Go Team North!

I quite frequently find myself on a train heading down south to the beach town of Brighton (it's a pebble beach in England, so try not to let 'beach' conjure mental images of Bali). It's a lovely place, filled with lovely people. It also has a large contingent of my friends living in it, and we tend to like to have an alcoholic beverage or two. However, visits are not always roses and sunshine, as there is an unavoidable sticking point that drives home the differences between Northern and Southern drinkers ... The size of the head. No, not cranial circumference, I'm discussing the thickness of that layer of delicious foam on top of your pint of ale. As a Northerner, I was raised from a very young age to expect my beer to be served a certain way, but the Southerners just get it all wrong! They just scrape the head off entirely, sometimes with an actual knife, to fit more beer in their glass! Mental! I've encountered this North/South beer disagreement many times, and it has caused a number of heated, mildly inebriated arguments.

The belief that there is a distinct beer-drinking preference difference between the North and the South will no doubt resonate with many of my fellow Englanders, but it is completely ludicrous. How can it be that I can connect my geographical location of birth with the amount of foam I like, rather than it simply being a matter of personal preference? And, when pressed, how can it be that people will agree that this is just the way it is? This might be a silly thing to worry about, but I think it is a quirk of one of our sometimes harmless, and sometimes dangerous natural tendencies: tribalism.

Tribalism - the idea that we feel more loyalty and kinship with those "close" to us than we do to those far away - can be traced back to a time when, compared with today, resources were scarce, and the dangers of the world were very real and omnipresent. To a time when, long before the agricultural revolution, every single calorie (or Joule, if you prefer sensible units) of energy gained from hunting and foraging was used the very next day in further hunting and foraging, with only a minor surplus for providing food and safety for our young and elderly. There was no opportunity to fatten up or store provisions, there was purely day-to-day survival, and that meant forming close-knit bonds with our local group to improve our chances. However, even when living in groups, surviving was hard, and the world was dark and full of terrors. Some clever proto-humans realized that an easy way to side-step all their hard work was to let a neighbouring group do all the hard work and then steal from them. It's not only humans that steal, the American Pikas are thieving little gits, and often have to fight each other to protect what's theirs.

Squirrels are slightly cleverer than the Pikas, and will bury their food in dummy locations when a neighbouring squirrel is watching, wait until the watcher moves out of sight, and then move their food to the real hiding spot. Like the suspicious squirrel, our intelligence went hand in hand with a suspiciousness of others. Unlike the Pika and the squirrel, we didn't just live in solitary or small family groups, we were highly social creatures that lived in tribes of families, and had to evolve a higher-level sense of kinship beyond just the family to keep the peace. We were also the apex predator - our biggest threats weren't lions, tigers and bears, but weapon-wielding people. Put all this together, and an "us vs them" psychology is born - our tribe is the best and full of wonderful, kind, talented people, whereas that tribe of strangers over the valley is a bunch of thieving, murderous rapists, that will steal our land and resources if we are not careful. Watch a few episodes of the Walking Dead and you'll see a modern re-imagining of this selfish, often violent, group competitiveness in action ... And also there are zombies.

If I were you I would avoid this guy's tribe at all costs. Don't join it. Don't fight it. Just leave.

If I were you I would avoid this guy's tribe at all costs. Don't join it. Don't fight it. Just leave.

Fun fact: the New Zealand Maori word for 'stranger' is the same as their word for 'enemy'.

Even without zombies, tribalistic attitudes are alive and well in the modern era, despite the fact that the once well-defined geographical, cultural, ethnic, and even sexual borders are becoming more and more blurry every day. This blurring of borders is a good thing (in my opinion), but it rubs up against our natural "us vs them" psychology, and the result is a tendency to shoehorn polarising "teams" into our lives even when they are completely unnecessary. Let's first consider the simplest (and possibly mildest) example of this: sport.

