Tribalism in the 21st Century: Why It's So Hard For Us to ‘Love the Stranger'
Despite liberal ideologies, loving the stranger has never been easy for human beings. Keeping a world of 8 billion people from each other’s throats calls for great innovation.
When The Good Samaritan helped a Levite Jew out of the ditch, he broke the tribal code, a radical act for his time.
While this sounds like a simple minded morality tale to modern ears—loving, helping, caring for the stranger has never been easy for human beings, to understate the case. If it were the case, the Jews and the Palestinians would be holding hands right now, drinking coca-cola, and exchanging folk dances . But obviously, today we still live in a world with deep tribal codes.
Although modern human beings, especially those strange creatures called Americans, are good at marketing friendliness and compassion, in truth, most of us are slow to make real friends, and our fear of the stranger may be deeper than our professed ‘love for all of humanity’—an abstract and unrealistic concept at best. The reason walls were built around medieval towns, for instance, was because the stranger, most likely, would bring disease, pestilence, and war to our community. Demonology is therefore our natural religion: and in this religion the stranger is always a devil who wants to destroy us.
Today our enlightened ideologies so often run counter to our deep seated tribal conservatism.
Outside the walls of protection that our culture provides is what the deep primitive imagination tells us is a monster. And walls and monsters continue to exist today, even if they are invisible. While we like to think that we live in a landscape of openness and equality, any freedom we have is contingent on walls to keep the monsters out. We are xenophobic for pragmatic reasons, even if we are not overtly racist. Today our enlightened ideologies so often run counter to our deep seated tribal conservatism.
Donald Trump’s xenophobia towards Mexicans may seem ridiculous to an educated and openminded person in the 21st Century. However, Trump draws on deep biological fear and disgust; his ‘build a wall’ slogan is, consciously or not, one of the most brilliant marketing campaigns of our time. The lesson is: we should never forget to underestimate our natural conservatism and how powerful the desire for walls and borders is. And not everybody can be a naïve liberal, jumping into every ditch to save every Levite, as conservative politicians keep tellings us.
People have different capacities for loving the stranger. The rare person may even love the stranger just because he is different, out of curiosity and affection for difference—and a rare saint will actually go around kissing lepers. But there are very few people who can jump this wall. According to Alexander Bard, the go-betweens—those who he calls the shamanic cast, who are the the priests, diplomats, artists and adventurers of our world — make up about 4 or 5 percent of the population. The rest of us are just like ordinary hobbits, content with our own kind, gazing with fear and suspicion over the garden fence, or glued to our television screens and stories of fantastical monsters. It is unlikely that this will change much.
Even among the most enlightened bunch — an honest gaze at our own souls will show that we are not as loving to the stranger as we would like to be.
Even among the most enlightened bunch — an honest gaze at our own souls will show that we are not as loving to the stranger as we would like to be. The reptile brain, the so-called fight and flight instinct, prevents this: fear of the other still functions deep within in us and is often at war with our universalist ideology. The reason that conservatives are beating liberals these days is that liberals aren’t as saintly as all that, and progressive idealism is being exposed in all it’s hypocritical dimensions. The idealist is, by definition, the person who cannot practice what he or she preaches. But Loving the stranger — and love in general — is an act not an ideal.
As Ivan Illich pointed out, when universal love becomes an institution, it loses its intimate realness: “There is a temptation to try to manage and, eventually, to legislate this new love, to create an institution that will guarantee it, insure it, and protect it by criminalizing its opposite.” That is: we outsource our care. We believe in loving the stranger but we rarely practice it in a real way.
Many of us sign online petitions to advertise our high level of compassion on social networks. Since we are too terrified to practice real charity, we let professional organisations do that for us, which is what keeps us safe and out of the real danger. This might actually destroy our ability to truly love the stranger, because, as we have said, love is based on intimacy, not ideals. The abstract stranger is another wall, and our institutionalised version of care protects us from the pain of actually giving a shit, let alone ‘seeing the divine spark in the other’ which Illich’s Christianity demands.
We should not pretend to care when we don’t, or whip ourselves into frenzies of false compassion. This removes us from the intimacy of actual care, and creates automatised emotions and collective hysteria.
There is a paradox to progressivism and globalism in essence, active in the Catholic Church, the United Nations, and all oversized humanitarian institutions of ideology. They teach us universal love but to hate the deplorables who vote for Trump, for example; their professed tolerance is actually a thin veneer which covers a veiled and absolutist cruelty. The act of Mercy which Illich speaks of — ‘of seeing God in whoever crosses our path’ — has been taken away. We we have outsourced our ability to care for each other, in other words.
Illich thought that virtual care is a kind of abomination, something to recoil from with all of our being. We should not pretend to care when we don’t, or whip ourselves into frenzies of false compassion. This removes us from the intimacy of actual care, and creates automatised emotions and collective hysteria.
