Tribalism: How we overcome the “Us” vs. “Them” Mentality


You need little more evidence these days that our country is badly divided than to toggle back and forth any evening between Fox News and MSNBC – two perspectives on the same day’s events that might be coming from two different universes. We have become a nation of tribes. We didn’t set out on C+V to explore this divide. But in our conversations about connecting and communicating, the topic kept coming up. From people as diverse as politicians, comedians and psychologists, I heard not only possible reasons for the current tribalism, but also possible solutions.
Here’s former basketball Hall of Famer and US senator Bill Bradley on how things have changed in the Senate since he last served there in 1997.
Alan: Is it a myth that in the old days they used to go out for a beer afterwards and socialize, and now they don’t?
Bradley: No, I don’t think it’s a myth. When I got there, for example, right off the Senate floor, and the Sergeant at Arms office was a room where you go in, and Republicans and Democrats have a drink in the late afternoon if you want one. And there was a Senators dining room, one table Republican, one table Democrat but the same Senators dining room. I think the dining room is still there. I don’t think the Sergeant at Arms afternoon highball room is there. But-
Alan: Tell me that again. That sounds interesting. I wouldn’t expect that. On government property, the Sergeant at Arms serves highballs at 5 o’clock?
Bradley: Well, he doesn’t serve them-
Alan: There’s bottles laying around-
Bradley: But sometimes the rules are-
Alan: The bottle under the couch? What?
Bradley: No, not really. This is where you sit down with somebody who happened to be Republican. “How’s your wife? Your daughter’s in college. What is she doing? What’s she studying?” Or, “I saw that your aunt said something that moved me.” Or whatever.
Alan: What? So, if we don’t have that-
Bradley: If you don’t have that, you don’t have the lubrication and the trust necessary for doing big things.
Alan: And we’re not doing big things. We’re hardly doing small things. How do we get back to that? What do you think is the answer?
Bradley: I think it takes 25 Senators who wanna do it. And if you’re isolated, if you’re isolated, for example Joe Biden tells a story about John McCain. They knew each other for a long time. They were good friends. So, Biden is on the floor talking with McCain. And they’re sitting, talking, and they do that on a regular basis on the floor of the Senate, and I think somebody in the Democratic leadership said, “You know, you really shouldn’t be sitting with McCain.” And Republican leadership did the same thing with McCain.
Alan: That’s unbelievable.
Bradley: Which is just not … that doesn’t produce anything. The experience is sterile.
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has been studying political polarization for over a decade, during which time the rift between left and right has widened into a chasm.
Haidt: There’s a funny thing going on in our country … It’s not funny. It’s tragic. Studies that show the degree to which we hate the other side, the surprising finding is that jback in the ’70s and even to the ’80s people gave very high ratings to their own party, but their ratings of the other party were only a little below the midpoint. They mildly disliked the other party overall, on average. Then those lines, sort of the cross partisan dislike lines, they begin sloping up in the ’80s and the ’90s and then they accelerate their slope after 2000, so the 2000s have been really bad for polarization. And so right now, both sides are extremely tribal. Both sides are extremely closed minded. Both sides will attack anyone one their side who shows any nuance. For example, if you’re on the left, think about the last time a friend of yours said something like, “Well, I really hate Donald Trump, but I gotta admit, he was right on points A, B, and C.” No, you can’t do that.
But if tribalism has increased in recent years, its roots are much deeper. Mike Tomasello, who studies how young children bond with their parents and peers, talked in our conversation about the role of evolution in shaping how we see others.
Tomasello: So in human evolution, I would say there are two main ways that people feel solidarity for one another. The first is by doing things together and having shared experiences, and that’s most basic, and that’s what human infants are already doing. And secondly, later in human evolution we began forming cultures, and we were living in larger groups where we had people that we’d never met before, but they’re still one of us because they talk like us, and they dress like us, and they have the same religion, and they eat the same things. And so, they’re what are sometimes called in-group strangers, but they’re still in-group, they’re still one of us.
And if we’re ever in a war, they’re going to be on my team. And so, that’s based on similarity. Similarity of behavior and actions. So doing things together and sharing experience is one thing, and being similar is another. And this cultural antipathies that we sometimes see are based on they aren’t like us. They don’t talk like us, they worship some weird something that we don’t recognize. And so, based on their lack of similarity to us. But I think if we had more shared experiences, those of us who interact with people from different cultures more often, then you see our commonality much more clearly.
This idea that it’s shared experiences that help bring together even people who are mortal enemies came up a couple of times in our C+V conversations. Here’s a famous case. In the late 1990s, after sectarian violence Northern Ireland had taken thousands of lives, Senator George Mitchell was given the task of trying to bring the various warring factions together. After months of difficult and mostly fruitless negotiations, came a turning point.
Mitchell: That was a specific occasion where we were at a difficult point at a crucial negotiation and the two major party leaders came to me and said, “We have to get away from here because it’s impossible for us to make progress given the structure of the way things were occurring.” The negotiations took place in an office building that was a British government office building before we took it over. It was surrounded by a fence. There were police and military. We were heavily protected. There was a lot of violence at the time. Just outside the gate there was a huge press gauntlet. Literally a gathering of reporters, television cameras, and so every day the men and women who were delegates to the peace talks had to pass through that gate and they were bombarded with reporters. “Oh look, here’s what your opponent said last night. Isn’t that terrible? You’d never agree to do that, would you?”
Alan: Oh boy.
