If Tribalism Sucks, How Come Patriotism Doesn’t?

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Why is it OK and even encouraged to identify with a political border while it is not acceptable to identify with a social group?  

“Say NO to tribalism, we are all Sudanese” –in these words or others- a phrase I came across quite often lately. The phrase perplexed me to say the least. The direct argument of the phrase is that tribalism divides a nation which should be brought together under the Sudanese flag. However if unity is the aim then that argument negates itself since patriotism as well divides humans who should be brought together as people and inhabitants of mother earth. Thinking about Sudan, and most African countries, patriotism is the alien concept here. It is a very young concept based on arbitrary lines on a map. Tribalism on the other side is carried on centuries of history, social construct, genetic ties, even fashion, art and esthetic choices. Though that doesn’t make tribalism by definition “better” it should make us think twice before we discard it for the “greater good”.

The direct argument though is not the only issue the phrase addresses; it is “supposed” to promote a message of “saying no” to negative values and actions. It says no to racisms, nepotism and believing in the superiority of some tribes and the inferiority of others. They are negative values indeed, nevertheless to blame tribalism for any of them is as absurd as to blame patriotism for wars.

Tribalism and patriotism are simply forms of identification with a unit, in the first it’s a social unit and in the second it’s a political one. One’s awareness and acceptance of this concept will not automatically lead to a racist behavior or any act of hate. There are two steps between forming the identity and performing the act of hate, the first is a feeling of either superiority or grievance towards the other who doesn’t share the same identity, and the last step is to let that feeling justify an act of hate. The first step is the child of an ideological question on the definition of identity and the concept of pride in one’s identity. The second is a child of an ethical question towards acts of hate and whether anything justifies them.

Both these questions are not linked to the unit one identifies with. Those who will answer the two questions in a manner which leads to an act of hate, those who will follow the two steps to performing an act of hate will do so whether it is backed by the justifications of tribalism or patriotism. A person who will put their ethics and human values above the alliances of their country will also put them above tribe and ethnicity. A person who will see the enemies of their country as nothing but shooting targets will see other tribes as nothing but inferiors or objects of vengeance and hate. This person will not become a loving constructive member of the human community simply by eliminating tribal “borders” or even country borders. Unless the core value of acceptance is addressed they will always find a target for their act of hate, it can simply be those supporting a different sport team.

I don’t know what it means to identify with a tribe; I also don’t know what it means to identify with a country

I don’t know what it means to be Bideria-Dahmashia; I also don’t know what it means to be Sudanese

I know none of them is an automatic trigger of acts of hate; none of them can be unless I make it so and none of them by definition “sucks”, it’s what we do with them.


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