The John Griff column: Which tribe are you part of?

In a world which repeatedly – and appropriately - extols the virtues of multi-culturalism and diversity, are attempts to advance and achieve it being stymied by tribalism in other areas of the human experience, and if so, to what extent?
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Ever since I can remember, I have lived in a world of gangs – or tribes. It started with being part of someone’s ‘gang’ at school and was re-enforced during obligatory sports sessions when teams were being picked on the field of play. For perhaps good reason, I was usually one of the last to be selected, the best players having already been cherry-picked way ahead of me. I was NOT one of the best - but in being perceived by the mass to be one of the least good, being selected last felt more like a declaration of uselessness than an acceptance of any ability I might otherwise have brought to the team. I used to find the entire process excruciating and as you might imagine, as soon as I could exercise choice, I shifted my options to a sport which I actually found myself to be more competent at – paper target shooting. There, I turned out to be a much more capable participant, going on ultimately to be guided by a former Olympic coach and on one occasion becoming Southern Regional Cadet Champion at a meeting called CADSAM. Suddenly I felt like I was part of something, the sense of belonging being almost palpable. The team I joined worked as a unit, supporting each other, assisting each other. What’s more, if we won, we won together and if we lost, we recognised that we did that together too. It was a hugely important, if pretty subliminal life learning lesson to one still in his early teens.

Spin forward in time, and tribalism exists in just about all areas of the human existence – and it certainly doesn’t have to be in participatory sport. Supporters of a plethora of activities not only get behind their ‘teams’ – almost inevitably they also come together in certain sectors to try to shoot down the opposition, from wherever it comes. Social media significantly magnifies the process with sinister overtones, pouring petrol on an existing bonfire – Donald Trump’s own social media platform Truth Social might, perhaps, be a good example, albeit far from being the only one. And when it is almost impossible to distinguish the truth from a lie issued from behind the relative anonymity of social media - and the effects of the dark web - you can see how people fear the increasingly rapid evolution of Artificial Intelligence.

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Even in my chosen sport of Formula 1 it is possible to see the uglier side of tribalism. In my early 20s it was easy to mix with fans of the different teams, enjoying the sport for the sake of its virtues – the sportsmanship of the teams and their representatives, the skill of the same and a sense of fair play. Now, perhaps thanks to the greater access to the sport that TV shows that Netflix’s ‘Drive To Survive’ has brought about – and to which the teams have played up to, lest they lose share of the public’s attention, a darker side to the sport is emerging – and from outside the teams themselves. It is becoming ugly almost to the point of the worst football hooliganism from the 70s. When Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton was denied/lost the 2021 F1 Driver’s World Championship to Red Bull’s Max Verstappen (I have to be careful how I phrase this because I have a particular view about what happened and have to stay publicly neutral on the topic), it came about only after Canadian driver Nicholas Latifi crashed his Williams car into the wall at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. I’ll not bore you with the sensationalism of what followed – it is well documented elsewhere. Suffice to say though that on social media Latifi received death threats and had to have personal security for the rest of his F1 career. Death threats? And were these from informed drivers capable of even driving an F1 car, never mind racing with one? Indeed no. Instead, we’re led to believe that they were instead from ‘passionate’ supporters of the sport. Rubbish – these were no fans. Thuggery is thuggery in all its forms and should be erased at every turn, even if it is a case of education to do so.

Is the tribalism of our lives undermining multiculturalism and diversity?Is the tribalism of our lives undermining multiculturalism and diversity?
Is the tribalism of our lives undermining multiculturalism and diversity?

And maybe that’s the point.

Education – or a lack of it – is often held to be at fault when it comes to matters of opinion or balance. It is a small step from the object lessons of sporting tribalism in any sport to the hateful kind of tribalism which was managed with such devastating and tragic effects during World War 2 and which may currently be being employed along the Gaza Strip. Will factionalism masquerading as tribalism break out at the imminent Indian General Election where almost 1 in 8 of the planet’s population is eligible to vote? Will it happen during the run-up to our own General Election later this year or the Presidential Election in the United States next year? One would like to think not – but there are plenty of examples to indicate that it certainly might. And the lid is off Pandora’s Box…

It is undoubtedly a tough nut to crack. The small boy in me, standing on the edge of the football field and waiting with a developing sense of dread as everybody else got picked to play before I did, recalls that feeling of implied rejection. Of course, I was going to get picked – but only as the last option and when all others had been exhausted. I played in those teams because I was obliged to be on one side or the other, until I eventually found the sport which I could take part in because of my ability, not because my lack of it. Surely there are parallels in real life that we should be taking notice of as our generation gives a lead to the next and successive ones. ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again’ is all very well as a maxim for life, but none of us can do everything alone and we are truly stronger together. Life is a hard enough thing to negotiate - in some areas maybe you win and maybe you don’t. But surely part of the obligation which comes with winning should be to support those who haven’t. And if you truly are part of a tribe – or a team – that obligation rests on the shoulders of every member.