Is tribalism a barrier to genuinely progressive politics?


Anna Crow

So, what team do you support?

How many of us remember those days when, particularly in Glasgow, to ask what football team someone supported might have been the most divisive question that could be asked of someone by a new acquaintance?  I must admit that when faced with this particular question, I very rarely have given whatever the asker would consider to be the right answer.  I am fairly indifferent towards football in general.  If pressed for a more specific answer I might express support for Partick Thistle, if largely because I like that they are not caught up in the sectarianism which can divide Rangers and Celtic supporters and associated groups, and I like their new mascot Kingsley, who was designed by David Shrigley, one of my favourite artists.

That answer and its basis some may find controversial enough; however any controversy which could be provoked by asking the question above so often pales starkly compared to that generated in response to the question posed to those able to vote in Scotland last year – the question of whether we should become an independent country.  I and so many others grew to feel very strongly about our personal viewpoint regarding this.  I imagine how I felt when walking past others in the street who were wearing Yes badges is similar in many ways to how avid supporters of a football team may feel when seeing others wearing the same colours, proudly displaying their affiliation.  I remember that urgent sense of wanting to find out from acquaintances both new and old their answer to that question – were they a Yes or a No?  In essence, what team did they support and why?

Nearly 1 year post-referendum, I don’t feel that precise urge so often anymore.  I certainly do not regret that Scottish independence was a large part of the draw for me and many others to engage seriously with politics, but I believe that to focus on independence as a single issue will always risk hampering a broader sense of perspective and understanding regarding politics and society in Scotland and beyond.  I still support Scottish independence but it is clearer to me than ever that this is from the viewpoint of it being a means to the kind of significant progressive change that I feel is so desperately needed, rather than from a point of view of nationalism for its own sake.

More and more I find myself questioning this instinct that drives people to think about things in terms of teams or sides and to focus so often on what divides us rather than what may unite us.  The prevalent tendency is to simplify, to present issues as a strict dichotomy when most things are much more complex.  With this can come the mentality where people assume all of those on what they perceive as the same side are friends and all on the opposing side as enemies, and even perhaps view the enemies of their enemies as friends by default.  I feel that there are many flaws in such a way of thinking.  I believe that the time has come to pose this question: is there really any place for this tribalistic mentality in progressive politics?

I do not seek to belittle the value of the way in which to align with a defined group can be a positive thing in terms of engagement with others who share the same beliefs and values to work together for the common good.  However, it is vital to remain aware that not all within groups we choose to join may share the same inherent views concerning important issues and there may even be times when we find have more in common with those some may view as being on the other side rather than those in the groups we may be affiliated with.

In terms of the Scottish independence debate there are prominent figures including elected politicians on both sides – to conform to a dichotomous way of thinking – whom I respect and admire because of the principled and progressive values shown by their words and actions.  There are also those in both groups who seem more interested in their own power gains than the common good or whose words and behaviour have displayed other attitudes which I believe to be bigoted and completely unacceptable.

Moreover, thinking more broadly about politics in Scotland and the rest of the UK, could anyone really argue that the sheer level of animosity frequently displayed between certain political parties, between Labour and the SNP for example, is a productive influence for the common good of wider society?  So often televised pre-election debates descend into shouting matches rather than any thoughtful and reasoned discussion where all are given equal time to make their case and be questioned and held to account by the general public.  What is of even more concern is that the same attitude seems so prevalent within all levels of government – the political happenings that we as the general public will not have easy access to see.

A culture where tribalism is so prominent can foster an unhealthy sense of hierarchy and lead to bullying and intimidation of individuals who may at times be unwilling to side with the dominant view in their affiliated group for good reason – how can this be representative of genuine democracy?  This mentality also creates an unnecessary barrier between different groups being able to communicate honestly and work together when possible while retaining the ability to take a stand on areas of irreconcilable disagreement.

To challenge this may not be simple or straightforward to do but I believe that is what we and our elected representatives in government must do and keep doing in order to further progressive politics.  We need politics that represents genuine democracy, a greater sense of cooperation and solidarity regarding issues we agree upon, and most importantly, politics that is centred on the common good of all in society.