Tribalism’s Awful Antidote

We’re made to have a herd. Made to transcend it, too.

“This is awful.”

That’s what a pastor said to me recently about the tribalization he sees not just in the culture but in his own church. The angriest debates are not over whether a claim is true, but over what side a person has pledged allegiance to by affirming its truth. Red state or blue state? Cracker Barrel or Whole Foods?

The pastor is right that this is a lamentable state. But it’s not “awful.” Not awful enough, anyway.

The Christian church learned in the first century that fragmentation was a question of sorting before it was a question of splitting. In saying “I am of Paul” and “I am of Cephas,” one was swearing a loyalty and merging one’s own conscience into a herd defined by something short of Christ (1 Cor. 1:10–17, NKJV).

Biologists and psychologists would find that unsurprising. Many would say that humans evolved with a need to differentiate between “in group” and “out group,” the familiar and the strange. It’s “natural,” some would tell us, to ask, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29).

All of us would agree that this sort of hive mind is a necessary function at times. If a fire breaks out in your Sunday morning service, you don’t want a thoughtful discussion about possible means of escape. You want the whole gathering, as one, to suspend their personal judgments and move. The problem that we see right now—ratcheted up to an unprecedented level by social media—is that there seems to be no off switch for the hive mind.

Social psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Dacher Keltner have found that one factor is most important in shifting people away from hive-mind tribalism. This factor …

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