Tribalism vs Citizenship: Hostility or Cooperation

I have been told that there are two kinds of people in the world. Those who think there are only two kinds of people in the world, and those who don’t. Recently, I stumbled upon two other kinds of people.

I discovered these types while sitting on my favorite bench. A well-dressed man sat down next to me. “I know who you are,” he said. “You’re that columnist who dribbles on about your world with a star-struck pen in your hand. You must think your world is pretty special.”

Before I could reply, he said, “I’m the oldest student of the misadventures that occur during human endeavor in society. Give me $5 and I’ll tell what I think is wrong about that.” An upscale panhandler, I thought. Actually all, or almost all panhandlers in this part of my world are upscale. So I gave him the money, looking forward to a worthwhile mini-education.

“Here’s what’s wrong,” he said. “Tribalism vs Citizenship.”

“What’s that all about?” I asked.

Tribalism,” he responded, “reinforces the fear and anger that many people have when their private space in society is invaded. Tribalism leads to actions that produce tribal solidarity to counter perceived outside assaults.”

He continued: “An alternative for more productive public endeavor in our society is ‘citizenship,’ where people advance a common vision for societal good by building inclusive coalitions around a broad agenda using persuasion, not polarization.

“The trouble with tribalism,” he said, “is that it confronts the hostile world with hostility that mirrors its antagonists and resists evaluating its own conduct and methods. Citizenship resists such tempting hostility and looks for the common ground that can lead to consensual coexistence. Consensus  does not mean unanimous agreement; rather it means that people on all sides and opinions are given a chance to persuade the others with logic and careful, creative thinking until all are satisfied that the they have been heard and respected.”

This makes a lot of sense to me, I thought. The tribe sees an enemy and circles the wagons. Citizens see problems and work for mutually agreeable creative solutions. The tribe’s first impulse is to get angry and repel, the citizen’s first impulse is to include and welcome diversity.

Neither approach leads to automatically correct solutions. What I’m talking about is the ‘process’ that we use to react to diversity.

The tribalist seeks to keep outsiders out because they are different. Citizens seek inclusiveness for the good of the greater community.

The difference depends on whether the goal is to empower the group against other groups, or to promote societal good. The difference is not so much in the outcome as it is in the prevailing mindset, and in the willingness or unwillingness to examine the conclusion in terms of societal good.

The citizenship approach may seem weak at first; yet it has much to be desired. First, it acknowledges the pluralism that exists in our world. Thus it is more prepared to accept disagreement without demonizing and denying the humanity of those who disagree. Second, because it avoids the us-against-them mentality in favor of cooperation and community, its victories tend to be long-lasting. Finally, because it respects and hears opposing views, it increases the chances that its own views will be respected and heard, and that the community creates and adopts the best solution. The best solution is often  the solution that all sides and opinions agree to support and implement.

The tribal approach, because it needs enemies to sustain it, would rather split hairs than split the difference. Tribalism turns to the familiar approach of belittling people who disagree. The result raises disputes to the level of insurmountable disagreement. It fosters an attitude that tends to make peaceful resolution of problems impossible. It leads to a winner-take-all outcome that leaves the losers plotting revenge and strategies for the next battle, or for the next war.

Which type of person am I? When I am frustrated and angry, I tend to think and act most like a tribalist; when I am serene and happy, I tend to think and act most like a citizen. Which type are you? WHICH TYPE DO YOU ADMIRE MOST? Which type would you like to be? Citizen? Tribalist? Our world deserves and needs the best from all of us. Meanwhile, can you figure how to apply this to your life.

Ed Glassman is a retired professor from the University Of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and a former columnist for the Chapel Hill Herald and the (Raleigh, North Carolina) Triangle Business Journal.

About the Author
Ed Glassman, Ph.D., is professor emeritus and former head of the "Program for Team Effectiveness and Creativity," in the medical school of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was also a visiting fellow at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, North Carolina.