Mitchell: So on the way in and on the way out they were subjected to this. Two party leaders said to me, “We can’t succeed. You, Senator Mitchell, have got to figure out a way to get us to a completely private place where we won’t have any reporters coming and going and we can come closer together personally.”
The private place George Mitchell found was the US ambassador’s residence in London, where they spent a week before the reporters found them.
There I said to the delegates, the leaders, I said, “Listen, we’re gonna be here we don’t know how long, but these are long days and nights. We’re gonna eat our meals together, and what I’m asking you is during the meals, don’t talk about business.”
They said, “Well, what are we gonna talk about?” I said, “We’ll talk about your kids. Talk about your wives. Talk about your dogs. Talk about your vacations. What do human beings talk about when they’re not involved in negotiations to try to end a war?” I also said to them, “No sitting all on one side and the other on the other,” so we were mixed on both sides. It was awkward at first but then it kind of worked. They began to see each other not as part of them, the rival tribe. Human beings just like themselves with wives, kids, mortgages, problems at home, issues with their in laws, whatever the discussion is. Sports, music. In one of the discussions, a delegate said to David Trimble, who was then the leader of the largest Unionist party, at one of these dinners, he said, “David, we know you’re a big opera fan. Have you been to the opera lately?” Another guy yelled out to me, he said, “Senator Mitchell, do you ever go to the opera?” I said, “Well, it’s interesting you should ask.” I said, “Yes, I go to the opera and I always make it a point to go to the opera the night before I leave the United States to come here to meet with you guys.”
He said, “What are you talking about?” I said, “Well, listen. I know when I go to the opera, in advance, every word that’s going to be spoken or sung. I’ve seen the opera La Boheme 12 times and the character Rodolfo says the same thing every single time.” I said, “And that puts me in a good frame of mind to come and meet with you guys, because I’ve been with you for years and I know in advance every word you’re gonna say because you say the same thing today that you said last week, that you said last year.” They all got a laugh out of that, and we kind of made a little bit of progress humanizing them.
Alan: You had these meals together for a whole week?
Mitchell: Yeah, for a whole week. Lunch and dinner.
Alan: Lunch and dinner.
Mitchell: Yeah, it worked out pretty well.
Well enough that it was, as George Mitchell tells it, a turning point in getting what became known as the Good Friday Agreement that ended hostilities in Northern Ireland. I love that story not only because it makes Mike Tomasello’s point that it’s shared experiences that are vital in breaking down tribal barriers, but also because of the role that humor played in relaxing tensions.
The bonding power of shared experience is at the heart of how an old friend of mine, Letty Pogrebin, helps bring together people on opposite sides of an even older conflict, that between Jews and Palestinians. Letty calls herself a groupie, because she loves to create groups.
Pogrebin: I’m thinking of a Jewish Palestinian group that I helped to start back in the ’80s. I remember that a woman came in and she was buzzing with excitement and we all said, “What happened?” She said, “My daughter just called me. It’s her first menstruation.” Suddenly we’re all talking about our first menstruation, what happened to us, how we felt, were we ashamed, were we horrified, were we glad, did we feel like women, did we feel besmirched, did we feel we had lost our childhoods… There was so much to say. By the end of that first discussion, I knew those women at a level that probably people in their family don’t know them. We planned, after many, many, many hours, retreats in which we went through all the issues and all the personal stuff. We decided to plan a trip to the region. The Palestinians would plan what the Jews would see, and the Jews would plan the itinerary for what the Palestinians would see. We Jews planned to take the Palestinians to Yad Vashem, which is a Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, and into the Knesset, so they could see democracy in action and not just think of us all as just colonizers. The Palestinians planned to take us into a refugee camp and to take us into a daycare center.
It was so marvelous, because as we walked, and we had to walk in pairs, we walked one Palestinian, one Jew, through Yad Vashem. I had never done that before in all my life, and I’m a child who remembers the Holocaust and lost one third of my family there.
Here I am explaining the exhibits to my Palestinian sister, and she’s crying. She’s in a place that has been used against her people, like, “How can you Jews who lived through the Holocaust do this, what you’re doing to us Palestinians?” She’s used to being combative. She’s used to being pushed back and militant, and suddenly she sees the world through my eyes. In the refugee camp, the same thing happened to me. I’m watching her people be pushed by … What are those things on the end of rifles?
Alan: Bayonets.
Pogrebin: Bayonets. Thank you. Thank you, MASH. Being pushed by IDF bayonets, being mistreated in the refugee camp. This was way back, again, when Israel controlled everything inside, before the Oslo Accords. I’m saying, “How would I feel if my old uncle was being treated this way? How could these 18-year-old Israeli kids be treating somebody this way?” I see the world through her eyes. You can’t do that first. What if we had tried to do that trip before we had a dialog?
Alan: Before you knew who they were as people.
Pogrebin: Exactly.
Letty Pogrebin and George Mitchell have both been strikingly successful at reducing tribal antagonisms in small groups, working intensively with them often for many weeks or even months. But it’s hard to see how that success can be achieved in society at large. There was a time a dozen years or so ago, with the dawn of social media, that many of us – including Jonathan Haidt – had hopes that the ability to connect everyone with everybody would usher in a golden age of shared experience.
Haidt: And in the early days many of us were Utopian, like “Wow! Let’s connect everybody. Won’t that be great? Very much the John Lennon view. “Imagine if there were no countries … No religion! Just all the people connected in one giant social network. Wouldn’t it be great?!”
Of course, that’s not exactly how it worked out.
Haidt: It’s as though somebody reached into the social network, the social fabric that had been slowly evolving over centuries in terms of cultural evolution. Somebody reached in one day in 2006 and just said “Let’s just take all these connectors, these wires, and let’s make them 10 times faster. Let’s connect people 10 times more and let’s see what happens.” Of course, that was the year that Facebook opened up to the world.

