Tribal power: The strange world of us and them.

All human beings belong to one tribe or another. We search for common goals that bring us together be it; a sports team, a political party, a religion, a type of music, our nation, a geographical area, the colour of our skin, sexuality or maybe just our age. We are all apart of some larger entity and often more than one. It’s also reasonable to acknowledge that some factors bind us together more than others. A tribe can unify people forming an in-group and by definition everybody outside of this are apart of the out-group. In a book by Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Minds: Why good people are divided by politics and religion, he suggests that “our minds were designed to unite us into teams, divide us against other teams, and blind us to the truth”. Weirdly, I started to ponder this idea shortly after New Zealand’s defeat to England in the Rugby World Cup semi final.

Alas, this is not a tale of another Kiwi crying into his beer after a comprehensive loss. It’s slightly more complicated than that. I was born in Manchester, England and lived there for 40 years. Notice how I stopped short of calling myself English. I started typing English, but I felt uneasy about using it as a descriptor. I’ll be honest, I was never someone who sang “here we go” at the top of my lungs in Ibiza, nor did I go searching for a “full English” the morning after a hangover. In contrast, I did commit to 8 years in the British Navy travelling to the far flung corners of the earth. I also suffered the collective deep pessimism each time England took penalties during a major football tournament. No, I don’t have 3 lions tattooed on my arm or any other part of my anatomy, but I have supported England in varying sports around the globe

So what happened? Put simply, I moved. I left England in 2011 and have now lived in Whangarei, a largely forgotten part of New Zealand for the last 8 and a half years. At first I continued to follow England in many sports, after all I still knew many of the players. But increasingly, I kept an eye on how New Zealand were doing, be it the Olympics, Rugby, League or Cricket. It must have crept over me like a shadow, but I suddenly realised during the one day cricket final against England (another heroic loss) that I was a fully fledged Black Caps supporter. There was no doubt in mind, second thoughts or even guilt. Was I traitor? Is this treason? Did I care? The answers in short are no, no and no. By the time this years rugby world cup rolled around, England seemed less like my home country and more like the enemy. What happened? What kind of animal had I become?

army buddies

It is well documented through many studies performed after the Second World War and more recently in Afghanistan and Iraq that one of the main reasons soldiers keep going despite the stress and danger is for their buddies. It is certainly not for king and country as gets suggested in black and white war movies. From an evolutionary standpoint it makes intuitive sense, sticking together can help save lives, in particular your own. However, moving beyond major events we can be very easily divided in the most arbitrary of ways, quickly developing in-groups and out-groups.

In 1968 on the day of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination Jane Elliot, a teacher from Iowa conducted a little experiment and split her class based on eye colour. She showed that the “better” blue eyed children ridiculed brown eyed kids almost within minutes. While she observed the same treatment meted out when brown eyed kids were the “chosen ones”. This study has been subsequently repeated by psychologists thousands of times in a myriad of different ways. Further to this, a study by the University of Missouri highlighted that, in-group identification became even more intense if members were made to feel threatened. It is thought that during these times we rely on our group members even more, especially if we feel at risk of physical harm.

Although being a part of a group may keep us safer by gravitating towards people who might seem most like us, we inadvertently build metaphorical walls which prevent us from bonding with our fellow human beings. One result of this is groupthink, this can ultimately lead to the group being irrational and dysfunctional. In this state, critical thinking can be diminished as raising an opposing view, arguing or discussing controversial topics can be perceived as dangerous. With no opposing ideas, members are more likely to feel uniformed in their beliefs leading to black and white thinking, and the stereotyping of others. This behaviour can occur as much with the KKK as it can within ANTIFA, with Remainers as often as Brexiteers, this even occurs pretty equally between Manchester Utd and City fans (believe it or not).

Amy Chua in her book “Political Tribes” offers that allegiance to a nation is not as strong as for example, ethnic or religious factors. But at its core, belonging to a group or tribe is still linked around the concept of identification. Groups members congregate with one another, directing their love towards the same object, shared leader or a cherished cause. This creates a unified feeling of identification, reciprocated by other members of the group. Collective identity is thought to work in two ways; firstly all members relate to and are loyal towards their focus (goal, leader, ideology etc.), secondly there’s a recognition of this devotion among other members.

Vlad Lenin

Social psychologist Erich Fromm described these as primary ties, giving people security and a sense of belonging. Development of this solidarity prevents the individual from being morally alone, providing more confidence and increasing the certainty of their convictions in the larger social arena. With all this in mind and returning to the original question, am I a traitor for abandoning my nation of birth, in exchange for the country I’ve lived in for almost 9 years? I would suggest not, but I guess it should be down to someone else to decide this.

If as suggested, I was seeking an identity in a new country, choosing the All Blacks or New Zealand sport in general to support would make sense. Sport in New Zealand generally speaking is a uniting force. Citizens regularly follow the escapades of this small nation, the plucky underdog that always manages to punch well above its weight. It is also a relatively benign group to attach oneself to. Most of the time that is. Although, as a member of this group I can quite easily feel all the trappings of us versus them. Demonising the opposition, taking a bias view on refereeing decisions or even the irritation of watching joyous England fans celebrate victory.

This was palpable, especially when Owen Farrell crumpled to the ground clutching his face after being mildly pushed by Sam Whitelock (although for mere mortals that’s probably an oxymoron). My overriding response was to yell at him in my suddenly rejuvenated northern accent, “get up yer girl” or “I bet yer dad’s proud of yer, writhing around like a bloody football player” (his dad incidentally is Wigan rugby league legend Andy Farrell, who I’ve seen in action on numerous occasions). Oh how quickly we bond with the people we live and work with day to day for a common cause. On that day, however, we commiserated with one another as any slightly battered tribe would.