Us and Them

I like to pretend that my Saturday mornings are times of reflection, times for reading my newspapers and drinking my coffee, watching a little “talking heads” TV, and for times where my much better half and I can catch up on the happenings of the past week and plan (meaning, very little planning needed) for the coming week.

The truth, though, has become self-evident, mostly because I started writing this blog. I’ve now added to my Saturday morning routine some time at my laptop, where when given the opportunity, I can use this platform to inform the world of what’s going through my head. The beauty here is that you, the reader, are not obliged to read what I’m writing or to show any understanding or interest with what’s in my head. I do, however, hope that you find what I’m trying to say at least marginally interesting.

It seems I’m hard-wired in a weird way to ignore the normalcy of everyday life and focus instead on any somewhat controversial subject/topic, and then become obsessed with said subject/topic until it exhausts itself, and then I move on to the next. Let me tell you, self-awareness is not always uplifting or pretty. I really do miss the days of heading off to Canadian Tire on any given Saturday morning, just because I could, and because it was a place to take the kids to get them out of the house and give Mom a break.

I’m sure by now you must be asking yourself, what the ……………?

Well, there is a point to this story. On Saturday morning past my wife noted I wasn’t watching Fareed Zakaria’s regularly scheduled CNN program (as I usually do) which is titled GPS, and given my recent political ravings about “political tribalism” I was missing a gem. It should tell me something when my wife, a Public Health professional and certainly one of the most non-political people I know, is keeping an eye on my behalf for something to occupy my mind – which in our real-world case means my time. But I digress.

Political tribalism, you ask? Please let me explain, at least a little. For whatever reason, sometimes its simply a matter of geography, sometimes family history, sometimes religious affiliation, sometimes financial well-being. But for whatever reason, some people are pre-disposed to support the Liberal Party of Canada or the Conservative Party of Canada – or in the United States either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party – and nothing, and I mean nothing, will move those people off their supportive positions. A person’s IQ doesn’t matter; a person’s educational level doesn’t matter; a person’s income level doesn’t matter; and a person’s ability to reason when dealing with non-political issues doesn’t matter.

In political terms, we call those people a pollical “base”. In sociological terms, we could call those people a “political tribe”, and over the years I’ve often thought that “committed” Liberals and /or Conservatives were being tribal in their fierce loyalty to their Political Party, no matter the policy issue being presented, or political offense committed.

I have many such friends on both sides, and I mentioned this “tribalism” thing to a Liberal friend of mine in an email exchange regarding the recent SNC-Lavalin saga. In a good-natured way (or at least I had hoped it was in a good-natured way) I accused my Liberal friend of being “tribal” in his assessment of the whole affair, and that he couldn’t be objective because of his life-long loyalty to the Liberal Party of Canada. As you might think, vigorous debate followed, and ended without agreement, but it got me to thinking about how “tribal” I have been in all the many aspects of my life. More on that to follow. Well, now back to my story of Saturday morning.

I rushed to the family room TV, hit rewind to find the beginning of the interview my wife was referring to, and there was Fareed Zakaria (one of my favorites talking heads/political commentators for sure) interviewing some guy I’d never heard of before. Turns out the person being interviewed was Robert Sapolsky, a neuroendocrinologist who is currently a professor of biology, neurology and neurological sciences at Stanford University. And if that isn’t enough for you, Professor Sapolsky is also a research associate at the Natural Museums of Kenya. That’s quite the resume. And low and behold, this guy is all of a sudden bringing clarity to an issue that I’ve been grappling with most of my adult life, and he’s giving me the “why” – as in, why do intelligent, well educated people support what I consider to be such irrational political positions?

Although a prolific and accomplished author (and to my embarrassment someone I’ve never read or heard of before) Professor Sapolsky has most recently published an article in the March/April edition of Foreign Affairs, a highly respected journal in the world of, you guessed it, foreign affairs. Professor Sapolsky’s article was titled This Is Your Brain On Nationalism.

Sapolsky’s hypotheses is easy to follow, but perhaps less easy to accept in all quarters. Simply put, Sapolsky (and others) set out to prove that we (meaning humans as a species) are genetically pre-disposed to become “tribal” in nature, and our brains are hard-wired to recognize other humans as being either an “us” or a “them”.

I won’t bore you with the technical or academic details of the research, but I hope I’ve given you enough information to find what you are looking for, if indeed you decide to go looking. If you can’t find what you need, just drop me a line and I’ll try to steer you in the right direction.

But allow me to share that during Zakaria’s interview with Sapolsky, it became clear to me that we are all tribal in nature, and not only are we tribal in nature, we must become tribal in nature.   Its in our nature to seek out those of us who are “like us” and to stay there, thus becoming tribal in our positions.  This is a mine field of political, social, religious and economic debate that we too often ignore.

