Why does Dante’s Inferno have some college teachers and undergraduate students running through a field naked with spears in their hands and bones through their noses? Certainly they’re not tribesmen on the hunt looking for their sworn enemy. Or are they? It appears a battle is going on our English classrooms with teachers pitted against students. What is this epic battle of wills you ask? In this case, poor Dante has fallen victim to the ill effects of tribalism. And you have already picked a side! This war is a common one; one fought for centuries. In the philosophical world tribalism is the battle of your wrong beliefs versus their right beliefs or perhaps it is the other way around. Which side you choose depends on who is telling the story. This testament of wills is not reserved solely for classrooms. In fact, it’s a part of everything we experience; we can’t escape it. It happens without us even realizing it.
So what do Dante, tribalism, and an English classroom have to do with our beliefs? It has everything to do with them because we’re deeply a part of the war.
The term “tribalism” refers to the behavior married with tradition, customs, and a common belief system. We subconsciously identify ourselves with people with which we have things in common. Tribalism is the means by which we gain a sense of security, community, and through which our need for preservation is protected. Our status as individual evolves from one to many and it appears to Biologist Bruce Rozenblit we don’t have much of a have a choice in the matter. “Tribalism is not just a component of human culture” he claims in his book, Us Against Them: How Tribalism Affects the Way We Think , “but also linked to the natural evolution of our biology.” Over time we forge bonds and strengthen our allegiance to one another through traditions and customs. We become the warrior, faith becomes our crest and tribalism is our shield. I say ‘is’ because it exists within us as a part of how we make our way in the world. We train to be a warrior defending our beliefs and strengthening our faith.
But tribalism is deeper: it ignites our will to act and preserves our way of life. Tribalism can also act against us, causing us to seek shelter under its warm safe embrace, like a security blanket. Think of tribalism has an old friend who knows us well and always has our back. It knows our likes and dislikes, and knows what beliefs make us comfortable. However, for this protection, tribalism demands our allegiance and loyalty.
In order to better explore this phenomenon, I looked to the works of Ayn Rand, specifically her work titled, The Missing Link. Could there be any merit to her claim that tribalism is just a byproduct of irrational collectivism and socialist behaviors? “Philosophically, tribalism is the product of irrationalism and collectivism.” she explains. “It is a logical consequence of modern philosophy. If men accept the notion that the individual is helpless, intellectually and morally, that he has no mind and no rights, that he is nothing, but the group is all, and his only moral significance lies in selfless service to the group—they will be pulled obediently to join a group.” Consider again, poor Dante. A teacher may present Dante’s work and find that she has inadvertently made enemies of her students because those students don’t like Dante’s ideas. Our hesitation and fear of change propels us to take up arms against anything that makes us uneasy. Students who are bound by tribalism will rise up and protect their intellect, values, and beliefs. As Rand proclaims, people won’t just willingly lay down their beliefs for the good of the group. They fight, they struggle, they question, and retreat to their beliefs. Our innate sense of survival comes into play when confronted with new ideas. If we accept these new ideas we first run the risk of being alienating from the group we previously stood with. We also face an internal struggle with our own identity seemingly abandoning the very ideas that make up who we are. This seems to threaten our very existence in this lifetime and perhaps even the next if the ideas are radical enough.
Relationships are threatened
Relationships are similar to the creation of a clay pot: it takes time to create and mold them into existence. During the design process of a clay pot, the artist will shape and smooth the pot using water as his shaping agent. In a similar way, an individual uses not water to shape and smooth the relationship but, trust and the intellect. Fear of the unknown and possible expulsion from our group prevents us from accepting ideas proposed as superior to our own. Our need to protect the tribe is deepened every time our beliefs are challenged. This bond is not easily broken and will not give way at the mere mention of something new. The old is safe, it’s reliable, and no matter the situation, we as a member of this group will fight to protect it. Breaking that bond will only happen after a deep internal struggle prompted by betrayal from within the group.
Consider the movie The Matrix as a modern day version of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, is confronted by a group of people who believe the current world is not real and he alone is the savior of the real world. He must come to terms with the idea everything is a lie. The clothes he wears, the food he eats, and the house he occupies are all part of a computer-generated matrix designed by an evil cyber-intelligence. Before this revelation, he worked, he lived, and he loved; his purpose in life was a journey similar to yours and mine. Now his existence was only to provide fuel for a computer race set to dominate the world, and if that’s not enough he alone is the only one who can save all of mankind. Neo doesn’t struggle with the idea that he could be a warrior or savior, the struggle is passing from knowing it to believing it. Even when his rescuers give him factual, tangible evidence to the existence of The Matrix, he still can’t believe it. I think about myself in this moment. I train for a 5K but do I really believe I am someone who can run a 5K? Am I fooling myself into thinking that I can stand shoulder-to-shoulder at the start line with these dedicated runners? I struggle through the race because I don’t believe myself to be a runner but rather someone trying to look like a runner. Neo was jumping buildings, fighting cybermen, swinging from helicopters and could do so because he began to believe what he formerly found incredible. I run everyday and eat the right foods, but at what point will I start believing I am “a runner?” That’s the struggle of tribalism: even when our own eyes see things to be true, we struggle to accept them as true.
