish between tribe or race. But all things aren’t equal, and it does prey disproportionately on the poor, the unhealthy and the elderly. This in turn has exposed more starkly the vulnerability of marginalised communities. We’ve seen how much we rely for our health on doctors and nurses from Croatia, Zimbabwe, Iraq and Bangladesh. We’ve seen Sikhs organising delivery of free food to local communities, regardless of race or tribe. We agree that black lives matter. We’re horrified at the murder of Sarah Everard; the groundswell of protest at the treatment of women on our streets may well lead to legislation that criminalises casual abuse. We recognise the damage that can be caused by online bullying, and that current legislation doesn’t do enough to deter anonymous trolls. And we recognise that laws are not enough – that we need to change our way of thinking.

But who are the we I’m referring to above? By we, do I really mean me? Or am I speaking for one tribe: affluent, white, male, middle-aged people who are comfortably insulated from more arduous realities? Not really. Even among that tribe there is no unanimity.

One sign of a culture changing is when the meaning of expressions change. Gay, cancel, progressive, liberal, have all evolved. Sometimes new expressions come to life. One such was genocide, which was coined at Nuremberg to describe the actions of Nazi leaders before and during World War 2. If you asked someone in Britain a hundred years ago what a tribe was, they might tell you that Caesar conquered the tribes of Gaul, or that Africa was continent populated by tribes. Suggest that tribes exist in their country and they would question your sanity.

Today, perhaps it’s time to think of tribalism in a different way. To recognise that discrimination, expressions of hatred and acts of violence between large groups of people on grounds of identity are as unacceptable as those taking place against women and the traditional victims of racism. If the law needs to be tweaked to make that distinction, so be it.

We will never eliminate hatred between individuals or groups. But perhaps if we create an expression that bundles racism with a host of other behaviours that threaten the cohesiveness of our society, we will popularise the idea that violence against women, against gay people and against ethnic minorities are part of the same phenomenon.

Call it tribalism, groupthink, intercommunity hatred or whatever other slick phrase we can come up with, the consciousness that we need to raise is that racism, misogyny and homophobia are not the only social problems that we need to address if we want the post-COVID era to be one of an uplifting sea change rather than an accelerated decline.

  1. I’m just about to read this latest work of your’s Steve and I’ve clicked the “like” thingie already.

    That’s because I have that smashing feeling-of-knowing — that confidence and certainty — that before I read it even I just know it’s going to be good, and give me a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction — and admiration too!

    Your writing always does this for me.

    Thank you.


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