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Tribalism and Separatism
Alex McGilvery   Jan 8, 2012   Ethical Technology  

Human beings like being part of a tribe. For example, my younger sister refused to go to a school that required school uniforms. Why?  Already, she was consistently wearing the same clothes to school everday… the same clothes as every other member of her particular “tribe.”  The problem with the school uniform was not the requirement to wear it, but that it belonged to the wrong tribal group.

One trend in global politics is the move to separate countries based on tribal groups. Slovakia left what used to be Czechoslovakia; South Sudan split off from Sudan; Palestine wants its own homeland apart from Israel; for many years the Basques wanted to split from Spain.

A counter-balancing trend is the move to more unified markets such as the European Union. A loose union of diverse countries presumably has more spending power than each country on its own. The problem is that some people feel that they are losing their unique identity as part of the EU. 

I challenge the idea that cooperation necessarily leads to the loss of the particular tribal identity.

Scotland is an excellent example. The people of Scotland have fought the English off since at least 1296, when the English first invaded. Perhaps the contrast between the highlands of Scotland and the agrarian English countryside has developed two cultures that continually butt heads?  In recent centuries the battle between Scotland and England has been fought culturally rather than in the field with claymore and musket, but is no less real for all that.

The English enacted laws that made Scottish culture illegal (as they also did in Ireland) with only mixed success. The Gaelic language is gradually fading - less than 2% still speak it - but that is due to the all-pervasive nature of English, rather than laws. The music, dance and literature of Scotland continues to thrive and spread.

Separating Scotland from England politically would not increase either their ability to maintain their identity as Scots or their ability to survive as a country. I suspect a great deal of the survival of Scottish tradition is a direct result of the rebellion against the English who tried to suppress the culture. Take away the perceived ‘enemy’ and put the need to keep a small country operating at a standard of living that has a great deal to do with being part of Britain; and there is the potential for Scottish culture to be eroded by the exigencies of survival.

To look at another example, Quebec has been trying to separate from Canada almost since the day they joined. The difference is that while the English tried to enforce laws banning Scottish language and culture, for the last century at least, Canada has had laws which supported and encouraged French and French culture in Canada. It is absolutely necessary to be at least partially bilingual to succeed in the Federal Civil Service or at the higher levels of federal politics. Prime Ministers, both English and French speaking, have been lampooned for their lack of ability in the other official language.

Quebec separatism reached its height of violence in the seventies with the Front Liberation Quebec which led to the War Measures Act being invoked and tanks on the streets of Quebec City. It reached its political zenith with a referendum in Quebec on whether the province should separate from Canada or not. It failed with a bare majority voting to stay in Canada. The Bloc Quebecois were a political oddity as a federal party whose stated goal was the dissolution of Canada. They too seem to have faded from the political stage.

The reality that the people of Quebec have faced and I think the Scots would as well is that they are stronger and wealthier as part of a larger group. They don’t need to give up their tribal identity to stay with the larger group. In fact, by remaining in Canada the people of Quebec have more ability to maintain their uniqueness than they would struggling to survive on a world stage that cares less about their culture than what they can contribute to the global economy. 

That is the other side to tribalism and the maintenance of local culture. The more we can hold on to our unique identities and the tribe that we claim as ours, the better we will be prepared to slow the rampant globalism that is turning people into commodities. Commodities are easiest to buy and sell when they are all the same. If we don’t want to be bought and sold on the world stage we need to hold on to our individualities – as much trouble as they might cause us in the local arena. To just give in and become a vast homogenous culture would not only be unbearably dull, but give far too much power to people who would control that culture.

Tribal cultures can survive as ‘pure’ without separating, by cooperating with other cultures around them. The challenge is that while humans like to gather in tribes, we don’t do well with relating to people in other tribes. Just as the clothes my sister wore to school marked her as belonging to a particular tribe, it also meant that she rarely interacted with people belonging to other tribes in her school.

If we are going to survive as a human race we will need all the diversity we have to bring as many ways of thinking and doing things to bear on the problems that face us. That means we need to maintain our own identity when faced with people who are different, but at the same time value the very things that make those other people different. We need loose cooperatives of cultures and nationalities to move forward while encouraging the variety of expression within those nations. 

There will be ever greater challenges as we move into a future that will see new tribes emerging from technology, or the granting of human status to other intelligent species on our planet. There will be people who choose to become digital while other will prefer the feel of flesh and bone. If we pursue the logic of Separatism we will become a world of individuals who are unable to communicate or care about anyone other than ourselves.

Alex McGilvery is currently living in Flin Flon, Manitoba, Canada. He is an author and serves as the minister of a thriving United Church congregation.


I find it hard to accept that Quebec could be compared to Scotland as they are not in any way a Nation.

Scotland has existed for a thousand years as a single unified Nation. Only in the last three hundred have we been part of the United Kingdom and wont be for much longer.

We no longer look on ourselves as being too wee, too poor and too stupid.

I’m sure the Canadian people would be miffed if all revenues were syphoned off down to London and were grudgingly handed pocket money to run their public services and economy.

Why a Canadian should wish to deny that the Scottish people should enjoy the freedom that his own countrymen have, beggars belief.

David S B -

I agree with you !  I hope Alex Salmond and the Scottish independence movement is successful.  I have heard, though, that only 30% of the Scots favor independence. Is this true?  why such a small minority?

I also hope that Flanders is eventually established as it’s own nation.  Spain?  That is a tricky one… The Basques, I believe, would be a prosperous entity, as would the Catalonians…

One question I suppose is… is being a “semi-autonomous” region enclosed within a larger state… enough?  Apparently not.

Sometimes, secession makes you *richer*, not poorer (think of Italian Padania). Other times, secession is a step required to join another political entity with which you feel to have more in common (think of Italian Sud Tyrol).

Ultimately, however, I think that multinational entities are perfectly OK - in fact, even most European so-called nation-states do or used to include different nationalities, and this was even truer for empires -, even at the price of, eg, sharing your wealth with poorer areas or maintain an expensive central government, but only inasmuch as they embody some kind of collective, sovereign project which is is still perceived as ensuring a shared, grand, independent destiny to the communities within.

European separatist movements have grown exactly out of a widespread perception that the semi-colonial status of existing European countries starting from the Yalta split, up to contemporary globalisation and EU dominance, makes it pointless to sacrify one’s most immediate identity bounds *and* economic interest to the empty carcass of a once independent country which does not add to, but detract from, collective self-determination.

I suspect in this respect that the defeat of separatism in the Russian Federation was not so much the effect of a harsher repression by a stronger federal government, but of the existence itself of a stronger, more independent government where a loss of regional freedom is compensated by an increased political independence from foreign influences.

Neck and neck now with two years to go till the referendum and the Unionists are getting worried.

This is a good website to consult if you are at all interested in Scotland’s fight for Independence.

‘Semi autonomous’ no thanks!

Thanks for your comments

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