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The Story of Tribes

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The Football War

The “Football War” occurred in 1969 between El Salvador and Honduras. The underlying reasons had nothing to do with the sport. However, the third game, played for the 1970 World Cup qualification, was the final trigger. 

A few days after the third match, the two countries were at war. It is estimated that this four-day war cost over 3,000 deaths, mostly civilians.  Whatever the causes of this conflict, it shows the unfortunate propensity of humans to identify with and act in tribes. 

Definitions of Tribes

Oxford Languages (the online dictionary used by Google) defines tribes as “a social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognized leader.”

A broader definition is that we make ourselves members of several “tribes.” These are collections of people we identify as being “in the group” and where others are “out of the group.” Such a broader definition allows us to look at all of ourselves as “tribal.” It is a mindset where we believe the “tribe” we identify with is superior to others, where we have an underlying and unsaid hostility to anyone who says or does anything against this tribe. 

Evolution and Tribes

Nigel Barber, a psychologist, writing in Psychology Today, says that incitement to feel one is part of a tribe “can be as trivial as giving randomly-selected groups a different hat or badge.” For example, in experiments, young students are randomly put into different teams, and the teams are made to play a simulated war game. Suddenly, students feel that their team is the “good” team and others in “bad teams” need to be defeated. There was no such animosity before the students were randomly placed in one or another team.

Barber explains the risks of tribal behavior: “When groups perceive themselves as different from others, this often sets the stage for conflict and competition. This, after all, is a key reason why sports teams wear different uniforms.”

Tribes may have been beneficial as humans were evolving. It allowed for cohesiveness and teamwork. It protected tribe members from an otherwise dangerous environment in the jungles and savannas. However, in our modern world, where humanity faces collective challenges, we need to put aside our tribal thoughts and come together. The only way we can solve our problems is to work as one global team. Can we do so?

Science and Humanism

The biologist Edward Wilson feels that two universal ideas of science and humanism provide the best way to ensure the survival of the human species. We share a common ancestry, and as Wilson says, “Human existence may be simpler than we thought. What counts for long-term survival is intelligent self-understanding.” Better broader education opens our minds to the many linkages and connections of wisdom across the various human “tribes.” It makes us understand the essential unity of all humanity. 

The Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski covered the Football War in 1969. He remembers seeing graffiti saying “Nobody beats Honduras” and “We shall avenge 3-0”. Yet, the actual footballers had no enmity. El Salvador’s player Mauricio Rodríguez said, “Neither from the Honduras players nor from our side were the games between enemies, but between sports rivals.”

Collaboration, teamwork, tolerance, and kindness based on the solid foundations of science may provide the best path forward. 

© Kaikhushru Taraporevala

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