The Logic of the Tribe

By Harold Cárdenas Lema

Cuba wanted to join the worldwide trends, and it’s managing it; but be careful what you wish for. In a country with authoritarian tradition, under external siege and historically immoderate, there are more than enough incentives for the citizens to become radicalized, as has happened elsewhere. In 2020, it’s no longer about some Cubans fallings short and others overdoing it, but about people who are breaking them up in tribes.

In July 1953, social psychologists Muzafer and Carolyn Sherif took 22 children to a summer camp in Middle Grove. Their plan was to bring them together so they would create bonds, and then break them up in two groups to make them compete for a reward. The hypothesis was that there would come a point when they would turn against each other. Muzafer would then set a nearby grove on fire, thus creating a threat that would unite the group regardless of their differences. It didn’t work. In spite of the tricks applied to cause rifts between them, the kids would find a way to trust each other again. The initial bonds were too strong to be broken artificially.

The next year, they repeated the experiment at an Oklahoma state park, Robbers Cave. This time the two groups did not interact at the beginning, and they only met when they had to compete with each other for resources. It worked perfectly. Soon the groups were attacking one another and the park became the stage of an escalating confrontation. The final step towards reconciliation also worked. When their access to water was cut, they figured out that only by forming a human chain would they be able to move the rocks blocking the water valve, and they cooperated. Muzafer Sherif soon became famous, and the next year, curiously, William Golding published Lord of the Flies.

Half a century ago, the Robbers Cave experiment was an early sign about how easy it is to manipulate human nature and cause tribal behaviors in it.

We Cubans do not escape the human instinct of looking for a social group we can belong to; a search for identity which can be found in politics, religion or soccer. In a country where crisis shattered the paradigms of my parents’ generation, that search increased exponentially since the 90s, and it hasn’t ended yet. Churches multiplied, national values went into crisis, some party members walled themselves off, others on the left became worried, and the opposition grew with outside help. But this national and imperceptible search also made us freer today than we were 10, 20 or 30 years ago.

The dangerous thing about tribalism is that it corrodes the norms of political decency. There comes a time when everything that doesn’t suit your group becomes dispensable. Maybe that’s what happens in Cuba already. A Silvio Rodríguez song is only worth bringing up if it’s helpful for your agenda, a tragedy is perfect to make politics while donning a cloak of humanism, a setback or achievement in some other country is just a pretext to praise or criticize your own. It’s total myopia.

Defending an adversary who’s the victim of injustice is a rare act of integrity that will seldom be rewarded today when injustice comes your way. Then it’s time to see the one you helped not do much, look the other way or be glad of your misfortune, for it suits his cause. In soccer we applaud when a player stops and helps another from the opposing team, but when it comes to political preferences, there’s no fair play; Cuban opportunism prevails. Meanwhile, everyone believes they’re on the right side; no one admits being the villain.

Of course, in order to blindly pit two groups against one another, one needs to dehumanize the other. In the Cuban case, both sides have committed that sin. Epithets such as gusano (worm) and comunista have simplified thousands of personal stories and sorrows which cannot be quantified in a word, or even in a political position. Lack of obedience to the Party in Cuba is still as little tolerated as left-wing affiliation in Florida. The tribe doesn’t forgive or forget.

This antagonistic dynamic would be less frustrating if it wasn’t manufactured. There are individuals on both shores who seek such hostility, sometimes out of McCarthyist spirit and other times out of economic interest. This can present itself in the form of an official in Cuba resisting the necessary reforms, bragging about his zeal regarding the re-establishment of relations with the United States (and actually slowing them down) or encouraging others to persecute his compatriots for whatever reason. It can also be seen in Florida, where we still don’t know to what extent the funds for regime change in Cuba might be financing local actors who radicalize the Cuban community and promote bullying.

In April 2018, Gina Perry published her book The Lost Boys, in which the author interviews the children from the Robbers Cave experiment. Now as old people, they confess that none of them realized they were being manipulated. Sharp readers might think that a 21st century adult is a lot more skeptical than a child in the 50s, and they would possibly be wrong. You cannot compete with science, because unlike our finite lives, modern science is cumulative, and has perfected social psychology to unbelievable levels of subtlety. Today it’s easier than ever to manipulate individuals. And I don’t mean the Cuban State; it must be acknowledged that the group of decision-makers which might be tasked with such a thing in Cuba so far lacks the necessary sophistication to do so.

An area in which political tribalism has made extreme advances in the last few years is the digital public sphere. In keeping with an international phenomenon of political polarization, the social networks in Cuba become more toxic by the day, and digital media become sourer. This is joined by new phenomena: the search for digital prominence through raucousness, virtual celebrity and the use of the social networks as weapons of political warfare. The insertion of young Cuban professionals in other countries sometimes also requires initiations and shows of political loyalty to the new context, which are expressed in the form of more or less open opposition to the Cuban government. It doesn’t matter if they were gladly in the employment of the State, if they were indifferent about politics or if their current activism contrasts with their silence when they lived in the island. To fit in the Western world, you must belong to the critical choir.

Promoting hatred for the other is becoming more common, and an industry of everyday indignation with the adversary springs up, using the pretext of the day.

How can one break this cycle of political tribalism? Perhaps by looking for a shared narrative among the different groups. The resolution of the conflict between Cubans is not harder than it was in South Africa or Rwanda. If political preferences and different interests are the cause of discord, then culture, patriotism and the confluence of interests are the medicine. As long as some Cubans prioritize the imposition of their ideas over others instead of promoting common goals, building a complete nation will be hard.

In the search for a vaccine for the growing tribalism, we go back to the past. The initial theory of the Sherifs in their experiment was that context is everything. Competition or cooperation depend on which incentive is the greatest, and they were right, but their hypothesis was incomplete. The first experiment failed because it had an element which was eliminated in the second: empathy.

Maybe that’s the necessary antidote: putting oneself in someone else’s place and identifying how many small personal or fortuitous decisions would have taken us down different paths; trying to understand them, because no one has hegemony over sorrow in a conflict. And it’s about taking the first step of reconciliation, because what’s done for a common interest will never be a concession, but a solution to the problem. Empathy can overcome the logic of the tribe. Without it, there’s no socialist country, or democratic country, or whatever the reader aspires to.

(Translated from the original)