Tribalism in one form or another has been the bane of humanity, a curse that predates agriculture and civilization yet remains a major cause of human misery millennia later. It ultimately revolves around fear of the other, the stranger, the unknown, and it is rooted in ignorance and supported by the conforming pressures of the group. It provides a mechanism for directing anger and hatred away from the group and justifies violence against others. It allows one to engage in and even be rewarded for behaviors deemed immoral within the bounds of the tribe. It plays to the worst aspects of the human psyche.
In its earliest incarnation tribalism’s defining bond was kinship, and the group’s particular identity, what separated the tribe from the rest of the world, was based on blood. The tribe was perceived, with real justification, as an extended family, an idea buttressed by the general recourse to marriage within the group. With the advent of agriculture and settled communities the idea of kinship persisted as the defining bond, though now supplemented by a sense of locality: “This is our place.” The birth of urban civilization and the territorial state undermined traditional tribalism by creating communities too large to understand in terms of kinship, though kinship groups in the form of wealthy families could still compete for control.
Imagined kinship was one solution for tribalism in an urban setting. The polis (“city-state”) society of classical Greece excelled in this. Because of the extreme competitiveness and narcissism of the Greeks, each polis wished to assert its unique identity in a sea of Greekness, and one result of this was to see the polis community as an extended family. Consequently, every polis understood its populace to be descended form a common ancestor, who was the founder of the state, and thus was created a kind of urban tribalism based on a largely imagined kinship. And one unfortunate result of this competitiveness and tribalism was the endless inter-city warfare that ultimately destroyed classical society.
The emergence of the nation state allowed a sort of tribalism on a grand scale – “my country right or wrong” – but this stretches the meaning of the word a bit too far. No, tribalism on the grand scale is facilitated by religion, specifically the Abrahamic religions. A (theoretically) unchangeable system of absolute beliefs and values granted and defended by an infallible deity certainly provides an environment conducive to the sort of group mentality traditionally associated with primitive tribalism. That the religion supplies a unique and absolute understanding of the world and god and behavior makes the non-believer the “other” in a way simple differences in custom and language never could. Those outside the group are not simply different in their behaviors; they are completely wrong, since they have no knowledge of the actual truth and the real god. From this it is a short step to educating them, even forcibly, or considering them to be the enemy, who should perhaps be destroyed.
Thus a quite real tribalism that has no need of kinship ties and involves millions. And with it, holy war and violence involving whole populations. Jews against idol worshipping pagans, Christians against pagans and Muslims, Muslims against infidels and even within the separate faiths, Catholics against Protestants, and Sunnis against Shiites. The south Slavs are a wonderful example of religion-based tribalism taken to the extreme. The Croats and Serbs have common ancestors and constitute an ethnic group, they speak a common language (though using different scripts), and apart from religion enjoy a more or less common culture. But the Croats are Catholic and the Serbs are Orthodox, and this has meant centuries of hatred and violence and a tribalism that cannot now be escaped, despite the waning influence of religion in Europe.
And real clan/ethnic-based tribalism continues to haunt the developing world, especially Africa and the more remote regions of south Asia, where the existing states are unable to replace tribal loyalties with allegiance to as greater political entity. Neither Hutus nor Tutsis are Ruwandans; they are Hutus and Tutsis. Or more recently, the people of the new state of South Sudan are not Sudanese; they are Dinka, Toposa, Shilluk, Bari or anyone of the some sixty ethnic groups that make up the population. The Dinka and Nuer are now headlining in a growing civil war.
There is, however, a new tribalism available to those who seek the sense of belonging and group strength and want an “other” to vilify but lack a kinship/ethnic/religious group of their own. This tribalism is moreover generally harmless and requires group-think and irrationality only on special occasions. I speak of sports fandom. Well, it is not completely new: the chariot races of Rome and Byzantium produced specific groups of fans, who might resort to violence, especially in Constantinople, where there was frequently city-wide rioting between the fan factions. There is still some violence associated with sports tribalism, particularly among soccer fans, but this modern tribalism is essentially harmless.
My personal tribe is that of the San Francisco Forty-Niners, a professional American football team, and membership allows me to enjoy most of the characteristics associated with the more traditional varieties. First, I am part of this tribe for the same reason that most people throughout history have found themselves in a certain tribe: I was born into it. In fact, not only was I born in San Francisco but in the same year that the team was, which establishes an even stronger bond.
As with virtually all tribal organizations, display is of extreme importance, especially during ceremonial occasions, such as pre-game tailgating. The tribe has its own colors and emblems, which serve to identify a member when he is in the general population. They may be proudly shown, whether on clothing or the walls of the home or wherever. For the central event of the tribe, the game, the body and hair might serve as mechanisms for tribal display. Some, like myself, will even have the tribal totem tattooed on the body.
The game is the core ceremony of the tribe and Sunday is the sacred day of all National Football League tribes. American football is particularly well suited to serve as a basis for tribalism since the game itself revolves around ritual warfare. The players are the elite warriors of the tribe, seeking to bring glory to the tribe and gain honor by humiliating the outsider, the other. In a great choreographed dance of sham battle they struggle to penetrate the defenses of the enemy and seize his territory by “taking it to the house.” The ritual killing of the enemy leader, “sacking the quarterback,” is a particular moment of glory. From the sidelines of the conflict the elders dispatch stratagems to the team, while the gods, the owners, look down from their well-stocked metaphorical mountaintops.
The home stadium, “our house,” is of course the central locale for tribal celebration, but tribe members scattered across the continent gather at local shrines, the sports bars. There they can display ceremonial dress and tribal totems and generally give voice to the glories and superiority of their clan, all while drinking beer, the soma of all football-based tribes. It is a time for ritualistic behaviors, such as the universal gesture of exultation and tribal bonding, slapping the upraised hand of a fellow celebrant. Knowing they are my brothers in the tribe, I have hand-slapped strangers whom I would attempt to avoid on the street. There are of course prayers and chants, which, as in traditional tribalism, need not have anything to do with reality: “We’re number one!” or “Road to the Superbowl!’ The origins of some of these ritual practices, like the barking and bone waving of the Cleveland Browns tribe, are known only to tribe members.
When your tribe is winning, there is exultation, affirmations of joy – “Yes!” – and hand-bonding. The ritual taunting increases and you remind your enemies of the epic heroes and great deeds of your tribe, in my case immortals such as Joe Montana and Jerry Rice and of course the “Catch,” known to all to mark the beginning of the Forty-Niner Era. Should your people be facing defeat there are mechanisms to cope. There is the comfort of the group, your tribal mates, who know and share your grief and join in the ritualistic chanting: “We’re still number one!” You explain the “stab in the back,” the incompetent officials and bad penalty calls that unfairly doomed your cause. You always stand with your tribe.
Meanwhile, my tribe, triumphant in the bitter cold of Green Bay, travels this Sunday to New Orleans to crush the Saints and listen to the lamentations of their women. Unless we’re stabbed in the back.