Can the world learn from tribalism? Can we learn community cooperation and social cohesion? The tribal conflict over cattle rustling in Pibor, South Sudan, has resulted in attacks and reprisals between two main communities, the Lou Nuer and the Murle. Tribal tensions are not new, and have been a feature of Sudan, and other countries, for centuries. Can other countries, or more importantly, individuals, learn from tribal conflict?
Richard Sennett's Together: The rituals, pleasures and politics of cooperation (2012)contends that "living with people who differ--racially, ethnically, religiously, or economically--is the most urgent challenge facing civil society today. We tend socially to avoid engaging with people unlike ourselves, and modern politics encourages the politics of the tribe rather than of the city." In Together he traces the evolution of cooperative rituals in situations as diverse as slave communities, socialist groups in Paris, and workers on Wall Street. Divided into three parts, the book addresses the nature of cooperation, why it has become weak, and how it could be strengthened. Sennett also maintains that the capacity for cooperation is embedded in human nature.
Sennett is alarmed by the way societies develop tribalism within their ranks and the way in which this "deeply ingrained tribalism" can lead to aggression towards people who are perceived to be "different" from their own culture, background, race, community, or group. Sennett is concerned about modern capitalist societies that, he says, promote social withdrawal (hibernation, loneliness, solitude, and hermitude). Sennett details some causes of social withdrawal such as economic inequality, the breakdown of workplace relations, and the psychological effects of living in an uncertain world. He gives examples of people emigrating from "poor" communities in search of better education and economic prospects - which, he says, perpetuates deprivation in the area they escaped from.
The world is continuing towards mass human migration from poor to prosperous regions. This, in addition to conflict over land and resources, over unequal distribution of resources, over economic disproportions, and over people entering our communities that are "not like us" is pushing people to the brink of unhappiness, dissent, and social withdrawal.
Sennett promotes social cohesion that requires commitment (to community) and empathy. He champions repetitive shared experience of ritual, from religious ceremonies to workplace routines, as a way of promoting social cohesion.
Sennett is optimistic. He believes that the history of tribalism - one of near-continual conflict - can lead to creative forces responsible for cooperation.
Sennett maintains that early bands of humans formed into tribes that were bands of bands. Collection of tribes later coalesced into chiefdoms and collections of chiefdoms became nascent and emerging nation states - countries (just like the most recent example of South Sudan). Sennett says that at each stage, entities that previously competed and fought against each other formed cooperative coalitions that generated wealth more often than conflict.
Sennett maintains that cooperation is embedded in every human's genes, but it needs to be strengthened, particularly when interacting with people unlike ourselves. He therefore attempts to explore cooperation as a craft. But he also explores urban design - how cities and communities can be designed for better community cooperation (he says that most urban design is currently homogenous and rigid promoting tribalism and not social cohesion). Tribalism is, he says, "involves thinking you know what others are like without knowing them" which is counter-productive. Tribalism is human cooperation that results in aggression, corruption, collusion, organized crime, and other destructive results such as the "us-against-you" philosophy. Sennett's definition of cooperation in the social cohesion sense is "an exchange in which the participants benefit from the encounter." It is mutual support that can take many forms from the minute to the major - including polite social civilities such as saying "please" and "thank you" to the mutual support required to deal with life's frustrations and unfairness with positive social consequences. He stresses that information sharing, although on the surface appearing to be cooperation, is not communication and shared dialogue.
Sennett likens cooperation to music. In an orchestra of different instruments and different people, a ritual practice (or rehearsal) can produce harmony - musicians need to interact and cooperate to make art. "Much of the actual conversation between musicians consists of raised eyebrows, grunts, momentary glances and other non-verbal gestures. It's not just about talking and listening; it's about sympathy, empathy, and above all, shared and familiar dialogue.
Sennett's book is divided into three sections exploring how cooperation can be shaped, weakened, and strengthened, drawing on research in anthropology, history, sociology and politics, and including concrete case studies. He concludes with chapter on the French essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) who examined the world through his own judgement, describing the great variety and volatility of human nature. Montaigne continues to be an inspiration for many to the present day. Novelist Judith Shklar in her book, Ordinary Vices (1984) wrote: "It is only if we step outside the divinely ruled moral universe that we can really put our minds to the common ills we inflict upon one another each day. That is what Montaigne did and that is why he is the hero of this book."