Where do we draw the line between a group and a cult?

Typically speaking, cults are groups of people who have beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister. Members typically have excessive admiration for their charismatic leader, who is often intent on brainwashing “believers” into an entering an isolating and potentially hazardous environment. Cults encourage animosity toward “unbelievers” and, in certain extreme cases, have even pressured members to kill themselves as a demonstration of faith. So what would encourage someone to join a cult? For the same reason people join any group: a sense of belonging.

Thousands of years ago, belonging to a group—or more specifically, a tribemeant access to safety and an immediate sense of identity due to common values shared among group members. Meanwhile, those who are not part of the tribe have different, often opposing values, and they are perceived as an enemy of what the group stands for. Even though our society has become more complicated since the days of our ancestors, our tribal tendencies still remain. Cults and cultish groups illustrate what happens when this behavior is taken to the extreme, but what happens when tribalism exists in more civilized circumstances?

As Scott Alexander explains in “I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup,” people despise their outgroups, or groups where they don’t belong. Alexander concludes that those we disdain the most in this instance are actually very similar to us. The outgroup is characterized by the theory of narcissism of small differences by Freud, who says that “it is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and ridiculing each other.” Freud’s theory explains how some of the large-scale conflicts in human history were actually between groups that were based on similarities amongst the people in the group.

Traditionally, these groups were defined by a shared race or ethnicity. In World War II, the Nazis’ foremost adversaries were the German Jews, despite the fact that both groups had a shared secular German culture and language. But Germany’s greatest ally in the war was Japan, a country whose only major similarity to Germany was nationalistic militarism. And clashes among similar groups are not limited to the most extreme examples of war; they happen during competition in everyday life, from low-stakes sports rivalries to political conflicts.

Today’s world is seemingly a more diverse place thanks to advances in technology and to globalization’s miraculous ability to connect people across the world, but even though people have become more accepting of different cultures and minority groups, they’re just shedding their culturally-based ingroups for new, ideological groups. Alexander explains this new phenomenon in the United States through the existence of two dominant “tribes”: the Red and Blue Tribes. The Red Tribe is characterized by more conservative political leanings, strong evangelical religious beliefs, unrelenting nationalism, rural and working class social backgrounds, and more traditional family values. Meanwhile, the Blue Tribe is known for its progressivism, advocacy on behalf of secularism, college and post-graduate education, avant-garde youth culture, and residence in urban and wealthy neighborhoods.

The Red-Blue ideological battle should not be equated to the clash between Republicans and Democrats or the struggle between conservatives and liberals. Instead, the Red and Blue Tribes represent the competing interests of anti-globalists and globalists, respectfully. The Red Tribe champions an “America First” approach and general economic isolation. They believe that globalization hurts the working classes and steals jobs from hard-working Americans, and they nostalgically yearn for a past golden age of manufacturing and the higher quality of life that accompanied it for a select few. It is convenient to forget this was also a time when children worked full days in factories and the urban working-class lived in slums.

It makes sense that the Red Tribe rallied around Donald Trump since he promised he would bring back working-class jobs in industries like manufacturing and mining. Over the course of his campaign and throughout his first months as president, President Trump and his administration have been the focus of myriad scandals, but Trump’s base is still unwavering, to the point that, as he claimed at a campaign rally in Iowa last year, he “could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters” (whether or not that’s actually true is more debatable).

Nevertheless, Trump understands that Americans can look past the negative aspects of their group in order to feel that coveted sense of belonging. For example, Trump supporters might overlook Trump’s offensive remarks about women and immigrants because of his promises to “drain the swamp” in Washington. Although America’s political climate grows more and more divided every day, Republicans and Democrats ostensibly have a lot in common. Both parties want America to be a leader in the global economy and in diplomacy. What separates the Reds from the Blues is the way they want to reach this goal.  

Just for a full disclaimer, I would (cautiously) categorize myself as a member of the Blue Tribe, and so would most of the people I associate with. During my junior year in high school, there were many terrorist attacks in a short amount of time, but the Paris attacks garnered the most news coverage. So, the French Honor Society sold bracelets as a fundraiser to show solidarity with Paris and the city’s victims; I walked between groups of students to give my spiel about the horrors of terrorism. But my tribe turned on me and berated me for only selling bracelets to honor the victims in Paris.

“There were attacks in Lebanon, too! All you people suddenly care about terrorism when the West is attacked because the victims are white,” one girl screamed at me.

I was most shocked by the phrase “all you people.” I realized I had been labeled a member of the Blue Tribe’s outgroup, and, as such, was automatically wrong. This made me wonder whether, if I had been selling bracelets for the Beirut attacks, she would have criticized me for not supporting Syrian refugees as well. This student seemed more concerned with telling everyone how she felt about the perceived ideas of the “other” tribe than working to solve the specific problem. After all, if you’re part of the Blue Tribe, then your outgroup is not terrorists, criminals, or tyrannical dictators—it’s the Red Tribe.

After thousands of years of agrarian society, tribalism still influences our society’s value system and our own personal identities. We love, hate, and need our tribal tendencies. We feed off of competition, and we yearn for that sense of belonging that tribes provide us.

According to Marcelo Gleiser, a professor at Dartmouth College, humans are “social animals, and being part of an identifying group is essential to a healthy emotional life.” Rather than denying ourselves the opportunity to attach to groups and their respective values, we should focus more on our groups and values in order to truly examine them.

By being in touch with our core beliefs, we can better recognize the core values of others. Yes, we can fight over minute differences. But perhaps we can also look at opposing groups and, instead of condemning them as nonbelievers, realize we are unified by a common desire for shared identity.