When I was growing up in India in the 1990s, Pakistan was the enemy and Pakistanis were evil people. It was a “fact” that wasn’t readily questioned. Once I immigrated to New York City and befriend countless Pakistanis in high school, those “facts” were starting to create cognitive dissonance within me. Some Pakistanis were good people and some were not, but more importantly they were no different than the Indians I encountered in New York. As a socially progressive individual, I read liberal-leaning newspapers from India and Pakistan whose opinion sections tend to be more self-critical of their respective countries. Yet when it came to the hard news of who started cross-border firing, in these progressive media outlets it was reported that the other country always fired first. Statistically, it seemed improbable to me that one side was always the innocent victim and the other side was always the heartless aggressor.
I spent years pondering over these logical fallacies and trying to understand these contradictions that people readily assumed to be true. Evolutionarily, being part of a tribe ensured our survival. If a member’s betrayal can put the entire tribe at risk, such actions carried a heavy penalty. And while modern society has advanced at an exponential pace and borders are becoming fluid, the slow pace of evolution has ensured that our tribal mentality is always at conflict with a globalized world.
We tend to portray the best examples of our side and the worst examples of the other side to make universal judgments of each other. We pick on outrageous comments or actions of individuals on the “other” side and paint them as a monolith. Yet when someone does the same on “our” side, we say these individuals don’t represent us all. We make excuses and rationalize actions of our side, which we would never tolerate of the other side. We turn policy differences into a zero-sum game where any win for them means a loss of us, and vice-versa. Compromise from our side is a dirty word because we think we have already compromised much, while the other side refuses to meet us in the middle.
I have read numerous arguments in the India-Pakistan rivalry or Hindu-Muslim tensions where we seem to always bring up the past and air old grievances to create diversions from current issues. Sins of our ancestors should be not over descendants’ heads forever. In human history, no group has been innocent of wrongdoings. In the current American political environment, an example of such tribalism would be the way attitudes of Democrats has evolved towards former FBI director James Comey, and the way President Trump and his Republican base, the so-called supporters of law enforcement, and are turning on the premier law enforcement agency in the United States.
We can begin to move past our tribal differences by having more people-to-people contacts. Majority of our prejudices and us-vs-them thinking stems from ignorance and lack of personal relationships with the other side. What makes the internet so polarized is that we can unload our vitriol on the unseen and unknown other. In contrast, we tend to be more civil with people we already have a relationship with despite any political or religious differences. Arts, culture, and travel expose us to different mindsets that might challenge what we already “know” about a certain nation or culture.
We might be proud of our customs and beliefs and wonder how others have such strange and immoral traditions. Yet immersing ourselves with people of a different culture might make us realize that they are just as proud of their beliefs and customs as we are, and who might consider our traditions to be wrong. Such exposure might let us see that fundamentally we aren’t much different from each other. It might allow us to see that our political, religious, or cultural differences are subjective and not objective Truths. If we can get past the cognitive dissonance, we might start seeing each other as individuals with our unique stories. We might not reflexively defend an individual or an issue because they are on “our” side, but isolate the issue and decide it on its individual merits and our own innate beliefs. In the 21st century, if we can strive for an interconnected world, I am hopeful we can come together and move away from group mentality. On a personal note of moving past tribalism. – something I would not have imagined 20 years back – my closest friend is a Pakistani woman.