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Tribalism 'probably as big as climate change'

Forces holding us together are weakening, says former PM speechwriter in Centre for Public Christianity annual lecture

Tim Dixon at the annual Richard Johnson Lecture

By Stephen Cauchi

April 7 2019 

The tribalism and division of Western society was as important an issue as climate change, a former Prime Ministerial speechwriter and adviser told the Centre for Public Christianity’s annual lecture last month.

Tim Dixon, a speechwriter for Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard and a co-founder of the UK social cohesion research group More In Common, told the Richard Johnson Lecture that the Church had a major role to play in uniting society and countering tribalism.

Tribalism “is a really serious problem. This is probably as big as climate change,” said Mr Dixon, an economist and lawyer.

He told the State Library audience that “if we don’t get this right, we don’t get any progress on anything that requires a belief in our common good.

“The forces that are driving us apart are intensifying and the forces that hold us together are weakening.”

Mr Dixon, who also sits on a number of boards including the faith-based justice organisation Sojourners, likened the current age to the year 1909, just prior to the First World War.

“What if today, at the precipice of the 2020s, we too are in a time like we were in 1909, but we just don’t know it?” he said. “What if we are in a time that’s about to be overshadowed by what’s just about to happen?”

Although “every generation tends to see itself on the verge of some kind of apocalypse,” said Mr Dixon, “maybe we have more reasons than any to feel the same way”.

Mr Dixon said there were “many warnings for the collapse of our civilisation” including climate change and biodiversity loss, overpopulation, economic inequality, soaring depression and suicide rates, pollution, and the loss of the rules-based international order.

Liberal democracy was “in crisis”, he said, in the United States, Europe, Brazil, India and the Philippines.

“What we’ve not seen – at least not since the 1930s – are so many countries struggling with crises and social divisions.”

These included divisive leaders such as Presidents Trump, Duterte (Philippines) and Bolsonaro (Brazil); the Brexit vote in Britain; the collapse of established parties in Europe and the rise of the far-right in their place.

“Just about everywhere, the political establishment is under siege, especially on the centre-left,” he said.

“Neither of France’s major parties even made it to the presidential run-off in 2017, for example. A far-right party is now the official opposition in Germany. In many countries it is taking months to even form a government.

“And in different ways, the United Kingdom and the United States are mired in semi-permanent crises.”

Decades-old debates about the size of government, intervention in markets and personal freedoms were being replaced by issues of identity, belonging and tribalism – issues which sat outside the left/right spectrum, he said.

Having said that, tribalism was particularly pronounced on the fringes of the political spectrum, he said.

“On the opposing (political) extremes, people tend to think the same way. They’ve learnt that if you step away from your tribe – let’s say you’re a staunch conservative advocating urgent government action on climate change, or a Green voter with second thoughts about right-to-life issues – your own social media mob descends on you, punishes you, shames you and unfollows you. You won’t do it again.”

All of this was worsened by the breakdown of civilised public discourse. Contempt had taken over public conversations, he said.

“Contempt is profoundly different from disagreement and even anger. Contempt is the rolling of the eyes and the dismissal of the other.”

When contempt was used by an influential person such as President Trump, it quickly became commonplace, he said. School kids, gangs, pundits, activists, and even normal people begin using contempt.

“The people most engaged in public debates often do not understand the other side or know any of them personally. Their views on the other side are often cartoonishly inaccurate.”

Educated people were also guilty of this, he said, with their condescension towards less educated people a “really significant” factor that’s deepening social fractures.

“Educated cosmopolitans often trigger a sense of shame or ridicule when they call out someone for their prejudice or stupidity.”

Mr Dixon, who gave his address two days prior to the Christchurch mosque shootings, said that “for many people it’s just a short path from contempt to acting out violence”.

“See the rise of hate crimes – attacks on minorities, on synagogues, mosques and churches in many countries.”

Polarisation was also driving society apart, he said, through such forces as inequality, social media, the rise of loneliness and the decline of community life. Forces that once held society together – shared values, stories, experiences and community life – have weakened.

“It’s not just that we don’t know our neighbours, it’s that we know fewer and fewer people who are different from us,” he said.

But Mr Dixon, a Christian, said there were solutions that could unite society and weaken tribalism – including faith. While “bad religion” could be toxic and feed tribalism, it was also a force for uniting polarised societies, he said.

“In many communities where the social glue has mostly come unstuck, it’s churches and mosques and temples that can still bring people together, strengthen communities and help people most in need.”

Churches were one of the very few places where people of all ages and backgrounds in a community came together, he said.

With their youth programs, aged care services, support for families and the disabled, they were the “eyes and ears of communities” said Mr Dixon.

The Christian gospel of giving rather than receiving, serving rather than being served, and taking the lowest seat at the table was a message that needed to be heard, he said.

“That was the gospel I heard when I came to faith,” he said.

 Mr Dixon quoted from the Book of Revelation, when “a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language” stood in front of the throne of God.

“That’s a profoundly inclusive vision,” he said. “Nobody – no nation, no tribe, people or language – is left out.”

Churches could have a powerful role in uniting society if they looked more like Jesus and “less like the religious authorities who put him to death”, said Mr Dixon.

“They can have an outsized impact in healing our fractured societies, rebuilding community and creating new norms of respect and civility.”

Mr Dixon mentioned seven other methods societies could use to resist polarisation and unite.

Firstly, “inclusive patriotism” was needed to resist the “us versus them” narrative of authoritarian populists.

“We need a bigger ‘story of us’ – a story that is inclusive of everyone – that speaks to our shared identity, which is typically our sense of national identity,” he said.

Secondly, national leaders were needed to carry out that narrative – politicians who could “put, as the late John McCain said, country above party”.

Thirdly, social media and technology rewarded the “loudest, strongest, most extreme voices”. “I do not see a way out of our spiralling polarisation without making tech firms more accountable,” he said. That meant investing in technology that helps people navigate our divisions rather than exacerbating them.

Fourthly, the media – including arts and entertainment, reality TV, gaming, movies – could be used to show how polarisation could be overcome.

Fifthly, movements like the Great Get Together in the UK could bring strangers together in their communities. Millions took part in street parties during the Great Get Together, with over 120,000 meetings registered, he said.

“In France, we’re working to find out what community games are best at connecting people who don’t know each other … community bingo is very popular in France.”

Sixth, events were needed that brought small groups together in people’s homes and community centres.

And seventh, government policies were needed to counter deepening social fractures.

“For example, how can urban planning, housing and schooling policies counter the segregation of people into clusters of homogenous wealth, racial and ideological groupings?”

The lecture was held in Melbourne on 13 March and in Sydney the previous day.

The Centre for Public Christianity is a not-for-profit media company that offers a Christian perspective on contemporary life. It seeks to promote understanding of the Christian faith by engaging mainstream media and the public.