The Jersey City Tragedy Puts a Spotlight on America's Tribalism

Keith Zakheim

The human tragedy of the Jersey City shooting is numbing: innocent lives were taken, families torn apart, and communities paralyzed by catastrophe and fear. While the tragedy is self-evident and well covered, tribalism, the underlying cause of the Jersey City tragedy and the thousands of other hate crimes that are now accepted as part and parcel of contemporary life, is less understood.

Tribalism is not a new phenomenon. The cultural division of people into families, sects, religions, political parties and even sports teams is rooted in our DNA. In fact, anthropologists, evolutionary biologists, and political scientists trace the earliest record of tribalism to, well, tribes. Specifically, the hunter and gatherer tribes of the Anthropocene era who left the first archeological records of humans banding together to create, what Robert Wright famously termed, “non-zero sumness,” cooperation that yields the experience of win/win interactions.

Tribalism, simply defined, is the grouping of individuals into specific cliques that are at times elastic and at others rigid. A political party or a football fan club are examples of the elastic type in that one can gain admittance into the group with relative ease. Examples of rigid tribalism are human constructs such as aristocratic families, religions, and nation-states in which admittance is either impossible or imposes a high barrier to entry. 

Today, tribalism has developed a negative connotation. It is associated with political partisanship, troubling nationalism, and religious fundamentalism. In the last few years, there have been a plethora of books that lament the contemporary resurfacing of extreme tribalism. A few of them posit that tribalism has diminished over the last few hundred years and point to various economic and social metrics to prove their respective assertion; other books, such as those written by Francis Fukuyama and Jonah Goldberg, shed light on the dark underbelly of tribalism and its threat to progress, freedom and human rights.

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