Tribalism: Seeing Others As Not Fully Human

Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for He is going to say, “I came as a guest, and you received me.” —Rule of St Benedict

I squirm whenever I hear someone talking about “The gays…” or “The Muslims…” or “The illegal immigrants…” or ”The Catholics…” or “The whatevers.” Sure, it probably has something to do with the sweeping generalizations, labeling, stereotyping. But I’m realizing it’s more than that.

When we speak about “The whatevers,” we are identifying “them” as separate from “us.” It’s tribalism, and tribalism is all about who’s in and and who’s out. According to Professor Richard Beck, “Ingroup members are considered to be fully human. Outgroup members are infrahumans” (less than fully human).

As the famous anthropologist Levi-Strauss said, “Humankind ceases at the border of the tribe.”

Belgium psychologist Jacques-Philippe Leyens first coined the term INFRAHUMANIZATION to describe the belief that one’s ingroup is more human than those outside it. A classic case of infrahumanization is found in the US Constitution (Article 1. Section 2. Paragraph 3) where slaves were considered, for the purposes of the census, to be 3/5 of a person.

You can see how infrahumanization leads us into terrible things. Adolf Hitler viewed “The Jews” as “Parasitic Vermin.”

While most of us would vehemently deny seeing ourselves as superior to others because of our race or beliefs or lifestyle, we all infrahumanize others.

Studies have shown we have a tendency to infrahumanize people who speak a different language from our own. According to Beck, “Of course no one admits to this. Further, no one notices that this is actually happening. But it does occur, as laboratory tests have shown. We see them as just a slight bit less than human compared to those who speak our native tongue.”

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To illustrate how this works, Beck explains…

Psychologists tend to recognize six primary and universal emotions. Think of it like the basic Crayola box of emotions. The Big Six are: joy, sadness, anger, disgust, fear, and surprise.

Secondary emotions are subtler shades of emotions, blends of the basic emotional “colors.”

Examples of secondary emotions include feelings such as affection, admiration, pride, conceit, nostalgia, and remorse. Compared to the primary emotions, the secondary emotions are quintessentially human—they are felt to be more cognitive, moral, internally caused, and mature.

Generally speaking, then, primary emotions tend to be shared between humans and animals, By contrast, secondary emotions tend to be only seen in humans. A simple test to determine if the emotion is primary or secondary: “Would I apply this emotional term to an animal such as a rabbit or a fish?”

We feel that we could surprise a fish or that a fish might be fearful. But we don’t tend to think of fish being nostalgic.

Now back to infrahumanization. Across many studies, it has been demonstrated that while we easily attribute both primary and secondary emotions to ingroup members (my tribe), we are much more reticent about attributing secondary emotions to outgroup members. Recall, the secondary emotions are quintessentially human. Thus, by being reluctant to admit that outgroup members share the same emotional suite as my ingroup companions, we essentially see the outgroup as infrahumans—something close to, but not fully human.

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This morning, in a historic speech to a joint meeting of the US Congress, Pope Francis said:

The figure of Moses leads us directly to God and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being. Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work: you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.

Let us remember the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Mt 7:12).

This Rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.

The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.

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I love Pope Francis’ prophetic call for us to uphold the dignity and worth of all human life, every human life. And his reminder of the Golden Rule challenges us to resist our natural tendency to infrahumanize others.

In order to treat someone as we would want to be treated, we must see them as we see ourselves: fully human.

This will be challenging for the church. Why? Because religions are tribes. Tribes infrahumanize those outside their group.

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Pope Francis spoke to this issue in today’s speech:

Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion. We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism.

This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind.

A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms.

But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners.

The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. That is something which you, as a people, reject.

Our response must instead be one of hope and healing, of peace and justice.

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 Richard Beck also offers some hope: “By naming the dynamic and becoming aware of its working in our own minds, we can find a route to salvation past this obstacle. But we cannot get past this point in the road if we refuse to take a look into the psychological mirror. I just want to hold up the mirror. I think the self-examination and self-awareness is important and needs to be more widespread.”

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Note: link to a transcript of the Pope’s full speech HERE

One more note: Richard Beck’s talk about the six primary and universal emotions made you think about the Disney/Pixar movie Inside Out, right?

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I am a husband, father, pastor, leader & reader. I love God, love people & love life.

1 Comment to Tribalism: Seeing Others As Not Fully Human

  1. “We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within.”
    Hits me where I live! This post will require several readings. Great stuff, PB.

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