I like Rugby, I'm English, and so I support the England Rugby team, not because I know anyone in the England team personally, just because I was born and raised within England's borders. I particularly like them to win when it's against our closest rivals, such as Wales, Scotland and Ireland, for whom I feel no support for in any way, shape, or form ... Except when they play a Southern hemisphere team. For some reason, when England isn't involved, I don't just revert to neutrality, I find the next-nearest tier of kinship to support, and suddenly, when Scotland play Australia, I'm all about supporting the Northern hemisphere! Go Scotland! Go Team North!* I'm sure if we entered a galactic league, I'd be supporting Earth just as strongly even if no one from my local team was playing. Even if the team was made purely from my bitterest of local rivals.

What I find more interesting is that this even applies to sports that I don't care about, such as golf. I couldn't possibly care less which stick-wielder wins at putting the dimpled ball in the hole, but I can't help but smirk when Europe beats the USA in the Ryder Cup. Country, continent, hemisphere - they all feel like they're my 'tribes', and the specific circumstances dictate how strongly I feel affiliated with each one. Sport tribalism is usually harmless, but not always, as someone familiar with football hooliganism can attest to.

This polarising "us vs them" attitude also spills over into politics. Who on Earth decided that political ideology can be divided into left versus right? Politics is really complicated, and it's not a simple matter of communally (left) versus individually (right) oriented policies. Yet, the way we talk about politics is riddled with left versus right divisiveness, and after years of hearing this kind of hyperbole I can't help but feel like I've picked a side. I have a strange, mild sense of kinship with someone who describes themselves as left-leaning (and even a little hostility towards someone who describes themselves as right-leaning) even if I don't know a single thing about what he or she means by that statement - and really, it could mean anything.

What left and right mean to the individual varies from person to person, yet knowing this doesn't seem to prevent my friend/foe gut-reaction in any way. Why? Partly (I hope) because I agree more with the policies supported by the self-proclaimed left-leaning parties, and I'm a little scared of the machinations of the right-leaning government in power in this country. But, there is also no doubt in my mind that it's partly (maybe entirely) because I grew up in a "lefty"** area, in a lefty country, and my parents both support lefty parties. Most people don't decide their political persuasions for themselves, it's decided for them by where they're born and who they're raised by, and their strength of conviction follows the same kind of pattern as for those who support their local football team.

Obviously there's far more nuance in the political realm of two-sided antagonism than I've discussed here, but it is startling to me how few people ever join a political party which opposes the one they were raised to support. It could be argued that this happens because political ideas are passed on - sometimes I'm sure that is true - but most people don't read their party's manifesto, so the idea-passing argument doesn't do much to persuade me.

Then there's organized religion, which as far as I can tell was invented purely to strengthen this tribal nonsense by discouraging a person from switching teams with the threat of not only a painful death, but eternal suffering afterwards. If you're not aware, eternity is a very long time. If you then combine religious tribalism with politics and a historical backlog of in-fighting, you're left with never-ending conflicts that cause pain and suffering to millions. Close to home, the situation between Irish Catholics and British Protestants in Northern Ireland seems to have calmed recently, but the sense that the peace could deteriorate any moment is a constant backdrop. Further away, we have the Israel - Palestine conflict, the tensions between Pakistan and India over Kashmir, the ongoing wars between the Turkish and Kurdish ... the list goes on***.

Tribalism is as much of a vestigial trait as the appendix is a vestigial organ - useless, archaic, and occasionally deadly.

I was part of a tour group in Rome recently, and as we walked around a few lesser spotted churches and looked upon the site Gallileo conducted his experiment that proved the Earth was round, I got chatting with a young Pakistani lad. After he had given me a thorough grilling on my thoughts on Brexit, I decided I'd ask him about the delicate topic of Kashmir. I didn't want to start a tirade of side-blaming, so I phrased my question along these lines: "Can you see a time, even in 1000 years, that there could be absolute peace between Pakistan and India?" (without some kind of horrific genocide taking place and one side "winning" of course!). He said no, even though he emphasized that he harbors zero ill-will towards the people of India. He said he wanted peace, but saw no way, even in 1000 years, that it could happen. That made me incredibly sad, not only for the people who senselessly die as the conflict routinely sparks up again, but also for the human race in general, and it partly prompted the writing of this blog.

