Tribes and Civilisations

I listened to a podcast from This American Life yesterday. It was called Tribes. That’s a terribly fashionable topic. I also read by @flipchartrick which is always interesting.

They made me think how we behave sometimes, especially on social media where our more conscious civilised conventions have yet to catch up with our more instinctive tribal behaviour.

One of the points made in the podcast was about how destructively exclusive tribes can be. How if two members of two tribes meet accidentally in an isolated spot they may be fearful and spend time talking carefully, desperately seeking common ground, say trying to identify a shared cousin. When no common ground is found there comes a point where the two may fight or one may simply run away. 

That struck me as an extreme representation of the general case, but properly reflected a situation I found myself in about 25 years ago in a tube station in London. 

Me and a group of friends had been to a football match. Crystal Palace vs someone, I can’t remember.

Later, after a few beers, we were approached in a tube station by a group of snarling, drunk Millwall supporters. You didn’t mess with that lot. Even in a more gentrified footballing world, where white socks and Fred Perry shirts have mostly been replaced by an otherwise beige M&S man sporting (ok, inhabiting) a replica shirt with, “Dad”, written on the back, I dare say you still don’t.

“Are you Stoke!?”, they snarled. I assume they’d played Stoke that afternoon.

The implication was clear. 

“You’d better not be, or else”.

The thing is, I’m from Leeds and two of the others were from Lancaster and Scunthorpe. We weren’t from Stoke, it was much worse than that, we were northerners and one of us was from Leeds!

The fourth member of our group was from somewhere in South London. 

He raised his hand, which we rightly took to mean, “Keep your mouths shut.”, and talked us out if it in the most bizarre way.

It was alarming, but what followed amazed and, later, amused me.

Our guy, John said, “No, we support Leyton Orient, we got thrashed 3-0 by so and so utd today.”

The knuckle draggers, “Shame, so and so utd are **insert extreme insults to ability and parentage**, better luck next week lads.”

And that was that. We wandered off, a little bewildered at the ease of our escape, having lived to avoid fighting on another day.

It turned out that there is / was a non aggression pact between Leyton Orient and Millwall based on some link or other, perhaps Leyton Orient is a feeder club or something, who knows. By invoking Leyton Orient, John had been able to be imprecise as well, so as to avoid any detailed cross examination, and we’d got away with it.

John knew this trick because he was actually a Charlton fan and had used it before. It seems highly likely that that’s who Crystal Palace were playing now I think. I’ve no idea what relations between Charlton and Millwall were like. I guess bad enough to not be an adequate alternative to being, “Stoke”.

Basically, Leyton Orient were the shared cousin.

Rick’s latest blog is about how we behave on Facebook (etc) and the things we’ve yet to learn.  It is explicit in our culture that we shouldn’t be racist, homophobic or sexist.  We don’t all obey the rules but we know them, and when people break them we can confidently call it wrong when people do.

Other rules are still implicit. One is that ridiculing people we don’t know on Facebook (etc) is wrong. 

A confession, if I’m in a pub with friends and someone comes in wearing sandals and socks, I may nudge and wink, we may snigger. He is not of my tribe, the smug tribe. That’s bad but it’s contained in a group in a pub and my tribe will likely shush each other and change the subject so the sartorial buffoon won’t know he’s the butt of our jokes. We’re quite nice really. It’s wrong but contained. We are human yet humane. Tribal yet civilised.

It is in our tribal nature to isolate, humiliate and attack those outside our tribes. People who don’t support Millwall or who wear sandals with socks (though I read in today’s The Times that this is now fine, but then so are unruly beards.).

Overriding that instinct is part of what makes us civilised, with all it’s benefits.

Facebook (etc) is not a pub.  If it were, then it would be a huge one, where it would be acceptable to stand on a table with a megaphone and a theatrical spotlight, repeatedly pointing out men in socks and sandals. It might even be acceptable to wear a mask so we could be anonymous while doing so.

Public ridicule and humiliation is wrong.

Espousing views anonymously, unless perhaps you might reasonably fear those you are criticising, is wrong too.

Those rules are obvious and so implicit in real life. On line we will likely have to make them explicit and repeat them for a few generations to make them stick.

Perhaps it’s about time we started adding a few simple rules like that to our culture so as to make them explicit.

Boringly, we might have to add them somehow to our laws too.

I’d love to know what you think, but if you do comment, feel free to be forthright but let us know who you are and try to be polite.

