‘Tribalism’ is tearing the world apart

Nov 19, 2023 | 0 comments

By Tim Stanley

Over a weekend that felt like the last days of Weimar, “patriots” chanted “England till I die” at the Cenotaph, and a pro-Palestine marcher declared that “Hitler knew how to deal” with the Jews. These thugs do not speak for the thousands who protest in good faith on either side. But hate speech will be used to smear each cause, posted as proof that it is out for blood. Meanwhile, millions of us feel paralysed by the moral complexity of the Israel-Gaza conflict, and silenced by fear of causing offence.

If you say “I sympathise with you, but…”, you’ll likely get called a coward, for the marchers see no “but” – not a glimmer of light on the other side of the argument, not a shadow over their own. London has become the theatre for a new wave of tribal politics.

Anti-Israeli protest last week in London.

I’ve never lost so much sleep over an issue. I mourn for Israelis following the pogrom of October 7, but I cannot accept the slaughter of civilians by Israeli bombs. I will not join the anti-war protests, however, because I don’t think they are for peace: they are partisan for Palestine, some even calling for a violent intifada. It’s telling that Peter Tatchell – the gay-rights campaigner – claims he was “blocked” by Stop the War stewards because he was carrying a sign that read “End Israel’s occupation” and “End Hamas’s dictatorship”. Peter says they called him a “troublemaker”.

In fact, he is a universalist. Tatchell observes a doctrine of human rights that crosses borders and applies equally to all. Many of us pay lip service to that ideal; the past month proves that few actually live by it.

As politicians struggle to define and hold the centre, they trot out the liberal myth that human beings are individuals shaped by political institutions: i.e., if you live under a democratic constitution, that will make you democratic by default. It isn’t true. We are social creatures, the product of history and family – and we impose our tribal values on the institutions we encounter, not the other way round.

Take free speech. Lefties who have tried for years to shut down speakers on campus are now defending the right of thousands to shout “From the river to the sea” in the capital. Likewise, right-wingers who have built an entire career on opposing cancel culture suddenly wish to ban a political protest they feel crosses a line. No one really cares about the abstract principle of free speech. They want to control the public sphere.

Britain has always strained under tribal competition, as Northern Ireland demonstrates, but we enjoyed relative civil peace for more than a century because what united us was stronger than what we disagreed about. Then we started eroding that consensus.

We welcomed into our society people from very different cultures, something we could have coped with had we not also deconstructed the host culture at the same time – with the end result that there isn’t much of a national identity for either arrivals or the young to assimilate into. According to a recent Ipsos poll, only one-third of young Britons know what Remembrance Day commemorates. If we are producing a generation that feels little relationship to Britain’s past, a past haunted by slaveholders and colonialists, is it any surprise that so many are drawn instead to the clarity of “Free Palestine”?

In a significant intervention, the social commentator Ayaan Hirsi Ali has announced her conversion to Christianity. The Somali-born Ali has suffered the worst excesses of tribal ignorance – she was circumcised as a child – and has become a compelling critic of religion.

But she has reached the conclusion that it is not enough to reject bad beliefs, that a society committed purely to leaving the individual alone cannot unify. Nor can it explain what life is for – and without the narrative of faith, people will either embrace new religions posing as social activism or, worse, they’ll revive creeds that lack the nuance of established traditions. Out of communist Russia came Russian revanchism. Out of secularised Egypt came the Muslim Brotherhood. The call of the tribe is just too strong for us to resist, and the more we try to deny its existence, the uglier its eruptions will be. I have no desire to live in a country polluted by anti-Semitism or Islamophobia, where the streets are routinely occupied by men in masks, chanting hate.

We have to admit that we yearn to belong to something, and to shape that instinct to work for the greater good.

On Remembrance Sunday, I witnessed a parade of scouts and veterans to the village church to pay respects to those soldiers – including many Muslims and Jews – who embody virtues overlooked by our degraded popular culture: duty, honour, sacrifice. People who say this ritual is propaganda for the Armed Forces are philistines. It is profoundly spiritual, the one moment in an age of noise and distraction when the entire country falls silent to think about people other than ourselves. A good culture is self-confident and self-giving, particular in ritual but universal in sympathy. Rejecting the noise of the mob, it gives the individual breathing space to examine their own conscience.

I see nothing cowardly in admitting I don’t know what to do about Gaza, and I resent the notion that I must back any one side to a bitter and unforeseeable end. I feel no shame in choosing not to march but to pray – for peace, the return of the hostages and the lives of the innocent.

Credit: Telegraph


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