Surveying the headlines of the international and national news these days, I feel as if the world is falling apart: In Syria there has been a civil war going on for several years; within the Syrian rebels one Sunni group, IS, is fighting against all other groups including other Sunnis trying to subjugate them all; in Ukraine the separatists are fighting against the Ukraine government with a heavy assistance from Russia; in GB the Scotts are scheduled to vote on Sept. 18, to decide if Scotland should be independent; in the US entrenched partisanship shows no sign of abating, etc., etc.. I wonder if the world is becoming like a great collection of tribes. Is it a good thing?
A half century ago Marshall McLuhan predicted our world would become a global village in the future. He wrote in The Gutenberg Galaxy: “The new electronic interdependence re-creates the world in the image of a global village.” As he foresaw, in many ways our world has become something like a global village where one whimper at the edge of the world could be heard in the middle of a big city thanks to the development of electronic communication media, such as the Internet and World Wide Web. When McLuhan publicized such an idea the prospect of the future world as a global village looked rosy, since we tend to think of a village as a peaceful and idyllic place. But McLuhan did not mean the sentimental sense of a uniform and tranquil place, but he meant a place that creates “more discontinuity and division and diversity.” Although he did not live to witness the emergence of the new world disorder, he was absolutely correct when he said a global village would create “more discontinuity and division and diversity.” Because of the new electronic communication media the world is no longer separated by time and space, and this state has witnessed the rise of tribe-like groups each one of which hold unusual and often heterodox beliefs and ideas. This seems partially the reason for the rise of tribalism.
Then, one may question why small groups tend to share unusual beliefs and ideas within them. I found one explanation in Don DeLillo’s fiction White Noise.
In White Noise there is one hilarious scene in Chapter 17 where the postmodern family members of Gladney household exchange casual information that is filled with errors. Obviously, the scene was dramatized for the sake of comic effect. But, it was also created to demythologize the nature of family or community solidarity that is conventionally and usually considered as highly valuable or even virtuous. This dramatization of “typical” family conversation is immediately followed by a passage that articulates its point: “The family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation. There must be something in family life that generates factual error… Murrays says we are fragile creatures surrounded by a world of hostile facts. Facts threaten our happiness and security. The deeper we delve into the nature of things, the looser our structure may seem to become. The family process works toward sealing off the world. Small errors grow heads, fictions proliferate. I tell Murray that ignorance and confusion can’t possibly be the driving forces behind family solidarity. What an idea, what a subversion. He asks me why the strongest family units exist in the least developed societies. Not to know is a weapon of survival, he says. Magic and superstition become entrenched as the powerful orthodoxy of the clan.”
Certainly DeLillo was taking about families not tribes. But, a family is like a tribe in many ways: it shares a common culture, belief system, and economic foundation. As DeLillo character Murray says it is precisely “magic and superstition” that binds a tribe together while repelling other tribes which have their own separate “magic and superstition.” It is vexing to think the world is becoming like a collection of delusional groups of people who insist on their fantasies as truth. But, is this scenario always the case?
On a further consideration, I have to say the cause for tribalisation of the world is not one and only: in fact, causes for Balkanization currently transpiring in many parts of the world are varied and many. But, it seems to me, in most cases such a fragmentation of the existing political unit is enabled by one leader exploiting the existing antipathy or grievance of some people to others in the current larger group.