Identity and Tribalism

The word “identity” means an affiliation, a connection, a sense of being who you are. The word “tribalism” means the behaviour and attitudes that stem from strong loyalty to one’s own tribe or social group. A “tribe” is simply a group of people connected by blood or circumstance and today I refer to our Houses and our School as a “tribe” when I use that term.

When does identity become tribalism and is that a good or bad thing?

There is a subtle difference in my mind between the two and I believe the one has a negative connotation and the other positive. Tribalism implies not only a strong loyalty towards a certain group but also perhaps a blind loyalty where defects and faults within the group are overlooked in favour of the group. The group reigns supreme and is supported without question. Behaviour is determined by the group, both good and bad, and questioning or deviation from the group is strongly discouraged. While this binds groups together certainly, it does make being different very difficult. It makes having a different opinion hard and makes behaving as an individual virtually impossible. It removes individuality in favour of corporate reasoning and thinking. Much like the machines I spoke of on Wednesday that guide our thinking, so too does the concept of tribalism guide us and can indeed define our very being. We become identified as a member of the tribe rather than as the individual we are. Do you introduce yourself first by your name and then state you are at Boys High, or the other way around?

Identity has, in my mind, a far more positive slant. The word “affiliation” does not mean firm membership but rather an association – a link to or a connection with something as the definition puts it. This sense of who we are as a result of this connection allows us to be ourselves yet still have a strong identity with a greater group.

I have spoken many times about loyalty and extolled its virtues as an honourable quality but I have also warned about a blind and unthinking loyalty that ignores personal belief in favour of collective feelings.

So, in a school like ours, traditional in all its ways, that celebrates the collective so much can there be a place for individuals and individual behaviour? I would certainly hope so. I think we can combine the two concepts of individualism and corporate identity depending on circumstance. I think we need to stand up for our beliefs as individuals and stand firm on our moral code yet come together as a united group when needed – usually and most obviously when supporting our sports teams but also when our very core as an organisation is threatened. I do not want our school to squash your individual qualities and those things that make you unique and special. I want us to celebrate your difference and understand what makes you work yet I also want you to come together as a school, united in those things we do have in common.

I take this concept to a micro level and move from the entire school to a group of you standing together. As a group, you have a group identity because that is why you are together. This identity is informal yet changes when confronted from identity to tribalism as the external threat arrives. The group tightens up, usually in silence and closes ranks. I have often encountered a group of boys where something happened that I was not happy about. When I ask them as a group what they had done and why, it is only after considerable pressure that one boy sometimes has the courage to speak about what happened. All others, good people all of them, are caught up in the trap of tribalism and not wanting to speak for fear of being ostracised by the group. Yet, if I had spoken to them as individuals, it would have been a different story.

You have to decide now and in the future when you want to be part of a group and when you want to stand alone. Groups give us often that sense of belonging we crave as humans but be warned. Groups sometimes squash our very humanity and who we are and take away what we really stand for. How do you know when to do what – when to stand together and when to stand alone? Simple – you feel it. You know deep inside yourself when it is right to be part of a team, part of a group and to celebrate success and share in disappointment but you also know when it is right to stand alone – sometimes the hardest part of all.

“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche