Technological Tribalism

November 23, 2017

Technological Tribalism

Matthew Frazer

Are you an Apple fanboy or a Fandroid? Trekkie or Jedi? Dog-owner or cat-owned? What’s your tribe?

Tribalism is characterised by an intense sense of loyalty to a social or cultural group. This loyalty fosters a strong sense of shared identity, building bonds that strengthen community. By their nature, these bonds are exclusive to members of the tribe, meaning outsiders are often treated with suspicion or hostility. Historically, tribes have formed around ethnic or cultural groupings, tied to geographical proximity.

Enter the enlightened modern age, the global village, and the end of tribalism. Or, perhaps not.

The ties that bind us have changed, but the tendency to form exclusive groupings has not. Geographical proximity isn't the significant factor in shaping social identity when real-time communication to practically any location in the world is possible. But culture reaches across the globe, and communities can flourish in virtual, online form.

And so it is that many harmless (and some not so harmless) tribes are grown in technological soil. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+ make up the biggest of the monolithic online communities,[i] and contained within these there are millions of tribes crystallised around common interests. Christians are represented in these communities proportionately to their participation in the rest of society and should consider how they act as tribe members. While there is nothing evil about ‘liking’ a Facebook Page about Kevin Bacon’s films or subscribing to a subreddit about cat GIFs, there are some tribalistic tendencies that arise in many communities that need to be kept in check to keep living as light and salt to the world.

First is the tendency towards dichotomies. Many technological tribes centre on ‘liking’ something with a natural alternative: Coke v Pepsi; Star Trek v Star Wars; iPhone v Android. Many a heated online discussion[ii] is derived from debating the relative merits of one at the expense of the other. This can be fun, and perfectly exhibits the intense sense of loyalty our tribal brains are wired for, but many such arguments are fruitless and can be reduced to personal preferences of negligible moral weight. Being overly fanatical about issues that have no significant consequences may diminish the likelihood of people listening when we discuss matters of importance. Even more dangerous is needing others to agree with us to justify our own choices.

Second is the exclusivity of established communities. It’s great to have tribal norms, but these can be intimidating or overtly hostile to newcomers. Perfectly courteous individuals who would talk to the new person at church and befriend the loner at a party may inadvertently become cruel just by adhering to tribal norms when an ‘outsider’ enters an online community. Behind every screen name is a person loved by God, and cruelty is still cruelty even if you can’t see the person’s face.

Finally the issue of loyalty: No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.’ (Mt 6:24a) While Jesus was speaking specifically about money in this verse, the Bible is clear on the issue of where a Christian's first and only loyalty should lie: with Jesus Christ. 

God’s church is not like other human tribes. It should not exclude by prejudice, alienate by misunderstanding or dominate by force. Neither is it vacuous at its core—it is centred on Jesus the crucified king and his call on our life. Ultimately, our tribal home is not on this earth and in the trials of this life, but in the new creation that we await: ‘Dear friends, I urge you as aliens and strangers in the world to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul’ (1 Pet 2:11). Christians should avoid harming the body of Christ by engaging in petty tribalism; the price might be our very soul.





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