America Wasn’t Built for Humans

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America Wasn’t Built for Humans

by Andrew Sullivan

Tribalism was an urge our founding fathers assumed we could overcome. And so it has become our greatest vulnerability.

I don’t agree with the writer’s views of human nature expressed in the genetic deterministic just-so story he provides in the following two paragraphs. If our early cultural evolution had actually taken the path he describes – a predominance of in-group protectionist thinking over inter-group cooperation, accommodation and compromise thinking – all but one group would have been left standing, the rest annihilated, and the world today would have little to none of the genetic, linguistic and cultural diversity we actually have. In-group preferences and inter-group conflict have always been human tendencies but there is little evidence that they are default positions hard-wired into our genome. Avoidance and a wide range of non-violent inter-group options including inter-marriage alliances have far out-numbered our choices to fight and try to defeat others.


“The tribes that best survived (and thereby transmitted their genes to us) were, moreover, those most acutely aware of outsiders and potential foes. A failure to notice incoming strangers could end your life in an instant, and an indifference to the appearances of other human beings could mean defeat at the hands of rivals or the collapse of a tribe altogether. And so we became a deeply cooperative species — but primarily with our own kind. The notion of living alongside people who do not look like us and treating them as our fellows was meaningless for most of human history.

“Comparatively few actual tribes exist today, but that doesn’t mean that humans are genetically much different.”

I do agree with all else he offers. Especially the laying of the greatest blame for encouraging hardened tribalism on the Right and the Republican Party in particular. But more importantly I agree with his two ways members of the Left and Right tribes in the US can survive and prosper: 1) a renewed focus on individuality; and 2) forgiveness and magnanimity toward each other. In short, placing greater value on individuals, moderating the intensity of our beliefs and values, being more empathetic, and pursuing compromise.

“As utopian as it sounds, I truly believe all of us have to at least try to change the culture from the ground up. There are two ideas that might be of help, it seems to me. The first is individuality. I don’t mean individualism. Nothing is more conducive to tribalism than a sea of disconnected, atomized individuals searching for some broader tribe to belong to. I mean valuing the unique human being — distinct from any group identity, quirky, full of character and contradictions, skeptical, rebellious, immune to being labeled or bludgeoned into a broader tribal grouping. This cultural antidote to tribalism, left and right, is still here in America and ready to be rediscovered. That we expanded the space for this to flourish is one of the greatest achievements of the West. … And, [secondly] at some point, we also need mutual forgiveness. It doesn’t matter if you believe, as I do, that the right bears the bulk of the historical blame. No tribal conflict has ever been unwound without magnanimity. Yitzhak Rabin had it, but it was not enough. Nelson Mandela had it, and it was. In Colombia earlier this month, as a fragile peace agreement met public opposition, Pope Francis insisted that grudges be left behind: ‘All of us are necessary to create and form a society. This isn’t just done with the ‘pure-blooded’ ones, but rather with everyone. And here is where the greatness of the country lies, in that there is room for all and all are important.’ If societies scarred by recent domestic terrorism can aim at this, why should it be so impossible for us? … Nurturing your difference or dissent from your own group is difficult; appreciating the individuality of those in other tribes is even harder. It takes effort and imagination, openness to dissent, even an occasional embrace of blasphemy. … The actual solutions to our problems are to be found in the current no-man’s-land that lies between the two tribes. Reentering it with empiricism and moderation to find different compromises for different issues is the only way out of our increasingly dangerous impasse.”


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