And instead of opening up society the opposite has happened – we’ve seen social media like Facebook become a way for people to retreat even further into their own bubbles.
Jonathan points to another factor that has led to the increase in tribalism in the last decade or so. It’s what he calls in a new book he’s coauthored the coddling of the American mind – the overprotection of kids by parents fearful of mostly exaggerated dangers. The result, he argues, is disturbing – a generation of fearful kids.
Haidt: When I speak about the book, I find wherever I go the professors, the track coach, everybody, is noticing that the kids are just much more fragile, easily discouraged, easily reduced to tears. That’s everywhere. If you have a depressed or anxious person in the classroom they’re going to jump to the most negative reading of everything they can and they’re more inflexible. It’s harder to get them off that reading with evidence. This is part of what has disrupted our ability to have open conversations on campus, is that there are a lot of people among us who are very negative and inflexible.
Alan: What can people do? Here they are, anxious, convinced that the other side is evil. Bad for the country, your own side won’t allow any nuance in how you feel about the other side. How do we reconstitute ourselves as a tribe that extends across the nation and doesn’t just cover those of us who are in our half?
Haidt: That’s right. That’s the billion dollar question. That’s the question upon which I think the survival of this country depends. The first thing is we have to give childhood back to kids, give them a lot of unsupervised free play time so that they will become more risk-tolerant and more strong and independent. The second is we have to get a handle on social media and device time, limit social media exposure, keep it out of middle schools entirely. These two steps will reduce the rate of teenage depression and anxiety. The third thing is that leadership in all organizations can create climates in which dissent and disagreement and the discomfort of hearing ideas that you hate will be seen as part of the mission, as part of what we all need to do to get stronger and smarter.