I don't have any solutions - obviously I can't solve the Israel-Palestine conflict with a blog ( ... or can I? ... ) - the tendency for tribalistic thought-patterns is very deep-rooted in our psychology, reinforced by thousands, perhaps millions of years of evolution as a tribal ape. But, despite this, I think it could be helpful for us to stop and take a moment to recognize these natural, sometimes destructive tendencies the next time we feel antagonized by a group of people who are somehow 'separate' from us. To remember that they have had their sporting, cultural, political and religious persuasions pressed upon them just as we have. Sometimes the 'other' group in question is indeed destructive, objectively evil, and must be stopped - the so-called Islamic State springs to mind - but, in my opinion, it is never helpful to forget that those groups are made of individuals just like you and I. Dehumanizing the thousands/millions of people in a particular group into a singular and dangerous "them" was what the Nazis were all about, so let's try not to repeat that mistake.

On the sillier end of the tribalism spectrum is where this all started - the North/South beer-head divide, and luckily for us the answer here is simple. Experiments have shown that having a thick, foamy head drastically increases the release of the beer's aroma, and one only need spend a day with a peg on their nose to find that smell is just as important as taste if you want full enjoyment of flavour. Sorry Southerners, science is not on your side. Go Team North!

... I'm actually from the Midlands, but I guess we all have to pick a side in life.


* I'm very aware my Rugby Northern hemisphere vs Southern hemisphere example doesn't always translate, particularly when it comes to England. The Irish, for example, love to see England lose no matter who the opposition. Why? ... Erm ... That detail aside, I personally know Irish people who would absolutely support the Welsh against, say, South Africa, for the same Team North nonsense that made me very sad when Scotland controversially crashed out of the world cup against Australia. Internet mogul Dr. Brady Haran actually highlighted this point well when he pointed out his Australian sense of kinship for the Welsh for their shared dislike of the English. It's so silly, but forming silly bonds over silly things is what people are good at.


** As I stated above, 'left-leaning' and 'right-leaning' will mean different things to different people, so I'll clarify what I mean a bit. I grew up in a town that has had a Labour MP as long as I've been alive, and Labour is considered more left than the two major opposition parties. I also grew up in England, which although having a Conservative government for some time now (more "right" than Labour), they're still very much left-wing on a world-wide scale, particularly if you compared them to the two major parties in the USA. But to be honest, the minutia of what is "left" or "right" is hardly the point, and the fact that most people agree that parties and policies can be divided into one or the other is. I concede that this two-sidedness keeps things simple for political discussions, but I would argue that left vs right hyperbole is more destructive than useful. Don't tell me you're a lefty or a righty, tell me what you think will work and I will tell you if I agree. To be honest though, most of the time I'll just say "Hmm. Maybe. I don't know. I think I need more data."


*** I was very tempted to leave out specific conflict examples and keep this vague enough for the reader to draw their own conclusions and comparisons. The details of which side is 'at fault' in each case is always complicated, and as soon as one hears a specific example they tend to stop thinking in terms of it being a problem with the human condition and start thinking in terms of that specific conflict narrative, and I think this derails the point I am trying to make somewhat. Yes, of course there are historical reasons why conflicts exist, and some sides have more to blame than others (it would be remarkable if two countries had exactly the same amount of historical responsibility for a given conflict), and I don't want to ruffle any feathers by trying to simplify complex conflicts by framing them in such simple terms ... BUT, historical details aside, I honestly believe that if humans didn't have these tribal tendencies, none of these pointless conflicts would exist. People, even governments, could just coexist if they could put the past aside and stop thinking in terms of "us" and "them".