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Walls and Bridges

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Solitary genius is not enough. The creation of great cities, sending rockets into space, plumbing the subatomic depths, and sequencing our own genetic code all required cooperative tribal bonding on a grand scale. But as psychologist Jonathan Haidt reminds us, tribalism both "binds" and "blinds." The negative aspects of tribalism can be seen on an almost daily basis in the news -- from the brick/steel/barbed-wire "peace lines" separating Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, to the dividing concrete walls of Gaza, to the ongoing Sunni/Shiite bombings in Iraq.

A further manifestation of the blinding aspects of tribalism can be found in the recent killings of World Health Organization vaccination teams by the Pakistani Taliban. Medical workers were seen as "foreign" agents of western science. Tribalism and religious fundamentalism have blinded these Taliban fighters to the fact that vaccine science originated in their region. It was documented in 8th-century India, and cowpox vaccines were first brought to the west from Turkey in the 1700s.

Explorations of tribalism and cultural identity have now jumped onto the Hollywood screen with the recent film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. The protagonist of the story is a Pakistani who comes to America to be educated at Princeton, and subsequently enters the elite financial realms of Wall Street. But in the aftermath of 9/11, he encounters increasing suspicion, prejudice and profiling -- ultimately causing him to reevaluate and question his own sense of self, allegiance, and tribal identifications.

Given the recent Boston bombings, the film's explorations couldn't be timelier. The Tsarnaev brothers, brought to the U.S. as teenagers from war-torn Chechnya, lived a seemingly schizophrenic existence with cultural feet planted in two separate worlds. The younger brother achieved U.S. citizenship, became captain of his high school wrestling team, earned a college scholarship, yet tweeted this past March -- "A decade in America already, I want out. How I miss my homeland. #dagestan #chechnya." And the older of the two brothers, a reportedly promising boxer, who captured the 2010 Golden Gloves heavyweight championship of New England, aspired to represent the U.S. in the Olympics. But after local competition rule changes that excluded resident non-citizens, and delays in his own citizenship application, the elder Tsarnaev brother's flamboyant attire of cowboy hat, mirrored sunglasses, and alligator skin boots reverted to a five inch Islamic beard and a bitter rejection of all things American.

While there can be no justification for senseless acts of brutality, there are some common threads. The actions of Tsarnaev brothers, and the recent immigrant riots in Sweden, are both rooted in disenfranchised young men who feel stranded in a cultural no-man's land. As a result, they become vulnerable to malevolent groups and dogma that appeal to their need for some sense of identity and belonging.

The frequent dogmatic gridlocks in Washington also demonstrate the binding and blinding qualities of tribalism. Global problems facing us today, such as disease and hunger, nuclear arms proliferation, and climate change, are generally tractable with current technologies. The more pressing problem is an unwillingness to unite toward solutions.

In a world that is increasingly multicultural and economically/politically interconnected, establishing commonality is not just the preferable path forward; it's the only path. We are hardwired for tribal association. But we are also hardwired for empathy and compassion -- at least toward those we view as part of our in-group. With a greater understanding of human tribal tendencies, we can both mitigate the blinding aspects, and leverage the binding aspects along more positive and productive paths.

The big picture solutions lie in redefining and leveraging our sense of tribe. Because human tribal associations sit atop shifting cerebral sands of ethnicity, perceived socio-economic status, political persuasion, and religious affiliation, they are highly transformable. Bostonians and New Yorkers, normally bitter rivals over virtual tribes of local sports teams, came together in the kinship of shared tragedy after the Boston bombings. And supportive kinship even arrived from such far-flung locations as Kabul, Afghanistan -- again, from those who have known the tragedy of terrorism all too well.

In the early 2000s, rock musician Bono broke a partisan Washington gridlock over funding for AIDS in Africa through the vehicle of appealing to conservative Christians, likening such aid to Jesus healing the Biblical lepers. Something as simple as a shared tribal story served to pave the way toward a sense of bonding and common goal. And the miracle of WWI German and British soldiers briefly setting down their arms on the battlefield in order to celebrate Christmas Eve together similarly demonstrates the malleability of tribal identification -- the amazing ease with which such associations can be altered. In this instance, all it took was the shared ritual of a holiday song.

In a globally interconnected world, what better vehicle for redefining tribal associations than a worldwide communications network? Facebook and Twitter were essential elements of the Arab Spring movements. Studies have demonstrated that the often-cited "six degrees of separation" between any two people is reduced to just four degrees among Facebook users. What better portals into this network of change than the increasingly ubiquitous smartphones and tablets? With online movements like Games for Change, Zynga and the Knight Foundation, SuperBetter, and The Cyberhero League, players become part of a virtual super-tribe targeting a greater good -- beyond traditional boundaries of race, religion, ethnicity, or nationalism. Within these game worlds, you're no longer just engaged in an online adventure that's helping to fund nonprofits, you might also be assuming the role of someone across a cultural divide. A Games for Change offering called PeaceMaker, created by former Israeli intelligence officer Asi Burak, allows gamers the opportunity to play both the Israeli Prime Minister and the Palestinian President, leading to a deeper understanding of the issues on both sides.

Virtual worlds created by games can be powerful vehicles for change. And social media has already increased global interconnection. Imagine the future possibilities.

Steven and Michael Meloan are authors of "The Shroud," a science-adventure novel exploring the spiritual impulse, tribalism and its manifestations in human behavior, and the intersection between science and spirituality.

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