The Tribal Organization

{EDITOR’S NOTE : I have covered this subject before in this space, but it came up again on Facebook today and I realized I had more to say about it, hence today’s topic. }

We humans are a tribal lot. We have very deep social instincts driving us to form families and tribes at the slightest opportunity. Given enough time, proximity, and shared experience, any group of people will become a tribe, whether it’s two families who accidentally end up vacationing together, an office full of co-workers, or soldiers at war.

Modern liberal consumerism obscures this fact by assuring us that we are all individuals, independent and free, who would never stoop to something as low and offensive as actually being influenced by the society you live in every single moment of your life, including this moment right now.

And this one.

And so on.

And it is thos obfuscation that keeps the average person from understanding the very water in which they swim. [1] We throw up our hands in surrender when trying to understand what causes people to do these of which we certainly do not approve, and which are sometimes downright contemptible, when the evidence is clear once you start looking at the subject clearly.

It is this very simple and extremely power tribal urge that lies behind so many unpleasant realities, big and small, in modern society. What we demand of certain people goes directly against this tribalism, and we should not be surprised that, as bad as the consequences can be, sometimes the tribalism is going to win.

I will start with a small example from everyday life. We have all, at some point, needed something from someone who works behind a counter, only to find that said person prefers to chat with co-workers for however long they please before casually sauntering up to the counter to give you the bare minimum of service while giving you the distinct impression that you wanting them to do their actual job is a major and unjustifiable inconvenience.

This is, of course, extremely galling, and has caused many a person to wonder what the proverbial fuck is going on.

Let the scales of individualism fall from your eyes, and all becomes clear. Despite the fact that, by all rights, those people are there to serve customers and are told, over and over, by their organizations to be “customer oriented”, the people behind the counter have formed a tribe and you, the customer, are the outsider “attacking” them.

This illustrates the overriding rule of all tribes, no matter how formed : No matter what, protect the tribe from outsiders. Whatever has to be done to protect the tribe is justified under the laws of tribalism.

So when you, the unwitting customer, comes up to the counter, you are the person from outside the tribe who is making them do something they do not want to do, as opposed to enjoying the relaxing intra-tribal camaraderie they had before you showed up.

This is why organizations continually act against their purported purposes. Against the tribal instinct, some set of rules and high sounding goals as customer satisfaction struggle in vain.

In fact, it is this tribalism that leads to customer service employees to grow to hate the customers. All it takes is a few tales of awful customers to get passed around and enable the tribe to go in the direction it wants to go anyhow : our tribe is good. The customers are bad. We stand united against them.

And yet, it doesn’t stop there. This organizational mindset permeates all of society. On every level, there is the struggle between fulfilling the overt role one has attained in society, and being loyal to your tribe, and more times than not, it is the loyalty which wins.

Doesn’t sound so bad, right? Loyalty is very important. It is a primary human value and those who do not show it are often punished quite harshly, either legally or socially.

But what if we are talking about a priest’s loyalty to the Catholic Church versus the legitimate concerns about a child-molesting priest? What if it’s a cop’s loyalty to his fellow cops versus allegations of police brutality? What if it’s someone’s loyalty to the politician and party for whom they work versus their duty to tell the world the awful things said politician does?

And that’s the word to focus on as a fulcrum for this discussion : duty. Duty to society is the opposite of tribal loyalty, and it is the foundation of society because it is only bulwark we have against corruption. Whether it’s a government bureaucrat, a UPS driver, or just the kid who locks up after McDonald’s closes, society depends on people who will resist the institutional mindset and deliver service no matter what.

Thus the role of the ethical traitor. The person whom we actually laud for betraying their tribe by coming forward with the truth and evidence to bring real accountability to the system.

It is very telling that these people should be so rare and valuable. That’s how strong the tribal urge is in the hearts and minds of the human race is. Ninety nine point nine percent of the time, people choose tribal loyalty.

And who can blame them? Not only does the tribal instinct compel them to protect the tribe at all costs, and not only do we all know that any form of disloyalty is punished extremely harshly in human society regardless of justification, but to act outside the tribe, for a human, is to step out into outer space. Our tribes are our universes, and anything that reaches outside that is that most dreaded of specter, the unthinkable unknown.

So go easy on those who behave in underhanded or even downright wrong ways in order to protect their tribes. Sure, it’s easy for us, sitting outside their various tribes, to insist that everyone should behave in the way that benefits us, the outsiders. And there is no doubt that, from a moral point of view, that is exactly how they should act.

But are we so sure that we would be willing to leave the warm waters of tribal familiarity (often known as “the feeling of belonging”) in order to swim into the icy and isolated waters of betrayal, perhaps forever?

I will talk to you nice people again tomorrow.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. What water? says blind individualism. All I see are islands.

Leave a Reply