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inc.arcerated Part III: TRIBALISM

7 min read

Dear reader.... you might not like what I'm going to say. But see if you can imagine a world without tribalism after considering that it is alive and real and defining us every day. 

trib‧al‧is‧m /ˈtraɪbəl-ɪzəm/ noun 1 behaviour and attitudes that are based on strong loyalty to your tribe2 the state of being organized into tribes


As a cultural anthropologist (def: a person who studies cultures and the history of humanity and what makes us human), one of the things you learn early on is the concept of tribalism. 

The definition doesn't quite scratch the surface of what it really is and means to humans. For me, the cultural and biological aspects of being human are inseparable. This whole "Nature vs. Nurture" thing is ridiculous; you cannot have one without the other, and so both your environment and your genetics affects the outcome of your existence and the choices you make. I believe it is such an incredibly strong factor that it begs the question, "Do we really have free will if most of our adult life and personality and choices are based on genetics that we're born with and moments that happen to use as young children?" I see our 'destiny' as more of a loose, rusty shackle that can broken by first realizing it is there and then finding the tools to break free and walk away from.  

So, when I speak of's important to consider where the usefulness of this human invention came from. It first has a little to do with our binocular vision (forward-facing eyes commonly seen in predators rather than side-facing eyes often seen in animals of prey). We are able to see things in the distance and with a relatively good amount of detail. Then our brain, developed as it is to make sense of refracted upside-down light and make them into images, does a really cool thing; it translates this random mix of lines and shapes and shadows that we see in 2D and finds what category it fits into. 

Okay, maybe that's a little challenging to understand right away. Let me give you an example: 

You're an early human (hominin) and you're peering into the Savannah grasses... and you know there's something there, but you aren't sure what is lurking in disguise. Is it food? Is it going to try to make you into food? Is it just the wind? Then you see a darker patch of fur about two feet off the ground, and your brain starts to matchup other, similar, patches of fur that follow an outline line -more or less- of a wildcat. Your brain categorizes this as a threat from previous experiences with this long-toothed, sharp-clawed, powerful animal and your "fight or flight" instinct kicks in, adrenaline rushing through you. 

Now, fast forward a little. People have decided it's wiser to band together in groups in order to hunt big game animals and keep their children and village protected. But the question is... protected from what? Other villages, of course! Other villages might not be as close to the watering hole where there is an abundance of both water and animals that come to drink and so are easily found and hunted. Other villages might have a shortage of women, or have too many people and need more land. Or maybe somebody's father offended somebody else's father and they split into two groups and told stories about how the other one is bad and it just became a multi-generational feud.

Our brains, which categorize danger, enemy, friend, food, etc., they begin to categorize the subtle details that characterize those enemy villagers. As a visitor, maybe you would see these feuding villages as all looking the same, but amongst the different villagers... they notice the subtle slope of a nose, or the high brows that one village commonly has. Or perhaps it's the way they all shave the sides of their heads to show off their mohawks.

Centuries later, people have migrated and their skin has adapted to varying degrees of sunlight. We have light skinned and dark skinned, we have thick hair and thin. We have light eyes and dark. Most importantly, we have an even greater variety to choose to categorize. We humans feel the pressure of so many humans trying to take resources and power from us. We must band together... and the easiest way to band together is simply to choose to be amongst those who look most like us. By choosing to make the ones who are already similar to us, we oversimplify the differences amongst our group. If they are different thinkers, we begin to indoctrinate them and change them so they think like us. 

Maybe it isn't just skin anymore. Maybe it's a uniform. Maybe it's a series of symbolic tattoos that tell us which gang we are part of. 

Maybe it's just easier... to choose to be with a group of people that will protect us, even if our similarites are shallow and superficial. 

I began my introduction into anthropology assuming that tribes were small little groups of villagers that barely anyone knew about somewhere in the Amazon rainforest. I saw it as a primitive term, something based on old reports and studies. I don't think that anymore.The tribes are real, and very complex, and they're right in our backyard. They are in our street and in our homes. They are tagging our buildings and shooting up our streets. They are working in our stores and they are in and out of jail. They are cops and they are gang members and they are mobs and they are families and they are even the elite upper class. 

I'm walking this very strange line between worlds every day I show up to work. I genuinely like the sheriffs I see every day, and I genuinely enjoy the personalities of my students who are inmates at the jail. I can neither take the side of the sheriffs or the side of the inmates, ever. I relate to them all as humans. And yet, I know they are from different tribes, and that those tribes are in many ways pitted against each other just by the fact that this generational feud extends into law enforcement and "street thugs". Even amongst my students, they have history amongst themselves and others that separate them; values that they carry that define them and that they believe protect "their people", and stories of enemies and battles that almost always are paid in blood or sacrifice

So where does this feud end? Will it ever? If my own friends who are not gang members, but happen to be queer, or immigrants, or POC (person of color), hate the cops so much because of the stories they grew up on, of fearing the cops, of being harassed by them, then what keeps them from joining a gang that would protect them from harassment? Or what keeps scared white kids, who have been exposed to the misdirected anger and violence of a POC, from deciding all POCs are violent, and what keeps them from joining another gang, or tribe or telling their kids that POCs are hateful and the enemy tribe? After enough altercations with violent and drugged-up criminals, what keeps the mind of a cop from getting jaded? After all, they're being shown the worst, are they not?

The story seems to feed on itself, and this multigenerational feud of tribes keeps going on and on and on....


So let me leave you with these images. See if you can notice the characteristics, the uniforms, the tattoos, the characteristic similarities that define each group. See for yourself if it seems like we have many tribes amongst us....



We always find ways to show what tribe we belong to... don't we.