The Walls of Division: Symbols and the Tribal Mind

by Caela

“A belief is not merely an idea the mind possesses. It is an idea that possesses the mind.”

– Robert Oxton Bolton

There is a widely held misconception that animals do not kill their own kind. Scientists have observed that this is not so. Animals would kill their own kind as long as it is not part of their little group. Animals have kin and friends.

This can be easily observed, for example, on dogs. A dog’s puppies are her kin while her human owners are her friends. And this dog would fight other dogs if they are a threat to any of her kin or friend. However, a dog would not abandon her owners just because they have placed a sign on the lawn or converted to a different faith.

Animals, however, don’t decide on who is in and who is out. They have kin and friends but it is only humans who use symbols to know who is a kin and a friend. Humans can and will change alliances, build and break friendships and bridges according to these alliances.

In 2007, I was at a conference and sporting an ACM (Association for Computing Machinery, world’s oldest computing society) ID lace. A professor from another University, who later on turned out to be an ACM member himself, approached me an inquired about the lace and my University’s student chapter and our discussions took off from there with him eventually inviting me to drop into his classes and take a look at the research his team was undertaking.

Humans have long associated symbols and things to determine who are friends and kin but this will only hold if the meaning is shared and acknowledge and anything that depends on these symbols cannot be understood unless the human minds that uses those symbols are taken into account. It is not so much as what those symbols mean but what they mean to people who believe on them.

In Sovu, Rwanda, on 6th of May 1994, for example, the crucial symbol was a bit of cloth. It was the day when Tutsi refugees sought escape from the Hutu militia in Sovu convent. Sister Gertrude, the mother superior called the Hutus. She would not turn over the convent’s Tutsi nuns but hundreds of Tutsi were shot, hacked, or burned to death. The difference between life and death was a veil – its presence saving you from rampaging killers, its absence marking you as a target. Seeing this, nineteen-year-old Aline begged for a veil but Sister Gertrude refused. Seven years later, Sister Gertrude was convicted in Belgium for war crimes.

One must bear in mind however that any activity that depends on symbols must take into consideration the human minds that uses those symbols. The Tutsi nuns would have died as well if the Hutus didn’t accept that the piece of cloth meant something. That is why human don’t operate merely on a collection of facts and symbols but on the meaning that is made in the minds of people who believe in it.

Mindless facts – such as color or race or ethnicity or veil – cannot predict what people will do because however unusually alike, each of us are unique. Many don’t want to believe people would kill or die for a mere metal pigeonhole. And professionally, many scientists want nothing to do with such an emotional and conceptual swamp. Categories are fine for life outside the lab but nations, minorities, creeds, religion as an object of scientific research? Leave that to colleagues with a screw loose, or worse, to journalists.

These categories are what the philosopher Ian Hacking and psychological anthropology call “human kinds”. Some of these human kinds make sense only because members see and depend on each other every day. Others consist of people who never met. In other words, human kinds serve so many different needs. Birth makes a person a citizen, training makes her a soldier and baptism makes her a member of an organized religion. She can convert to Judaism but not into being a genius, she can marry into Islam but not into communism.

Most of these human kinds use symbols and ideologies which break people up into different sides. And there are times when people are killed for nothing more than their membership in the “wrong” tribes. In the current conflicts sides were chosen; they are not a matter of “natural” or inevitable divisions. Today it is clear as never before that human kinds – those categories we use to explain human acts on every scale, from a morning walk to all of history – don’t depend on what people are, but on what people believe. That’s the difference between human tribes and the boundaries that animals observe.

Families, ethnicities, religions, nations, civic groups, and any other sort of tribe are made of beliefs and believers. So are the tribes you hate, or think you hate. When you understand your own kind-mindedness, your own human kinds, you see how other kinds came to be. And then you are forced to face one of the most important questions of our time: what it is about the mind that makes us see these human kinds, believe in them and fight about them?


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