2,800 words

A shibboleth, in its original signification and in a meaning it still bears today, is a word or custom whose variations in pronunciation or style can be used to differentiate members of in-groups from those of out-groups. Within the mindset of the in-group, a connotation or value judgment of correct/incorrect or superior/inferior can be ascribed to the two variants. (Wikipedia)

The word “shibboleth” is Hebrew. It means variously an ear of corn, or a current, a stream. Its actual denotation is irrelevant, however, because in the Biblical Book of Judges chapter 12 it was its pronunciation that was used by the victorious Gileadites to identify their disguised fleeing enemies who could not pronounce the “sh” and said “sibboleth” instead. Those who did not have the correct pronunciation were killed on the spot.

“Shibboleth” as used today is the equivalent of “password.” It has become a symbol of the practices described in the epigraph that, regardless of name, are common everywhere, among all peoples, throughout the history of humankind. If one were tempted to also include in the definition of this phenomenon, the ethnic, national, linguistic, racial and other differences that have divided us into groups justifying the practices, the effort would soon be abandoned with the realization that even where no “tribal” differences exist, people find ways to create them and they use shibboleths to do it. Effectively in these cases, the shibboleth, instead of being a symbol of real differences, itself becomes the only difference, creating groups artificially where there would otherwise be none. The suspicion that there is more here than meets the eye is hard to ignore.

Examples of these shibboleth-generated divisions abound across a wide spectrum ranging from the fans of sports teams who feel disdain and animosity toward fans of rival teams, to alumni of schools whose claims of superiority are imaginary, to the inheritors of different religious traditions where differences in belief do not result in differences in attitude or behavior. In all these cases, however, the shibboleth ― the team, the school, the religion ― used to distinguish insiders from outsiders is the only difference; as a corollary, the commonality both groups share so outweighs the distinctions evoked by the shibboleth that the resulting divisions appear to be artificial and intentionally maintained.

The utterly irrational level of passion and potentially extreme behavior generated by these shibboleth-created groups is the salient feature here. I believe it’s a clue to the etiology. A baseball fan who supposedly loves the game, observing a great “play” by the opposing team, instead of enjoying such an outstanding display of athletic skill, actually becomes furious, and momentarily has feelings of hatred and the desire to do the players ― and their fans ― bodily harm. All claims of “love for the game” disappear in the reality of the overwhelming emotional avalanche generated by the “tribal” identification with the team. Anyone who doubted its irrationality would have it quickly confirmed by the similarly irrational fact that if those same opposing players were to be suddenly signed by the “home” team, hatred would immediately turn to love.

On May 29, 1985, in Brussels, Belgium, hundreds of English soccer fans attacked rival Italian supporters before the kickoff of the European Champions Cup final, sparking a riot that killed at least 36 people and injured some 250 others. The violence here was clearly irrational. No one was threatening anyone. It was only a game! It’s the irrationality that calls attention and demands explanation.

What is going on here?


In the case of sports, it seems clear that, outside of the money generated by the popularity of watching the games, the entire enterprise is arbitrary and meaningless. Nothing is gained and nothing is lost in winning or losing a sports event. The claim that the “contest” stimulates the highest level of effort and that the real goal is to see superlative athletic performance, is quickly refuted by the example described above where excellence is actually held in opprobrium by half of the obser­vers because it was done in the service of “the other team.” In another example, the awarding of gold medals to Olympic athletes who outperformed rival contestants by a hairsbreadth that can barely be measured, does not reflect the fact that the winners and losers are, to all extents and purposes, equal. The awarding of gold medals under such circumstances seems to reveal a prior need to have winners and losers no matter what.

Clearly, then, in these cases the focus is on winning even though winning may have nothing to do with performance. It impels me to ask: What is there about winning that makes us so passionate that we create arbitrary fictional scenarios where reality makes no such demand? Cries of “it’s only a game” meant to escape the feeling of despon­dency that accompanies “losing,” are swallowed up in the irrepressible passions that hold sway at such moments.

vicarious group identity

The next thing is the vicarious nature of the phenomenon. Our personal identity becomes enmeshed inextricably with something or someone other than ourselves, and most intensely with some identifiable group about which we generate a considerable amount of affect. It’s like we can’t help it. Why is that?