Sapolsky argues that tribalism develops from our human need to experience an “us” versus a “them”, and that we have this gigantic dividing line in our brains that helps “us” de-humanize “them”.

So, how do we do this? If you’ll allow me to use SNC-Lavalin as an example, the story quickly divided Canadians into two camps; those who supported Jody Wilson-Raybould and those who supported Justin Trudeau.

On the Jody side, (we’ll call this “us”) you had just about everyone who wasn’t a committed Liberal supporter, plus those who were disappointed that Trudeau “broke faith” with the feminist, egalitarian and indigenous agendas, as well as those who had a constitutional respect for the rule of law. This side’s mantra was “How could you?”

On the other side, (we’ll call this side “them”) you have committed Liberal supporters and those who argued that no laws were broken. This side moved quickly to discredit Wilson-Raybould, saying she wasn’t a team player, she was difficult to work with, and that being a woman she viewed things differently. You could argue this is a form of de-humanization, as I have argued this case in previous blogs.

We have plenty of examples in recent human history where the “de-humanization” of a race, or a religion, or of an economically or geographically disadvantaged population have been demonized; certainly, enough to see Sapolsky’s point. We saw tribalism at work during the US Civil War where loyalties were lived out simply by nature of the place you were born or lived. The same happened before and during the Second World War with the Nazi extermination of the Jews, but in this instance race, religion and economics came into play.

Sapolsky argues living examples of nationalistic tribalism can be found with Brexit, where extreme British nationalism is on full display with Great Britain’s exit from the European Union. Extreme nationalism is on full display when we look at the two Koreas – North and South. And finally, and thankfully not to our Canadian shame but we shouldn’t become too complacent, we are seeing a very close-up example of tribal nationalism in support of Donald Trump and the Republican Party in the United States.

In my life, I figure I’ve been a member of many tribes, so to speak. I’ve had different school affiliations. I’ve been a member of different religions at different times throughout my life. I’ve been in law enforcement, where “us” and “them” is lived out in even more extreme terms. I’ve been a card-carrying member of political parties. I’ve been a pretty steady member of the middle-class tribe of Canadians. I’ve lived in more Canadian Provinces than most Canadians, I think, and no matter how many times I move locations I remain a member of the Newfoundland tribe. Go figure!

How many tribes do you belong to?

3 thoughts on “Us and Them

  1. Hi Ron,
    Really enjoyed this piece. Can see you are investing a lot of time and thought into these musing on the socio-political landscape.

    In the interests of debate/perspective I add the following:

    We do tend to be tribal. I do believe in the concept, but I am not sure it is by nature a ‘must’; rather its education or, in some tribal groups, indoctrination. All terms like ‘tribal’ are a matter of vocabulary and perception. I think that it’s the result of psychological isolation, as it were, when we are not taught to think critically about differences and how to appropriately respond to them. Thus, differences are highlighted rather than subdued. I tend to be Liberal but do not consider people who vote Liberal necessarily like me at all. I vote liberal for very personal reasons, but I could be persuaded to vote for some other ideology for other right reasons, including honesty vs dishonesty. Being dedicated to a political party, until death do us part, as it were, I consider the epitome of a shallow mind.

    Your point about how people have reacted to SNC-L; “If you’ll allow me to use SNC-Lavalin as an example, the story quickly divided Canadians into two camps; those who supported Jody Wilson-Raybould and those who supported Justin Trudeau,” may be as much perception as reality or, perhaps, it is a perception that has become reality.

    Rather than come down on any side I take the position that the jury is out. It is entirely possible that either side is being self-serving rather than taking the moral high ground, although most people tend to think that Wilson-Raybould is acting honourably. As a historian I have to weigh evidence, and at this point the evidentiary base on which to make a decision is incomplete, although at this point in time I quickly admit it does not look good for Trudeau. However, with no intention to be trite, the jury truly is out. What is missing in this ‘us’ and ‘them’ paradigm, are those individuals who refuse to hastily render a verdict in the good versus evil trial. For me it’s a firm “a pox on both your houses” rather than a tribal “never the twain shall meet.”


    1. Excellent commentary Keith. As always, you have provided “added value”. I must say, I’m really enjoying the writing, and you’re right in that I’m putting a lot of thought, and time, into this blog thing. But some of this stuff has been swirling for years, and its just a matter of getting it off my chest. And I’m finding that I’m actually terrible at doing the “administration” things associated with the blog, and I promise I’ll try to do better.
      Take care my friend.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s