Durand and Wallace drew the map of modern Asia. They know the place. And Gibson: a liberally-educated, middle-aged frog, climbing out of her tropical well.

In this episode of the Line, they discuss the issue on everyone’s minds these days: tribalism. Our springboard for today’s topic was a conference on culture and constructive conflict held at the London School of Economics in November.

Is tribalism hard-wired into our genes? Are we ever going to be able to transcend it? And if so, how? Consuming media a bit more intelligently, for a start.

Get your subaltern take on the issues of the day with The Line, while you do your ironing or whatever.



Here’s an excerpt:

DurandThere’s an influential school of thought that holds that the more diverse an ecosystem, the more resilient it is. Which is to say, the more able it is to deal with external stressors.

The amount of stress an ecosystem can absorb before it is driven to collapse is a result of its various interconnections and their relative diversity of responses (notice that I don’t just say diversity here—it’s important that you act different, not just that you look different).

Think of an ecosystem like a net, in which each knot is connected to others by several strands. A complex ecosystem can resist collapse better than a simple unbranched circle of threads.

A lack of rigidity at the level of individual components (i.e. specific species within the ecosystem) also helps the ecosystem as a whole become more resilient. Certain ecosystem properties, such as changes in nutrient flow or the number of species, become more resilient when there are changes in species composition.

So what’s the upshot? What’s good for the tribe may not be good for the ecosystem.

So, those who long for the return of the good old days may be out of luck. If our current system is to survive, there may have to be changes at the individual species level—some tribes will thrive more than others.

Wallace: I want to explore the human psychology perspective a bit here.

Human children left to their own devices, without much encouragement, will naturally form cliques & groups. In a boarding school environment, where large numbers of children are living together with little one-on-one adult attention, I think it’s like a laboratory of human social behaviour. And I guess even just day schools for that matter.  

Think of all the middle or high school cliques (yeeesh!). They start coagulating into little units. Some groups are larger than others. I think the initial motivation is for comfort and security because you don’t have the safety blanket of your parents and family around.

 And if we think of why early humans formed small tribes in the good old days of living in Africa, we can easily see the benefits of being part of a group. Safety and security, right?  You can help each other and pool resources. Once the group is established then the ostracizing of outsiders begins. It could be just ignoring non-group members or actively bullying them. Within the group there seems to always be one or two alphas that all the others follow.

And this leads me to another aspect of human psychology, that is the drive for superiority and domination.  

Because beyond competition for resources merely to survive–as you astutely pointed out, Gibson, even very poor people can display altruism to outsiders–we are still tribal.  So, resources are not the only things we humans fight over.

Why is it not enough to have just enough?  

If we consider human history in many parts of the world–the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Khmer, Chinese etc.–even when these civilizations were at their most powerful, and had access to more resources than they needed, they were still picking fights with “the others.” 

Sure, sometimes it’s “the others” who initiate the fight to regain their share. But sometimes these dominant groups oppress “the others” merely to assert and reaffirm their superiority and dominance.

What is it about human nature that needs to feel that “my group is better than all the others? We are number one. We are the best. Our land is the most beautiful. Our military is the most powerful. Our arts, culture, language, and scientific achievements are unmatched.” It’s not enough that we appreciate and take pride in our group in a vacuum, we have to be better than all the others.  

Or, one could possibly argue, part of the drive for dominance is to ensure that no other group tries to oppress our group. So, it’s a preemptive thing perhaps? If we don’t dominate others then some other group surely will try to dominate us. It’s a dominate or be dominated kinda world.

GibsonI want to have a look at the media’s role in this. How does the media contribute to the echo chambers–tribes–we live in? What can we do about it?

I’m not thinking of the marketing-speak Seth Godin type of tribe (where we all love avocado toast or grow our Movember beards), although the thrust is essentially the same, since we all consume media as a product. There’s a quote from him:

“Consumers use social media to filter, resist and reject irrelevant or uninteresting messages, so the tribal consumer is quite happy, amusing himself in his own digital sandpit without having to give attention to advertisements in order to get media the way we used to.”

From hipsters to the Tea Party to certain Bollywood films (Karan Johar/Bobby Deol in full-on jingoistic mode, for example), we want to hear things that conform to our world-view, and the media wants to feed us things that do so.

We are saturated by the media. From the moment we get up (the phone) to the commute (free papers or tabloid headlines) to the constant drip-drip of news throughout the working day, to our leisure time (women’s magazines making us want to buy the newest look or make-up).

I think the first step to media literacy is to recognise that all media is about selling. Whether it’s writing to sell an idea/lifestyle, or writing a certain length to fit the adverts on the (newspaper) page, journalism in most cases is governed by revenue streams. Even public service broadcasting has to be in the “service” of the “public” as defined by “stakeholders.”

Nothing has changed online. Online journalism is not “the free press,” even if you can read the articles for free. Journalists need to be paid, and since they belong to an offline organisation, the same revenue models apply. Same with bloggers–democratising the online space hasn’t liberated us from the art vs commerce conundrum.

There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but we have to recognise that we need a healthy dose of skepticism everytime we are sold an idea–that old adage–“Don’t believe everything you read in the papers.”