The internal struggle
The students in the English classroom read Dante for the first time. They read of people suffering in the most horrid of ways. The student comes to learn Dante was inspired by his love for Beatrice and his understanding of the Catholic faith. God is portrayed as a harsh ruler subjecting his followers to the full force of his wrath. This new image of God is a far reach from the pleasant Sunday School God she read about as a child. Now her values, her beliefs, and her understanding of God are being threatened by this new doctrine. To her, the God she knew could never be so harsh and this teacher who she is supposed to trust is misrepresenting Him by using the words of a 13th century poet! Can she, as an emerging adult remove the tribalist filters and hear the story, this new idea, for what it is? Can she pull back the curtain to see that this seemingly horrible wizard is just a new idea that she can meet on her own terms? Can she understand that this ‘harshness’ is not the teacher misrepresenting God but, for the first time, see this as an attempt by her teacher to open her eyes to a new insight into her beloved religion even when the view is not always pleasant? If she can, the effects of tribalism begins to lose its power and the individual wavers in their loyalty. Her ability to think critically is awakened as she may begin to question everything she believed, even her own existence.
A crisis of existence
Things may not be so simple—or hopeful. If she is able to open up her world, the transition may send her into an identity crisis. The new idea may strike at the core of her own identity and cause her to lose herself (this is why she protects it so fervently). The crisis deepens not only because her livelihood on Earth is in jeopardy but her place in the afterlife as well. If the individual rejects his or her beliefs then there is a real possibility of rejection and banishment from the Promised Land. If one belief is wrong then they all may be wrong. If Dante implies that lying doesn’t send us straight to hell and we’re supposed to believe him, what moral boundaries are not in question? If lying and murder do not matter than hell doesn’t matter either because it may not exist. The escalation of what is real and what is not is a slippery slope that may be difficult to avoid. The individual is disheartened, bitter, and angry. The betrayal is a like knife to her identity. At this point, tribalism begins to lose its power but there may not be an adequate replacement. The individual enters a period of chaos where new ideas are appealing and their old ideas are a bitter reminder of their naivety and trusting nature. There is no denying that the effects of tribalism run deep: it seems we are damned if do and damned if we don’t.
The truth in these questions – loyalty to our beliefs and understanding our own identity – have been pondered for centuries by philosophers and sages alike. We are overcome by our own prejudices and this crisis ripples down from the oldest to the youngest student. When we struggle with our faith and identity, it’s only in the solace of what brings us comfort do we find shelter. Christopher Hitchens, author and journalist, once said, “When people have tried everything and have discovered that nothing works, they will tend to revert to what they know best—which will often be the tribe, the totem, or the taboo.” It would seem no matter what we say or do, we are fighting something long-rooted in our psyche, something that leads to further distrust and less use of the cognitive functions required for learning. The effects of ideological tribalism negatively sharpen the skeptical mind and fans the flames of our distrusting nature. With so much pitted against the teacher who needs to teach and the student who needs to learn, how will either of them ever learn anything new if they always retreat into the security blanket of their stubborn beliefs?
This brick wall interferes with our ability unleash our inhibitions and overcome the fear of the unknown. Philosophically speaking, tribalism removes the ability to gain new experiences and form new beliefs. American philosopher William James, in writing to John Jay Chapman, an American author with whom James would occasionally spar on matters of faith, wrote, “In my individual heart I fully believe my faith is as robust as yours. The trouble with your robust and full-bodied faith, however, is that you begin to cut each others throats too soon.” (Letter to John Jay Chapman , April 5, 1897). We clearly live in a society fragmented by our beliefs. I’m not arguing that we should give up the Queen to the enemy. But if we are to live together, we have to have to agree to disagree on some matters. We can remove the anger and resentment attached to the effects of tribalism if we understand the fidelity to our beliefs is not in jeopardy for merely opening ourselves up to another’s ideas.
In that light, maybe Dante isn’t so bad after all. Maybe the horrible wizard who appears to be damning souls and delighting in suffering is really the kindly old man of everlasting love between two people destined to be together. The ties that bind us together will only be strengthen when we engage with each other in mutual respect, “It’s a sobering reflection on this inherent but potentially destructive aspect of human nature, in these unsettled and threateningly uncertain times. I suggest creating first hand ’tabletop’ experience to bring together both ’sides’ NOT just for discussion but rather to engage in activities that generate discussions.” ~anonymous