Can we be powerful without being tribal?

13 March 2016

Angry demonstration

We live in tribal times. I suppose we always have, but given the current state of both US and UK politics, it feels worse than usual.

I’ve long been aware of the power of tribalism in its broadest form. I noticed it when I was part of the early environment movement, a book-led, fact-led movement that struggled in those days to mobilise people when it mattered. I particularly noticed how much easier it seemed to be for those alternative movements that had no ideas, few facts, but a solid sense of political identity (some of the hard left groups). They had no problem getting people out on the rallying call of “us versus them”.

We still miss this. People were stunned by the success of Donald Trump in the early stages of the primaries. Everyone thought he was the comedy candidate, and he would do something dumb and that would be that. The other candidates kept highlighting what policies they proposed. They pointed out where he got his facts wrong. And all the time he ignored them and played the politics of identity – of tribe. “Make America Great Again” was actually all it took. That, and a lot of psychologically smart attacks on his opponents the effectiveness of which people only caught onto way too late.

In the UK we have the EU referendum kicking off, which is getting ugly pretty quickly and taps into the politics of identity in one way. But then we also have a larger-than-usual political polarisation with the rise to Labour leadership of the left-wing Jeremy Corbyn.

The real solutions to our problems are increasingly unlikely to come from tribal players

I have spent most of my life being stubbornly non-tribal. In theory, you might think that lots of people would find that a good thing, but in practice they really don’t. It means that I look critically at the actions of my own “side” as well as the other lot. I personally think that’s a strength and we should all do it. It’s what you do to come to the right answers, by constantly challenging yourself against the facts to see if what you propose stands up. It’s what top sportspeople do every day, learning from every mistake, working on what they need to improve to become truly great.

But here’s the thing. Generally, tribes do not like self-criticism. Not one little bit. However constructively framed. Not political tribes. Not national tribes. Not even social tribes.

When I pitched this site at “progressive, sustainability-minded professionals” it was a very deliberate thing.

I really feel that there might be something important happening. The gradual emergence of a different type of tribe –one that has some chance of avoiding the worst excesses of “us versus them.”

Those worst excesses start with demonising the opposition. I have friends who belong in every part of the political spectrum (except fascist!). A good many of them believe that everyone in at least one and probably all of the other groups are all evil, or greedy and selfish, or deluded or all at the same time. Every policy proposal is seen as an act of “class war” or something similar. The idea that people could have a different perspective of how to achieve desirable social goals – which may perhaps be wrong, by all means – but nevertheless starts from the common grounds of wanting to do the right thing, well that’s not an idea that gets any credence.

Trump protests
Plenty of 'demonising the opposition' going on these days. Photo: The Telegraph.

It’s not just party politics. It’s the environmental movement, where specific policy positions become articles of faith that can never be challenged, and the bad things are all down to the evil corporations who want to plunder the world for profit.

And then it’s every other movement. And every national group. And so on. They all have some amazing positive features. Powerful identities that people can believe in have to have something of substance, after all. But it’s how they define themselves in relation to ‘the others’ where the cultural lack of empathy becomes a huge issue. 

Businesses have the potential to be different. Not perfect, obviously. We know all about the downsides when businesses are not held within a system of accountability. Businesses can be too ready to follow market incentives wherever they lead.

No-one says that business executives are a new breed of morally superior beings capable of solving the world’s woes. Sometimes certain companies have played the part of the villain, to the discredit of all. And people are people. No group is inherently better or worse.

But businesses are pragmatic entities. Ideology gets you nowhere in a rapidly changing marketplace. Businesses have been amongst the first to really grasp what needs to be done on sustainability because they have looked more openly at what is happening, and what are the implications in reality. And they are trying to design systems that incentivise the right behaviours whilst still being successful.

Businesses also manage diversity. They have had to create policies and processes to make it possible for people from different tribal groups of all sorts to be equally respected and valued. It’s no accident that companies such as Starbucks and Apple and others have been lining up to show support for issues such as LGBT rights in recent years. So, although many of the individuals within business may have a tribal mindset about politics, or race, or religion, they have learned how to operate in a world where that is put to one side.

The sort of pragmatic coming-together on common objectives that we very much need for our lives and society, in other words.

Of course, businesses can still get stupidly tribal about themselves. I’ve had conversations before now with CSR people who swore that the other lot were telling lies about what they’d done, and that they themselves were the best in the industry. And, of course, only the other day the other lot had been saying the self-same thing. Look, we’re all still human and if we can keep it on the right side of healthy competition, then it has a good role to play.

And that’s why I think that the emerging tribe of progressive business execs – those who see that business has a part to play in helping us move forward towards a sustainable world – could be so important. Modern. Tech-savvy. Problem-solving. Collaborative. Valuing diversity. Looking for genuine impact.

But it’s not yet a tribe, let’s be honest. It only becomes a part of your identity when you self-identify in that way, and when you can see it in others when you meet them. And it has a name. I can’t even come up with anything better than “progressive sustainability-minded executives.” Doesn’t that just trip of the tongue?

The thing is, the real solutions to our problems are increasingly unlikely to come from tribal players.

Let’s take climate change, and put it in the context of US politics. It has become party-polarised as an issue. It didn’t used to be, but it sure as heck is now. If you belong to one of those tribes, you’ll likely see it’s future progress in terms of your side comprehensively defeating the other side. Given the sort of statements that all of the GOP candidates have made on the topic, it’s easy to see that as the mission statement.

Wrong mission. Sure, it may be successful in the short term. It may not. Generally, no party gets a monopoly on power for any extended period. And the thing is, when it comes to sustainability we need stability of action, not action followed by reversal and counteraction, followed by reversal and repeat and repeat.

We need to build a consensus across the parties. We start from where we are, not where we’d like to be. That is, whether you like it or not, the exam question. Oh, they can disagree about details of implementation. But not the basic science of what’s going on.

Businesses have another advantage here. Because of their importance to the economy, because they have resources, and because their pragmatic nature means they usually don’t pitch their tent explicitly on one side of the political divide – they have influence across the party spectrum.

Obviously, in another context that’s one of those things you have to keep an eye on, since the system incentivises them to use that influence to further their own business success and there have to be checks and balances.

But when it comes to issues where the benefit to the whole of society is at stake, and partisan groups are fighting too hard to see any sense of common cause, they can play a pivotal part.

But at the moment we’re dependent on individual business leaders who are making waves. That’s good, but we need more. We need a movement. We need, for want of a better term, a tribe of non-tribalists.