If Jonathan Haidt is right, it seems likely that tribalism in our society is likely to get worse before it gets better. And the current state of our politics, where both left and right increasingly play to their base – their tribe – isn’t helping. Meanwhile here at C+V we will continue our conversations about the importance of connecting and communicating. And in our next episode we’ll be taking a look ahead to our next season. Among my guests – Adam Driver, Madelaine Albright, Steven Spielberg, Carol Burnett and a half dozen other great communicators. For now, Bye bye.

Possible Tribal Show Close

Alan: So, can we actually do anything about tribalism, something at a higher level, say at a level of government that has a broad impact. We didn’t come up with any sure-fire answers so far on the shows we’ve posted, but there may be a clue in our first show from next season.

Here’s a short preview of my conversation with Madeline Albright – and it turns out the answer may still be in the realm of person to person.

Alan: 27:47 Remind me, I heard you say somewhere maybe in a book or an interview, that you spent a lot of, sorry, I heard somewhere rich somewhere that you had spent a lot of time with Jesse Helms with whom I’m sure disagreed on many points, but you had a cordial relationship that you could build on?
Madelaine Albright: 28:14 I am so glad you brought that up because it’s a very good example of something. What happened was that when I was ambassador at the United Nations, I had been asked to go and speak at a women’s college in Raleigh in North Carolina and what happened was Senator Helms called in order to follow up on the invitation. I have to admit, I actually thought I could get out of it by saying, “I’d be happy to do it if you go with me.” And he said, “That’s a really interesting idea, I’ll call you back.” Then he calls back and he says, “I’ve changed my schedule, I’m going to go with you.” Then what happens is it’s very hard if somebody is introducing you to say, this is the stupidest, nastiest person I’ve ever met.
Madelaine Albright: 28:58 He gave me a nice introduction and then we went through this whole thing together and we’re flying back and he said, “You know what? I think it’d be great if you came to my Alma Mater, at some point, it’s called Wayne Gate College.” I said, sure so he picked me up in Raleigh and we started driving around North Carolina looking for barbecue places and we finally get there. He had had a hip replacement or something and was having trouble getting out of the car so I was helping him get out of the car and the press took this picture of me hanging onto him and they said, “This is the odd couple.” Then, it was fun and interesting I was asked about the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which he disagreed with that I was able to answer and do that.
Madelaine Albright: 29:52 So then my name comes up to be secretary of state and you have to go around and meet the members that are going to vote on you. I went to see him and he said, “Ms. Madeline, we will make history together.” The bottom line is if you watch the tapes, they all were … he couldn’t have been friendlier, very much of a human touch and, um, and really made a difference. Together, as a result of that cooperation, we were able to have NATO expansion, so it works.

Alan: There’s a lot more From Madeline Albright in the delightful conversation we had that will start season Four… (etc.)