PS I’ve not forgotten the piece I promised on the death of Facebook. It’s got a bit long but will doubtless see the light some time soon.


2 thoughts on “Tribes and Civilisations

  1. Very interesting. Aside from the obvious Frankie Goes to Hollywood jibes, the link between societal tribes, Millwall and Facebook does not seems one obviously predicated on an anthropological construct. But there you go, we’ve all had a long day.

    I like your story about the Millwall fans. I, too, have experienced something very similar. (I have a second example, made more complicated because it was in the US. It was about baseball, and I was in the Bronx, so wasn’t about to re-enact a bad Eddie Murphy movie. I therefore will save that for another day).

    This particular instance was in Chester, in sleepy Cheshire, in the UK. I was at law school and it was summer. Having had a few pints of the local brew, I was walking back through town when, from around the corner, came a gaggle of screaming yoofs. When I say “screaming” you would have been forgiven for thinking they weren’t re-enacting a scene from Braveheart. Primitive blatherings (yes, that’s a word, Paxman) of what appeared to be a team from Neanderthal United. As they came closer it was clear that there were, in fact, two tribes (told you Frankie would be back) involved in the skirmish. One was chasing the other obviously with the single intent to kill the other with some death. The reason I remember this is because, at the time, I was with my girlfriend and her father, who happened to be an anthropologist. He said that this represents the most basic of instincts (without Sharon Stone) and was, therefore, tribal. To your point, they clearly didn’t have anything in common so were both running AND fighting. It all fizzled out when the rozzers turned up and arrested them all. Was a bit disappointing really. I imagined at the time what the spectacle would have been like had someone invented the camera phone so I could have uploaded it to my friend’s blog, 20 years later, after blogs – and camera phones – had been invented.

    So, to your point about Facebook, I sort of agree but I don’t necessarily see much of a difference between the physical world and the social network world. We’re still the same people. We still like our tribes, which I would say are simply the groups that my wife calls “PLU” – People Like Us. (For the avoidance of any doubt, I am NOT married to Penelope Keith.) We like PLU because they make us safe. They allow us to relax, be ourselves, not worry too much about social protocol, and consign socks-and-sandals to Room 101. Playing this same charade out on Facebook is no different. We have PLU on Facebook along with a whole gaggle of weirdos that we connected to when we were drunk and now can’t for the life of us fathom the complex labyrinth of permissions that Facebook impose upon us to remove them all. I actually quite like the feature where I can comment on someone’s post that I have never met, or are ever likely to meet. I don’t stop being me when I do, but it does give me a distinct sense of liberation that I am connecting to a much wider world out there than I ever could have in Chester, or Millwall. I am never offensive, so even though Socks-and-Sandals dude is imposing himself upon my cyber-self I would stop short of telling him he looks like a beardy weirdy Marje Proops. So I think it’s all rather innocent in the end.

    Aren’t tribes a good thing ? Don’t they allow us to interact with the world in a way that gives us confidence in our self-meaning whilst allowing us to observe – and hopefully not fight with – other tribes who adhere to different social protocols ?

    And I promise I didn’t copy that last sentence from my ex-girlfriends ex-father’s ex-PhD thesis. He’s not just not in my tribe, he’s on a different planet.

    • Tribes are good things.

      I have just spent a few days with my tribe.  We got to be weird in a safe environment.  We told silly stories and ate fish, chips and mushy peas much more often than was necessary. Our tribes make us feel we belong, they are people like us.

      Civilisations are good things too.

      Tomorrow I head back to work (for a day!).  There I will be part of another tribe I suppose, but also back in civilisation.

      I bet lots of things define what a civilisation is. One important aspect is the common rules that civilisations have that create another safe environment. One in which tribes can collaborate and trade safely.  Some are soft, like values and behaviours, others hard like laws and regulations.

      When I hit facebook (etc) it depends who I am talking to, sometimes it is other members of tribes I am in.  Though it is laughably badly designed so all my tribes can all get involved,  sometimes that is good, other times not. Sometimes it is one of those more open things, the photo of the lady with the tag at Aintree being a hilarious example.

      As well as not being racist, sexist, and so we can be ourselves and because it’s a mix of numerous tribes, it’d be better if people were civilised. 

      Saying all that, safe can be dull, common can be uniform and constraining. If we’re not carefu, we might end up in thrall to the marketing machines, with a Starbucks on every corner and under the impression that the premier league actually matters!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s