For me this is the dominant feature of the shibboleth phenomenon: the identification of the individual person with a group and the feeling that one’s own survival, identity and destiny is tied to that group. I believe this has its roots in evolution. We evolved in pre-historic times with a need to belong to a survival community (family and clan) and genes were “selected” by the more successful survival of those who were inclined to live in community over those who did not; they lived longer and reproduced. Survival was the selector, as always, not the preference of the individuals. It has to be recognized that such a communitarian instinct was originally crucial to the survival of the individual, and so feelings of loyalty for one’s family and clan along with a fear and mistrust of whatever threatens the group ― like a rival group competing for the same resources ― would be understandably part of the selection. Human beings could not afford to be separated from the protective and reproductive community that stood between them and an impersonal and hostile world. Human identity from the beginning was tied to belonging to a local community.

In advanced civilizations, however, like the ones that now populate the earth, family and clan are swallowed up in much wider networks where the survival connections do not resemble a local clan community. It is my contention that the primitive clan instinct is conatus-driven, biologically embedded and particularly intense; it gives rise to the need to identify something in larger society that satisfies the demands of the instinct or, upon failing to do so, impels people to create one.

I believe the “need to belong” to an identifiable group is as primal as any other biological urge directing human behavior. How the modern “rugged individualist” myth arose is a paradox that is explainable as an historical rejection reaction. Along with other factors that substituted belief in a disembodied mind for flesh and blood human beings, individualism was the expression of the modern worldview that replaced the superstitions and class slavery of European Christian culture. Modernism and its bloodless rationality was a rebellion against the emotional religious totalitarianism of the middle ages which built its monolithic structures on the exploitation of the need to belong to a community of survival. To this day, the inheritors of mediaeval Christianity disguise their Churches’ totalitarian proclivities by offering membership in a “survival community” that is global in extent. Freeing oneself from those structures resulted in the creation of unconnected individuals who then became the building blocks of mass society. Was there no alternative?

Deny it as we might the need to belong will not go away. The current emergence of a grotesque and unnatural tribalism onto the political scene not only puts to rest individualist illusions but confirms Darwin’s theory that all biological life including the permutations that gave rise to species are driven by survival. Intelligence itself evolved as a tool of survival. There is no rationality, no goal, no purpose, no intention directing life beyond life itself. Giving purpose and direction to life is a strictly human undertaking; “nature” does not do that for us. Nature gives us a biological inheritance whose energies are conditioned by their evolutionary origins. Belonging to a group that can be perceived and identified with the survival and wellbeing of its members unleashes the most ferocious of human passions ― those associated with the conatus itself ― the instinct for self-preservation. And correlatively, where the group that human instincts are programmed to seek is nowhere to be found, people will create one. Like those who suddenly sense that they are naked, they instinctively grab for something to put on. The analogy is apt; we emerged as biological organisms wrapped in a protective and nurturing matrix ― a human community ― that allows us to survive. We feel homeless without it. It is embedded in our bones. We can control it, but we cannot ignore it or suppress it.


But it is imperative that we control it. For human needs have ever been the feeding ground of abusive political power. The exploitation of what people believe they need has functioned infallibly since the rise of warrior kings who offered protections and future greatness that families and clans could no longer provide for themselves. This widened the community beyond perceptibility. The larger the political unit, the more irrelevant the local community, the more disconnected the solitary individual and the greater the alienation and sense of homelessness. “Progress” as represented by civilization, has always meant the progressive elimination of the local community and therefore the necessary rise of disconnected, isolated individuals. Ironically, the displacement of the locus of protection from clan to king, chosen as an instrument of survival, ends up making the individual feel more isolated and defenseless, generating a deeper anxiety over survival.

The central role of survival in driving these developments helps us understand some of the otherwise perplexing features of the shibboleth phenomenon. The need to have winners and losers in sports competitions corresponds to the focus of the conatus on survival. The “team” as the vicarious community of survival must win. Attending a game is most certainly not the refined enjoyment of superior performance. “Winning” is crucial even when it is clear, as in the Olympics, that athletes are equally accomplished.

Similarly, joining or identifying with a group represents the individual’s instinct to find the support community which is part of his/her identity. “Identity” is ultimately a communal phenomenon, and until the individual connects with a community of survival, s/he will sense a lack of identity. These vicarious experiences ― shibboleths ― mirror the instinctive need to belong to a support group local enough for human interaction to be palpably experienced. Once that happens a sense of wellbeing ― belonging ― is immediately generated.

