David Bosshart: "We're falling back into tribal thinking"

We think and live increasingly in rival tribes. We're dominated by emotions – rather than arguments. GDI CEO David Bosshart explains in an interview the causes and consequences of divisive tribal thinking. On 22 January we will discuss the new tribes at the GDI.
21 November, 2017 by
David Bosshart: «Wir fallen in Stammesdenken zurück»
GDI Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute

The GDI says there is a return of the tribes. What is that anyway, a tribe?

Tribes define themselves mainly in terms of those who belong and those who are outsiders – us versus them. Shared emotions and experiences are the key factors when it comes to creating a sense of ‘us’ – just as our ancestors did when they went hunting for food together. As various analyses have shown, this kind of group-centred behaviour still prevails. We also align ourselves with like-minded peers in a hyper-complex, incomprehensible and globalised world. And this applies equally to the uneducated and educated, rich and poor. The tribe of tax evaders congregates around Trump, Al Gore heads the tribe of climate saviours, and in the case of radical Islamists we observe the most malleable form of tribal splitting.

How has the nature of tribes evolved over time?

We’ve probably always been tribal creatures, but weren’t always aware of it. Pre-modern tribes organised themselves around tradition, which created stability. Modern tribes, on the other hand, are driven mainly by emotion, lack structure and provide little support in everyday life. Tribal affiliation is also a free choice. Thus, in order to create cohesion in modern tribes, emotions must constantly churn. Shared emotions create a bond – something that hasn’t changed since we were hunter-gatherers. Now, as if by magic, technology allows us to reach more and more people, without any geographical restrictions, and maintain ever more efficient communications. The paradoxical result, however, is that this has exacerbated the splintering into tribes. So now the most important question is not what belongs to whom, but rather who to what: being identical trumps being equal and similarity beats solidarity.

Where does a return of the tribes occur?

It’s already very obvious on social media, as these platforms meet the need for tribal affiliation perfectly. What is important is the shared energy for a certain opinion or action. Social media elevates one’s own tribe and erects borders. Let’s not forget that until recently, the leaders of the western world believed that their own values were the benchmark for everything: globalisation is good, the market is free, politics are democratic and society individualistic and hedonistic. But we are learning that this anti-tribal attitude of ‘We are all one’ in contrast to the age-old tribal attitude of ‘Us against the others’ has not gained a foothold – at least not in the way we envisioned it here in the West. Those who have been most dominant for many decades are losing their grip on scale and reality. But at least even economists now recognise that globalisation is a normative concept derived from certain values rather than a scientific construct.

What is causing the return to tribalism?

Perhaps the polemical ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss can best answer this question: cultures evolve only when they interact with other cultures. But this requires caution, as too much interaction too quickly, too directly and on too massive a scale will nullify the benefits. As a result, no learning process takes place. For example, the exchange still worked at the dawn of global trade: we came into contact with new goods that brought us closer to other cultures and sparked our interest. It happened slowly and people were able to adapt to new things. Today, on the other hand, with the internet and social media, everything happens abruptly and obtrusively – there is no time to process anything in a productive way. Instead of cultures evolving towards greater entropy, assimilating a certain number of foreign elements and thus becoming stronger, from the perspective of Lévi-Strauss, almost no new interior transformation is taking place today. Take China and the US, for instance: no high-ranking Chinese is married to a foreigner or has any close relationships with westerners. Recruitment is strictly internal and no one of non-Chinese descent can rise up. In the US, on the other hand, we see that diversity is a good idea in theory, but when we continue to define ourselves only in terms of increasingly small and exotic distinctions, it promotes insularity and enemity and destroys the country’s social fabric. Thus, we find ourselves in a world of tribes once again.

What are the consequences of neo-tribalism?

Tribes have little to say and live inside their own bubbles. They meet others with ignorance or confrontation. This is dangerous, as it can cause cultures to become pathological. Instead of reasoned argument, ritualised behaviour dominates, with emotional exchanges and knee-jerk conditioning. We have to learn to better understand other tribes.

To understand tribes better, we need to know their ideas and influence. At the GDI conference "The Return of Tribes" philosophers, a political scientist and a sociologist discussed the most popular tribes.

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