Play Acting Tribal Warfare

A successful adaption for many social animals is tribalism as a binding force, a trait in which members of a species share a common affinity with their immediate kin. In humanity, however, that radius of trust has spanned ever wider throughout history, progressing from covering merely extended families, to larger tribes, and eventually coming to include city-states and later nation-states. In the past it has been argued that adaptions such as complex cultures which bound tribes in our species more tightly together enabled Homo sapiens to defeat Homo neanderthalensis in their quest for domination of western Eurasia.

Tribalism has been a constant presence throughout human history and can even be seen amongst apes such as chimpanzees, a species which sets up borders, patrols, and sometimes engages in warfare with members of rival tribes. This behavior is so deeply ingrained that people continue to engage in play-acting to relieve their impulse for tribal warfare. As Jonathan Haidt has said, “sports is to tribal warfare as pornography is to sex.”

The warlike simulations transcend the games themselves. People apply face paint symbolizing their fealty to the warriors (athletes), cry when a rival tribe subjugates them (losing an important game), and often use the term “we” as though they are personally tied to the sports team. The drum beats of pep rallies and dancers might resemble a tribal ritual prior to a fight.

What is the most rational form of tribalism today, then? Humanity is no longer set up in small city-states or warring bands. Yet, real world conflicts persist. There continues to be real fighting and death, competition for influence and power in the international order. In this sense, sports are little better than video games depicting sports or warfare, because games both virtual and real are in themselves simulations. Perhaps this is why certain popular sports, such as soccer, have a high degree of significance for people in many nations, because they are simulations of one nation conquering the other.

There still continues to be a very real need for tribalism in the present day. Superpower competition ended in 1989, but great power competition still exists in rival centers of regional influence around the world. It often seeks to undermine the American leadership that has stabilized the international system and reduced interstate conflict by keeping regional hegemonies in check. Unlike tribalism in the past, however, today’s tribalism cannot be ethnonationalism, which is corrosive. Ethnonationalism in Europe contributed substantially to both of the world wars. No, today’s responsible nationalism must be civic nationalism, in which people rally behind shared values. As Russian interference in the United States presidential election has proven, the world has yet to enter a post-national phase in which nation-states do not matter. The radius of trust for humanity has thus far grown from clans of 150-strong or so, to states composed of over a billion people.  And perhaps because the fear of imminent death and destruction has never seemed so far removed for many, the only way to satisfy tribalism is via play-acting through sports.

Never should we lose sight of the tribe that actually matters for all of us: the United States. The American-led order is not only good for the lives and well-being of all her citizens, but America’s overwhelming power and strength is precisely what makes the world far safer and makes sports seem less trivial in comparison. Declining faith in institutions, a rejection of American national identity, and the dismissal of even civic nationalism is corrosive, a recipe for long-term decline, and indicative of an unstable international order.

This article was written by Fairooz Adams. Click here to see more of Fairooz’s work.