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COMMENTARY: Team sports are the civilized embodiment of tribalism

['Did You Know That with Alan Walter']
['Did You Know That with Alan Walter']

Did You Know with Alan Walter

Once again, this year’s Grey Cup game proved that two very competitive football teams can thrill and entertain millions of sports fans and leave behind no hard feelings, just memories of a game played in an aggressive but sportsmanlike way.

The rivalry of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Hamilton Tiger-Cats fans dressed up in bizarre face-makeup and team outfits was good natured, with no trace of the destructive “tribalism” phenomenon we see elsewhere in our day-to-day world.

Thankfully, the rivalry we generally see in the sports world is a relatively harmless way to take sides and have fun without too many damaging side effects.

Unfortunately, displays of raw tribalism are becoming more prevalent in our world in politics, religion and racial diversity...topics that many avoid in conversation because strong emotions are easily aroused.

Tribal behaviour, harmless or deadly, is unavoidably a part of our emotional make-up. To understand why, we need to go back a half a million years to when our predecessors lived in bands on the African savannah, aggressively competing with others for territory and scarce resources.

To cement the bond between members of these bands, aggressive tribal behaviour became the norm, and outsiders came to be seen as mortal enemies. These bonds, essential to survival, also became very effective over time as our species moved on.

Such was the eventual success of this “survival of the fittest” phenomenon that to this day the responsible DNA exists in our physical make-up. However, tribal competition has found its way into our modern world of political tussles, religious strife, and interracial conflict, with damaging consequences.

In the political sphere, we witness tribalism in competition between partisan political factions in our communities. Around election time feelings can run strong and frosty relations develop, even within families and between neighbours. Deep-rooted allegiances to certain political parties have been formed in families over generations. While not as extreme as the open animosity we see in the political scene down south, there are signs of a similar trend here at home that will require wise oversight and action by our leaders.

Tribalism also plays a role in conflicts between competing organised religions around the world. Pulitzer Prize winner E.O. Wilson writes that “the principal cause of conflict between those faithful to different religions is lethal tribalism; faith being one thing that makes otherwise good people do bad things.”

Perhaps the most insidious example of tribalism has emerged in interracial conflict, which has become a truly global phenomenon. Minority races in many countries around the world are discriminated against and live in day-to-day fear of imprisonment, expulsion or even mass annihilation.

In spite of my laudable Grey Cup example we should not be lulled into believing our sports team scene is immune to nasty tribal instincts. Seeing a so-called “Great Canadian” such as hockey icon Don Cherry, get away with labelling new arrivals from other lands as “you people” is a symptom of a deeper cruel streak in this one sport which at professional levels comes with a “Fight Club” ethos.

We should be very afraid of where such discriminatory behaviour can lead us as a nation, particularly when we are an outstanding model of tolerance and peaceful racial diversity envied around the world.

Alan Walter is a retired professional engineer living in Oxford. He was born in Wales and worked in Halifax. He spends much of his time in Oxford, where he operates a small farm. He can be reached at alanwalter@eastlink.ca.

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