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Us and them: the comfort and oppression of the social walls

A specter is haunting the global village – the specter of tribalism. From chasing specific groups to making political decisions of global impact, all humanity seems to be united in a holy alliance to this specter. How many conflicts are based on ethnic differences between the groups involved? How many groups, even, make political decisions based not on facts and statistical data, but on tribal loyalties? Two conclusions stem from these facts: (1) tribal impulses have a remarkable influence on human behavior; and (2) thinking and discussing tribalism in the current post-truth age, in which facts have become less influential in decision-making than subjective opinions, are attitudes that must be taken urgently. However, solving it can be as complicated as we can imagine.

It may take milliseconds to judge and identify someone as strange. Judgments are a common feature of daily life and we must be careful about them. The bigger they are, the smaller are the chances of getting to know different people, of having empathy and of accepting that the world is diverse. Every human being in the Earth belongs to groups that have its own social identities. Based on these identities, it is possible to judge, to feel superior, or maybe even threatened, so that violence is used to defend your own group. As primitive and pessimistic this may seem this is pretty much how the world is actually arranged. To see this, it is useful to remember the way Yuval Noah Harari described humanity in his bestseller Sapiens. Harari proposes that humankind is naturally tribal so that people tend to live in small societies and cooperate only with those who are like them. Tribalism driven by ethnical differences is not the only kind that divides us though. In fact, there are sorts of tribalism also driven by cultural ideologies, political parties, forms of government and technological influence as well.

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Think about the way humans share stories, beliefs and cultural aspects worldwide. In this global scale, there are countless social identities and cultural ideologies which unite people in different groups. The anthropologist Roque de Barros Laraia says in his book Culture – an anthropological concept that among this immeasurable cultural diversity, it is impossible to classify a culture as superior or inferior to another one – they are just singular, unique. However, this anthropological concept does not seem to be accepted everywhere. Over the centuries, history has shown us countless times how exacerbated nationalism, strong sense of belonging as well as distinction between “us” and “them” led people to build social walls around themselves fearing the different. The Nazi holocaust of the 20th century, modern-day antisemitism, the continuing conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis and the migration crisis that prompts the creation of walls at the borders of countries such as the United States and North Korea are just a few examples of how the coexistence of multiple social identities is threatened.

In addition to that, by taking a careful look at the Brazilian history, for example, it is possible to testify that however diverse the country may be, getting rid of the things that divide its population is still a challenge. We can say that the biggest Latin American country is divided since the 16th century, when European settlers arrived in lands already inhabited by native people. Slavery, which was adopted at the beginning of this colonization process, ruled the social relation of production over more than three centuries. It was not legally ended until 1888, making Brazil the last nation in the Western world to abolish slavery. Enslaved indigenous groups were forced to capture members of other tribes. African slaves of different nationalities were purposely put together, which gave rise to new conflicts. Now, hundreds of years later, in which way do you think the legacy of slavery is affecting daily life?

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For sure, the legacy is quite delicate. However multicultural the Brazilian people may be, consisting of Indigenous, African and European DNA, systematic inequalities, disadvantages, discriminations and prejudice still exist within Brazil. Affirmative action laws are designed in order to fight the legacy of slavery, like adopting quota for Afro-Brazilians in state universities. Nevertheless, it causes social discontent and divides opinions nationwide. Debates about quotas, immigration, abortion, gun ownership, homosexual marriage, and the most diverse public policies reveal how polarized people are on opposite sides of political specters.

The simple grouping in different political parties gives rise to a kind of partisan tribalism that strengthens a scenario of social polarization and increases violence. Political class vs. regular citizens. Noble religion vs. dumb superstition. Developed civilization vs. primitive wild people. Trump supporters vs. immigrants. Left-wing vs. right-wing. Rich vs. poor. Globalism vs. populism. As global history teaches us, classifying ourselves with such opposing labels can lead to chaos and create social walls around ourselves. Hopefully, there must be something we can do in order to make it possible to coexist among diversity.

In an age when geography is irrelevant to communication, digital media and technological hyper-connectivity ignore national boundaries and connect us to the whole world. However, tribal behaviors arise in this virtual world as we use it to reinforce cultural boundaries and social walls. People often use digital media to reinforce stereotypes, spread hate and fake news. Is this a scenario that strengthens polarization? For sure, the influence of fake news on the formation of public opinion reinforces both political and cultural tribalism. Fake news of Hillary Clinton allegedly running a pedophile network in the basement of a pizzeria in Washington, DC; or of the Brazilian left-wing supposed to be implementing gay kits in public schools; or any other exciting news when discussing the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union, indicate how much the internet has been used to divide us even further. In addition, they reveal how much virtual space, which is available to all, is used to fortify a sense of belonging to tribes. Therefore, it is possible to think that, in fact, cybernetic tribalism is also part of our reality.

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What do political decisions and hate speeches based on fake news have in common? This is simple: aim an enemy. But why? Well, in order to divide groups and opinions, booster electoral campaigns and reinforce social identities in the globalized world in which we live. In today’s technological age, the internet boosters the speed of content propagation and becomes, to some extent, a serious threat to democracy. Remarkably, the consequences are not limited to speculation, but reach out actual physical violence; just consider such cases as the pizzeria shooting where there was supposedly a pedophile network at its basement, or attacks against presidential candidates in Brazil.

In the end, a question remains: how to solve problems related to the most diverse types of tribalism? Well, there is at least how to attenuate them. When smartphones are making people “unsmart”, using the fact-checking strategy is a good start. Checking the veracity of the content we consume can slow down the spread of rumors and fake news. Also, being open to conversations and understanding that peace is never compromising are attitudes that seem extremely necessary in times like these. Peace and effective communication are, in fact, key pieces in interpersonal relationships. Together, they pave our way to a future where coexisting with multiple identities without the usage of violence is possible, and living in increasingly isolated societies is not the most desirable option.

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