From this perspective the shibboleth phenomenon is seen to be part of a constellation of human feelings, urges, reactions and practices that get their energy from the instinct to nestle oneself in a perceivable communal matrix ― a family or clan ― producing a sense of well-being that arises from our biological organisms. The fact that belonging to a particular group as a matter of objective fact might not really provide the protections that the individual needs does not mitigate either the loyalty or the sense of well-being that comes with membership. The irrationality in evidence here is a clue to its origin in biological instinct. The attempt to create a society of disconnected individual citizens rationally pursuing life, liberty and security for themselves without connection to others, no matter how reasonable and technically efficient it might be, will never fully succeed because human beings are tribal by nature. Tribalism is rooted in the organic intimacy of the family. Because of its irrational dimension, it can be dangerous; it can be manipulated and people are vulnerable. But so can any other biological feature embedded in our organisms, like the need to eat, the urge for sex, the reflex to self-defense. All these things generate a passionate response because they are biologically hard wired. That doesn’t mean they cannot be controlled, but it does mean that the corresponding urges will make insistent demands that the unprepared may feel they cannot disobey.

Strangers, foreigners, those who do not speak one’s language, who eat strange foods, wear unfamiliar clothing, practice a different religion, have a different skin color, are usually just excluded from the in-group until they are perceived to be a threat to its integrity and well-being. Then they become the object of fear and active hostility. These are instinctive reactions that are innate in us and part of the need to identify with a community of survival. We may consider it unfortunate that our biological equipment happened to be forged in the furnaces of the Pleistocene epoch 1.7 million years ago, but those are the conditions under which we have to eke out our survival on this planet. If we want to control it we have to first understand and accept it. This is what we are. The notion, held by many, that tribalism is an aberration of some sort and that a little education will dispel it, is a fallacy touted by the educated that reveals their prejudice against the “others” whom they disparage. It is another example of the shibboleth phenomenon; this time as a myth generated by the privileged ― the beneficiaries ― to justify their own segregationist tribalism i.e., their claims to class superiority.


Once the tribe is perceived to be under attack, the individual’s conatus sees its identity threatened and goes into a defensive posture that is focused on the elimination of the threat to the group. The control of tribalism is not to be found in an attempt to dismiss it, much less to eradicate it, which is quite impossible; for even if the “tribe” were destroyed, the members would recreate it in another form. It is rather to make sure that natural groups at the level of family and clan are protected and their well-being ― their ability to provide for the survival and wellbeing of their members ― insured. Individuals should be encouraged to identify with them rather than insist on the failed policy of promoting a mass society where interpersonal human contact is simply not perceivable if not non-existent and considered irrelevant to human happiness. It is the source of the alienation that is generalized in our societies.

Everything about modern economic “development:” from industrial manufacturing that displaces cottage industries, local guilds and craft labor with the mindlessness of the assembly-line; industrial scale agriculture that has eliminated the family farm and the local jobs that went with it; big-box stores pushing local mom and pop retailers out of business and paying their workers less than a living wage; urban “renewal” projects that destroy neighborhood ethnic enclaves; rural “development” that replaces farms and villages with suburban sprawl and shopping malls, the massification of leisure activities that replaces local restaurants by national chain franchises and fast-food outlets ― the list goes on and on ― have conspired to destroy the neighborhood and village once created by family and clan and to replace them with urbanized, isolated, disconnected masses of unemployed people looking for “jobs” with big corporations and for a “home” to rent from some stranger. All the many benefits of small scale, neigh­borhood and village life ― work, commerce, housing, service ― have been eliminated and in their place people are offered money to satisfy their consumption needs (if they’re lucky), which, given the options for living still left to them in mass society, amount to little more than the addictive accumulation of the empty symbols of wealth and success ― another shibboleth ― another substitute for the real thing.

It’s hard to imagine recreating the sense of local belonging that once characterized the living conditions of the majority of humankind without reversing the factors of massification that were responsible for destroying it. But, until the real thing comes along, it seems we will continue to try to satisfy our instincts vicariously by identifying with substitutes ― shibboleths ― that symbolize the instinctive needs we are no longer able to satisfy. These shibboleths are an ersatz, vicarious, unnatural, substitute tribalism that springs up like a fungus on the decaying corpse of the local communities that have been plowed under by the massification of modern society.