The threat of toxic tribalism on democratic decay, human rights and freedom.

Woman of colour standing on a block, holding a flag and a closed fist, at the Black Lives Matter Protest in Brighton
Credit: James Cooley

With the end of the Trump-era in sight, Brexit just around the corner, the Coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis, the world is left to reflect on the behaviours that have led us to stoke the flames of destruction.  As we enter what is arguably the most consequential decade in modern history, we are at a notable crisis point for democracies and pluralist societies. 

Today, we live in a world which is oscillating between forces of globalisation and tribalism. On one hand, our global economy is becoming increasingly interconnected, and its advocates laud its accomplishments in technology innovation, market access and trade deals. On the other hand, tribalism is alive and kicking, as exclusionary attitudes of race, ethnicity, gender, religion and politics continue to form primal divides between groups of people; within countries as well as across them. Demonstrated in our current climate, our political discourse has become inebriated by toxic tribalism and group mob mentality. We have been seduced by the idea that one group is “wrong” and “evil”, while our group is “correct” and “good”. This “us vs them” behaviour, often instigated by public frustration at the status quo, is making rational policy-making and meritocracy in the West seem increasingly archaic. 

After a long history of intergroup conflict and competition, humans have evolved to be tribal creatures.  Tribalism is not inherently bad. However, it often leads to ideological thinking, which can distort the cognitive processing of information and thus, can become problematic in the pursuit of the truth. In every country, some groups harbour rational reasons to praise themselves and hate others, usually based on prejudicial lore, rooted in their origins. As demonstrated in timelines across history, if left untreated, tribal animosity becomes septic, leading to consequences of conflict, destruction, death and poverty. 

After antagonistic hatreds dominate our benevolent thoughts and actions, violence and conflicts are inevitable. Examples of these conflicts sit alongside our timelines, whether we know it or not. At the time of my birth in 1994, the ethnic Hutu extremists slaughtered thousands of minority Tutsis in Rwanda. This mass genocide was a meticulously planned political project of ethnic extermination and an end-product of toxic tribalism. Since my birth, I have been exposed to twenty-six years’ worth of news stories. In that time, war and conflict have been the subjects of incessant reporting, seasoned with stories of political and social disputation. Earlier this year, the Black Lives Matter protests were hotly contested by “All Lives Matter” groups, clapping-back at those crying out for respect and freedom, to protect systemic racial inequality. 

Similar ethno-nationalist attitudes continue to surface as far-right extremists “defend” Europe from refugees. Originating in France, the European far-right youth movement, “Génération Identitaire”, continue to intercept migrant ships and NGO boats, like Doctors Without Borders who aid in the rescue of refugees. However virulent and intolerant this behaviour is, it confirms the endemic need for these humans to protect beliefs and tribal loyalties by ostracising anyone who thinks differently. 

For the rest of us, it is simply not enough to cross our fingers and hope that our global political landscape will miraculously improve and an agenda to counter divisive forces will appear. Global leaders need to challenge the status quo.  As recorded in Bromell D. (2019) Ethical Competencies for Public Leadership, “while diversity in proximity generates conflict where people want and value different things, the right kind of leadership and the right kind of politics can minimise domination, humiliation, cruelty and violence.” Bromell continues to explain that for a divided society such as ours, an agnostic approach to politics may be the key to moderating our anger and refrain from turning opponents into enemies. This approach will unlock the opportunity to create public value from our differences, instead of passively waiting for authoritarian populists to dictate more conflicts.

The proposed resolution for leadership going forward is to be civil. This implies the understanding that we are all different and have competing interests and values, whilst staying engaged to resolve conflict where possible, without necessarily reaching a consensus. By strengthening the centripetal forces against the “us vs them” behaviour, we will be able to rebuild our social capital. 

Illustration of a crowd of people from all different backgrounds, holding signs saying “Refugees welcome” and “Real equality isn’t possible, if we don’t celebrate our differences.”
Credit: Matteo Paganelli

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