TRIBALISM: Pros and Cons

J. Wesley Casteen
5 min readJun 5, 2022


I agree with much of what Tom Campbell has to say in the article below: “Tribalism” has caused divisiveness and has promoted bigotry. We have lost our ability to work together, to come together in order to do more than we can apart, and to look beyond our limitations in order to see possibilities.

However, Mr. Campbell takes a leap from the idea that we should belong to, support, and believe in something greater than ourselves. (In this case, “ourselves” includes individuals or smaller and more limited tribes.) He extends this to a “we are the world” argument and attempts to define a single “tribe,” which includes all of “humankind.”

Mr. Campbell correctly identified some of the beneficial aspects of being tribal: Belonging, identification with others, and the establishment of social norms.

Can one “belong” to a group, which is all-inclusive? How does one “identify” with a group, which has no defining characteristics and is entirely indiscriminate? What social “norms” result, when it is impossible to define any act as “abnormal”?

Mr. Campbell is correct in acknowledging tribalism as inevitable and in many ways beneficial. We would exhaust ourselves emotionally and quickly consume our (financial) resources, if we extended to all of the inhabitants of earth the attentions and benefits that we afford to our closest friends and family. Not only is such unrealistic and impractical it is counterproductive.

Our friends are our friends because we “share” with them. If there is no sharing, then what is the motivation for a one-sided contribution or engagement? What if the beneficiary of our attention and largess refuses to accept or conform to established “norms” (i.e. concepts of propriety and morality)? Do we “reward” their “bad” behaviors by continuing to give to them in the same manner and amounts as we do to those, who reciprocate our caring, concern, devotion, and love?

Our relationships are “transactional.” We invest ourselves in persons and relationships that are ultimately beneficial to us. In the absence of motivations such as martyrdom, masochism, and enabling, we remove ourselves from relationships or limit our interactions with persons that are detrimental to our own well being. This is not only necessary given our limited emotional and financial resources, but it is beneficial in that it encourages us to avoid wasting our limited energies and resources and to maximize the “value” (i.e. benefits) of the resulting interactions.

The problem comes when consciously or in ignorance we make bad “value” judgments. We have natural inclinations toward self-determination, self-advancement, and self-defense. Those are positive and necessary instincts. However, when those traits evolve into untempered selfishness such that one’s acts represent unnecessary (and unproductive) bullying and oppression of “others,” we end up making bad value judgments. Again, this applies both to individuals and limited groups. When the objective of the group is the perpetuation and protection of the “tribe” at all costs, it is nearly impossible to rationally and objectively consider the “value” proposition.

What resources are being expended unnecessarily to maintain “separateness”? Are there demonstrable and material benefits derived from the continued separateness, which justify the costs? Are there opportunity costs suffered by not engaging with other individuals and tribes? Are there traits, talents, resources, and experiences, from which the individual or tribe can benefit? Finally, are there net benefits, which can be derived from bringing persons into or combining the tribes? (i.e. Is the whole greater than the sum of the parts?)

The problem is that some persons are content to cut their noses off to spite their faces. Those persons should be shown the potential adverse effects that their actions have on themselves. However, if they insist on acting irrationally, recklessly, or “outside the norm,” then more reasoned and rational persons must have the option to keep them out of the tribe as a matter of “self-preservation.” However, the difficulty is in identifying and ignoring “differences,” which are not material, and in weighing the demonstrated positive traits (of an individual or group) against the perceived negative traits.

Various tribes may have inconsistent “norms,” but it may be that those (incompatible) norms work sufficiently well within the respective tribes that they choose to continue their separateness or distinguishing characteristics. There is often a desire to “normalize” the behaviors and activities of another person or tribe when they do not conform to a particular way of thinking. Where such behavior is deemed harmful to another individual or to one’s tribe, then there exists a right to “self-defense,” including exclusion or excommunication.

Such collective acts are not necessarily “morally” right in the cosmic sense, but it may be that the benefits to the members, which are derived from the dynamics of the group, outweigh the proposed or continued association. In such a situation, the value proposition is entirely subjective. While the exclusion may not be objectively rational, the group must have the freedom to define the qualification, expectations, and “norms” of its members just as individuals must be free to adopt nonconformity.

These freedoms do not exist in the presence of a single “tribe.” Everyone must be included, even if their presence is detrimental to the collective, and everyone must conform, even if conformity is not in the best interests of the individual. I do not think that this was what Mr. Campbell was expecting or trying to say. Reasoned minds can differ. Good persons can live disparate lives. Tribes can and must coexist.

The objective need not be total agreement and conformity to a single norm (or concept of morality), but should be a commitment to work collectively toward mutually productive ends notwithstanding incidental differences and immaterial disagreements. It is inappropriate for the group to command that all individuals and groups conform to its established norms, and it is similarly inappropriate for an individual to demand admission into the group despite his refusal to adhere to those established norms. However, the existence of such differences should not necessarily remove the possibility of productive interactions among members of the respective groups or the groups themselves.

It is hard to admit that one does not have all of the answers, or to acknowledge that one’s tribe is no longer adequate for one’s needs. It may be difficult to overcome the inertia of the status quo. Nevertheless, tribes are like any other organism, either they adapt to a constantly changing environment or they become obsolete and die.

Oftentimes, it is easier to remain with one’s “kind” than it is to engage in self-analysis and objective critique of one’s tribe in order to determine if one truly “belongs,” to determine whether the objectives of the group are being met, or to know whether the perceived benefits justify association with the group. That is our failure as individuals and tribes: Stubbornly remaining where we do not belong, in a situation, which does not benefit us, and refusing to acknowledge the existence of a better alternative and embracing or accepting change.

NOTE: Originally posted June 5, 2018 -



J. Wesley Casteen