A global identity crisis has triggered a regression to tribalization

Koert Debeuf writes: The anti-forces of the liberal order, authoritarian nationalism and religious extremism are back with a vengeance. The most obvious example of the return of authoritarian nationalism is Russia. The same trend is also clear in most member-states of supra-national Europe, not the least in Hungary and Greece. Religious extremism is on a scary height in the Arab world, but also in parts of Africa, India and Myanmar.

The US and Europe seem to be too tired and powerless to halt this decline. Even though both liberal powers know what they want, both are deeply divided. It looks like both powers are facing a global system failure and have no idea how to deal with it. Both know that their influence and power is not what it used to be, but they haven’t found a new role yet. It’s not an exclusive Western problem. The entire world is plunging into an identity crisis.

What is an identity crisis?

An identity crisis or existential crisis is a psychological state of mind of  —  mostly high-achieving individuals who feel depressed, angry and lost and question the very foundations of their lives. It usually occurs after a traumatic experience such as an extreme disappointment, a broken relationship, the death of a loved one or a sudden loss of status. These traumas result in a loss of confidence and self-esteem.

In trying to find a way out of this depressive disorder people tend to take four different paths: anchoring, isolation, distraction and sublimation. Isolation is an attempt to keep all negative feelings outside. Distraction is trying to prevent the mind from turning on itself. Sublimation on the other hand is refocusing on positive energy in order to keep the negative away. However, the path that most people with an identity crisis are taking is the one of anchoring: finding a well-known fixation point such as religion, closed social groups or one particular idea or ideology. People are looking for the security and warmth of a group, or what I call a tribe. In Arabic there is a word for this: qabaleya, or tribalization. It is the choice to go back to the tribe, its warmth and clear-cut identity. What’s interesting is that psychologists have found that in looking for a way out of an identity crisis people often prefer a negative identity rather than a weak identity.

What counts for individuals counts for groups as well. It makes sense to say that societies can suffer from an identity crisis too. The first study of the psychology of the masses was written in 1895, by Gustav Le Bon in his book ‘Psychologie des foules’. Since then many Social Psychology studies have drawn similarities between the psychology of individuals and that of groups. Psychiatrists too have been researching how groups can suffer from a kind of equivalent of the mental disorders usually only attributed to individuals. Psychiatrist and politician John Lord Alderdice even suggested psychologically informed strategies to address such crises in the psychology of large groups including the regressive pattern I am calling tribalization and other phenomena such a fundamentalism, radicalization and the cycle of terrorism.

Societies  –just like individuals  –can suffer traumatic experiences too. The anthropological study of René Girard shows how traumatic experiences make tribes focus on their core identity, returning to a stronger emphasis on law, culture and the sacred, and how they deal with their fear and aggression by turning against ‘the Other’ — — the scapegoat mechanism. Just like individuals societies often respond to traumatic experiences with an identity crisis by regressing back into what they know best from the past  —  what I am describing as tribalization. They go back to the tribal (old) ideas and tribal (old) behavior. These tribal ideas are mostly based on myths of a great past as the only way towards a great future. Tribalization is a process that almost always includes the creation of enemies. [Continue reading…]

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