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What actually is tribalism?


Tribalism is a curious beast.

Within a footballing context, it’s become a blanket excuse for supporters to say and do irrational things and for otherwise normal people to behave sociopathically.

It’s interesting how readily that’s accepted as an explanation.  Whenever we witness a fan raging pointlessly against a benign article or being reduced to an incoherently angry mess by an opinion that they don’t quite agree with, we shrug our shoulders and give a wry smile.

“Ah, tribalism” we chuckle…”what can you do?”

Well, probably nothing.  The level of tolerance is still hard to explain though because, while we’re fully aware of football’s ability to reduce grown men to bawling toddlers and to turn otherwise rational people into slobbering, single-focused simpletons, nobody seems to be in any hurry to fight back against it.

Even though they’re often viewed as one in the same, there is a clear distinction between loyalty and tribalism.  ‘Loyalty’ implies something quieter, something which - although still very real - is rooted more in love than aggression.  You’re loyal to your family, your friends and your partner, but in a passive, protective way.  An attack on someone you hold dear - in a non-literal sense - may provoke a fierce response, but it’s typically more measured and of greater sincerity.

If someone insults your mother or your sister, your response might not be typical of your usual personality but, to an onlooker, it would still retain some semblance of rationality.  The reaction could well be extreme, but the original animating grievance would still be understandable.

‘Football loyalty’ isn’t the same and that’s why, really, it’s hard to believe that tribalism isn’t, at least to a degree, part affectation.

Consider this scenario: an article makes a mild, inoffensive remark about a team’s performance and suggests, in very gentle terms, that a player or a manager might be performing within himself.

Generally, the reaction will be proportional.  Opinions may vary and there might be alternate theories, but the associated conversation will usually remain within the boundaries of decency.

Similarly - and this is probably a better example - if two players from different teams are compared and one is proclaimed to be superior to the other, a fight will typically ensue.  But, again, there will be a clear difference between those who discuss and argue with a perspectives defined by their allegiance and those who simply rage violently against the sheer existence of the opinion.

That latter approach has nothing to do with loyalty - and it’s that sort of reaction which we typically view as a symptom of tribalism.  It’s a capital-lettered response on Twitter; a expletive-riddled comment under the line; the compulsion to attack the author rather than the article.

These are soldiers going to war.  Rather than being anything organic, that sort of behaviour has always seemed very contrived.  While we may prefer to believe that football is all powerful and that it’s capable of removing people from their sense of decency, the truth is probably less fantastical.

Tribalism is the manifestation of a false sense of duty.  Just as hooliganism had a very tenuous relationship with team affiliation, these modern, plastic warriors see their behaviour as somehow part of a cause.  They are the sentries on guard-duty; when a Telegraph writer queries their transfer-spend, they are there to call him a bastard.  When a radio host questions the wisdom of a team-selection, they are on hand to call in and threaten his family.

There are exceptions and, unfortunately, there are those who repeatedly fail to place football within an appropriate context, but they represent the exception rather than the rule.  Tribalism isn’t the product of mass emotional instability, it’s a modern-day construct: it’s the determination to show valour on the battle-field when no battle is actually taking place.

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