A student sits in a cafe during a protest Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

The Roots of Western Tribalism

The nationalist, populist, anti-immigrant, and anti-globalization movements of the past few years have revived tribal politics, which favors in-group identity over civic bonds based on shared values. The problem is not merely inequality, as one often hears, but also a neglect of the humanities in public life.

ABU DHABI – In Hermann Hesse’s novel Journey to the East, the character of H.H., a novice in a religious group known as The League, describes a figurine depicting himself next to the group’s leader, Leo. “It seemed that, in time, all the substance from one image would flow into the other and only one would remain: Leo. He must grow, I must disappear.”

Hesse is describing the sacrifice of an individual self for the sake of a larger cause. But he is also depicting how people create their heroes. Whether it is Vladimir Lenin, Che Guevara, Ruhollah Khomeini, Hugo Chávez, or even Donald Trump, “heroes” are in the eye of the beholder. They are idealized reflections of the self. And as Hesse’s description implies, the heroic image also feeds off of the self, to the point that the individual must disappear.

Tribalism is at the heart of this process. Because mankind has a deep yearning for a sense of belonging and for leadership, humans naturally form groups with established leaders. Some groups are positive manifestations of collaboration and solidarity among individuals. But when groups are based on an ideology or a particular tribe, they can become discriminatory and oppressive toward non-members, especially if a domineering, charismatic leader is in charge.

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