And so, to repeat the question: How should we, and how can we, love the stranger? Real love is an act as we have said, but this means a relationship, not a posture or an attitude. Therefore, we have to make a relationship to the beloved person. We cannot simply pretend to love them because they are different or other. That actually creates a schism, and virtual image of the person, which takes us further away from their mysterious and beautiful strangeness.
In terms of an egalitarian society, we have progressed in leaps and bounds— and this is all very well and good. However, paradoxically, and biologically speaking, on some level we are exactly the same terrified and impulsive animals as we were on the African savanna around two million years ago. It will take something more than nature, biology, or even ideology, to teach us to be brave enough to pull the Levite from the ditch. And why should we break the tribal code? The family, the tribe, is everything to us.
It is a historically recent situation that we can live in such proximity with others, jammed into ever-expanding cities with people of all races and types. And because of this proximity, any kind of narrow tribalism or ethno-nationalism has become a ridiculous caricature to the way things actually are. Globalism, the singularity of the human race in an age of digital mass communication, is fact.
Virtual tribalism never fully satisfies: and today it is taking its toll, with Instagram suicides, careers ruined on Twitter, and the rise of the alt-right and the alt-left.
Historically, people have been forced to trade with others unlike them, not from benevolence, however, but from necessity. And the internet increases this intense exchange with different types. However, this positive trend also creates a fierce and hateful counter-trend. People, in the face of such proximity, fall back into a certain nostalgic for the intimacy of the tribal womb, are desperate for the uterine walls of tribal identity. And with 8 billion people attached to the umbilical cord through the internet, the intimacy of the global village is getting a bit claustrophobic.
Identity politics, virtual tribalism, is running amok and will continue to do so: it has become inadvertently a reactionary return to an obsession with race, sexual orientation, and historical victimhood status. The more marginal and exotic the group, the more status can be gleaned in the tribal Olympics, and the more hate can be whipped up between the oppressor and the oppressed, real or imagined. Real racism, classism, sexism — is exchanged for an endless psychological game of microaggressions among the upper classes. Meanwhile, populism grows unabated.
On one hand we have the virtual tribe, on the other the zombie horde of Starbucks-like globalism. The new tribalism, bolstered by technology, is a response to loss of the real intimacy among the modern, rootless persons—to the oversized, dead institutions. But virtual tribalism never fully satisfies: and today it is taking its toll, with Instagram suicides, careers ruined on Twitter, and the rise of the alt-right and the alt-left. Expect more insane online tribal cults in the future, as the large institutions fall in the face of the meaning crisis. The big institutions will always fail to teach us to love the stranger. That is because the bigger the institution becomes, the more abstract our so-called love of the stranger actually is.
What we really love, if we are honest, is our family or tribe, and our small intimate communities—not America or the European Union.
The meaning crisis is actually a crisis of faith, of not believing in whatever hollow ritual we participate in. For instance, singing the national anthem feels like a primitive act, fundamentally a bullshit abstraction. What we really love, if we are honest, is our family or tribe, and our small intimate communities—not America or the European Union. We can only be human within a basic human unit of about 100 family members and friends and 5000 or so acquaintances, and this will always be the case.
Without the tribe, the whole superstructure will fall down like a house of cars. And yet somehow we need to contain and subdue the fear and loathing of the stranger, because tribal warfare isn’t a good option and is always ready to rear its ugly head. Keeping a world of 8 billion people from each other’s throats will take great innovation, just as relative peace has always been hard won. The already existing and faceless world empire run by machines (the internet) and the already existing basic human unity (the tribe) will have to coexist. Expansion outward leads to increased implosion.
Peace will be gained by making the coming apocalypse an unattractive option and pragmatically impossible. The Shamanic cast, or rather the rare geniuses will be key here. And good machine intelligence is necessary, like it or not. The machines will have to be our helpful servants, rather than our ruthless overlords, in helping us lift people out of ditches. Necessity is the mother of invention. We need an army of shamans, scholars, and engineers. Or else the cockroaches will win.
Acknowledgement: Many of the terms and here are borrowed from or are riffs on themes in the philosophy books of Alexander Bard and Jan Soderqvist, which has been my main source of inspiration of late.
Words by Andrew Sweeny
Andrew Sweeny is a Canadian writer, podcaster, musician and author. He is currently writing for London-based media platform Rebel Wisdom as well as the German Integrales Forum. He is the host of the Sweeny Verses and co-host of Sweeny vs Bard along with the Swedish philosopher Alexander Bard. He is a lecturer on technology, media, literature, film, and psychology at several French universities in Paris. He is currently working on a study of the works of University of Toronto professor, John Vervaeke.