The Difference Between Tribalism and Good Group Loyalty

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Loyalty: A value championed by everyone from families and businesses to gang members and political parties. Loyalty is a value shared by most people but there seem to be large differences in what it means to different groups and people as well as differences in how high the value should be held in relation to other core values. The problem of loyalty plagues our society from strict party voters to those who manipulate others using loyalty as a tool to do so. Why is it that something which seems so clearly to be a wholesome value creates so many problems? Here I want to discuss the negatives of bad or misunderstood loyalty, the benefits of good loyalty, and some ways we can address the issue of misused or misunderstood loyalty.

We’ve all heard of tribalism, the idea that we should be blindly loyal to the groups we are a part of and look down on or not treat as well the groups we aren’t. Tribalism has been discussed in an academic setting for quite some time. One of the main reasons is the interesting fact that tribalism is part of our human history that actually helped us survive. When we as humans were part of small nomadic groups that traveled around or actual tribes that were focused on the well-being of the only community they had known it was often a large threat to come across another group of humans who very likely were after the same food and resources that they were not to mention primeval instincts such as violence and lust. In these times it was very valuable to know who was in your group and stand by there side as you would hope they would do for you because it was in the interest of the common good of your society. However, at this point in human history, we have outgrown separated tribes and primeval instincts as a society.

As the world grows more and more connected by the minute we have been realizing that the same principle of working for the greater good of your community applies to the whole of the human community. While a beautiful realization and an obvious positive one it has created some cognitive dissonance within not just individuals but entire groups. Tradition, for instance, is one of the largest roadblocks we face. It has been traditional to find your group and maintain loyalty to them no matter what because it was a fight to survive. Now, however, we do not experience that same thing at most times. Of course, in some modern cases like gang life in L.A. or fighting on the front lines of a battlefield this understanding of loyalty is very prevalent but it could be argued that these are the result of a misunderstanding of the place loyalty now has in the modern world. Some of the problems we see range from straight-party voters and blind nationalism to those who would protect a murderer because they are family or a friend and those who stay in relationships because they have been with or promised to stay with a person who is bad for them. It’s no secret that all of these things are bad for humanity if we want to continue to advance to a world with less suffering.

What is it that causes these misunderstandings then? One reason which I touched on earlier is how it was built into us by evolution. Another reason though is those who hold up misunderstood loyalty, such as protecting and defending a friend or family member who was clearly in the wrong. This provides an effective thought experiment for this problem that clearly draws the line between good group loyalty and tribalism: No one is arguing that we shouldn’t have groups or those who we consider being closer and therefore more important to us than others. In fact, close relationships are essential for good mental health. However, the problem comes up when posed with this issue: A friend has just called someone a rude name or perhaps even stolen a small personal belonging and they are now being called out on it with ferocity and hostility. What do you do? First, you could stay out of it and let the people involved do what will be done. Another option is taking the side of the person who was wronged to begin with Most of us will have an intuition that tells us these solutions aren’t the best ones. The next two options are what separates the two sides of loyalty. First, you could jump to the defense of your friend ignoring the wrong-doing on their part and call out the inappropriateness of the way the other person is acting. Defending your group member to the core and admitting no wrong-doing on their part. Something very common and even touted as a characteristic of an ideal friend. The other option is still jumping to the defense of your friend but only defending them from the hostility they are receiving but not defending the action they did to evoke such behavior towards them. This option is one that carefully considers all of the values in the situation while still showing your group member that you are on their side whether or not you condone their actions.

The value of loyalty today lies in this last example. We as humans do need close human relationships and it’s especially good if we can find a group of people that we have a lot in common with and who enjoy spending time in the same way we do. However, we should not forego fundamental values such as trying to relieve and avoid as much suffering as possible for everyone in the name of loyalty to those group members. So how can we address this problem?

The best thing you can do is to try to find and address any biases and viewpoints you may hold that allow for a sort of tribalism mindstate to exist within you. You’re looking for things like blind loyalty that has neven been questioned and the consequences of choices you make surrounding your group members that may be causing more overall negatives than positives. Once you have found these things, if any, all it takes is to start acting differently. The next time a situation comes up where blind loyalty is expected, take your time to think through the consequences of your actions. When the next election comes around, research the candidates and issues rather than voting strictly by the party you have always identified with. This is a problem that comes from individual action not institutional influence so it’s up to you to change the course of your life and humanity as a whole. The more of us that start to uphold correctly aligned values the more others will do the same and the better each of our lives and the world at large will be.

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Political commentator, life coach, and moral philosophy fanatic. Here I talk about the perspectives, actions, and habits we can take to simply make life better.

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