Thursday, June 30, 2016

MacWorld and Tribalism

The recent vote to exit the European Union by Britain (Brexit) highlights a trend toward tribalism that has been going on since the turn of the century. The cause of this trend is a reaction against globalization. Alvin Toffler, in his book Future Shock, called this globalization “MacWorld.” He used the ubiquitous fast food chain MacDonald’s as a symbol of the changing world of both economics and culture. No matter where on the globe you live, what language you speak, or what tribe you belong to, you can order from exactly the same menu.

Economically, free trade agreements have opened up borders to buy and sell products globally. I can now buy my favorite Swiss chocolate in my local grocery store, whereas before I could only purchase it in Switzerland. Culturally, the world not only eats the same hamburgers, but it also consumes the same music, movies and wears the same outfits. The result of all of this is a homogenization of culture and tastes. Many dreamers have seen this as a boon to better understanding and peace among the various nations of the world and an end to tribalism. But this has not been the case.

Before the fall of the Soviet Union, the world was divided into two superpowers pitted against each other with either strong dictatorships or military alliances holding the precarious peace of world together. After the fall of the Berlin wall, tribalism began to break out across Europe like the Black Plague. The ethnic wars in the former Yugoslavia and the votes in Catalonia for independence from Spain are two simple examples.

I witnessed some less dramatic changes in Switzerland over the years which I attribute to this return to tribalism and a reaction to globalization as well. When I first lived in Switzerland, all written communications were done in Standard German—German that could be understood by any German speaker from anywhere in the German-speaking world. All the radio and television programs were done in Standard German as well. The regional dialects of German, and there are many, were mostly used for oral communication. Since the turn of the century, however, and with the advent of the Internet and the cell phone, younger Swiss have increasingly begun to write in their regional dialects to communicate with each other. With literally hundreds of regional dialects, the size of the audience able to understand these individual communications has shrunk considerably.

The same applies to radio broadcasts, and to a lesser  extent television. Many independent radio stations have sprung up which use only the regional dialects in their broadcasts. Whereas before any German speaker could understand all radio broadcasts throughout Switzerland, it is now more difficult, since dialects used change from region to region.

For me, all this points to a reaction against MacWorld and a return to a love of the local tribe. Whether it is the breakup of Yugoslavia and Spain, or the use of regional dialects in Switzerland, or the British leaving the European Union, the world is reacting to the unstoppable march of globalization. We see it in the US as well with the Donald Trump phenomenon. Most of his supporters want to preserve the WASP tribe that they think is what made the USA great.

We all love our tribe, desiring to be with those who talk like us and look like us. I wrote about my own tribe here. But there is no way to stop the globalization which is taking place. We are surrounded by strangers, by strange languages, strange cultures and foods. We cannot stoop to xenophobia, or fear of the stranger. Ronald Rolheiser in his weekly mediation says: “In Scripture, God's promise, revelation, and new truth are most often brought not through what's familiar or through those whom we know and who are like us, but through a stranger.” Amen.


  1. Interesting! Yes, there are aspects of globalization that certainly do not appeal to me...the loss of local culture and distinctives, for instance. But the greatest danger of tribalism in our time, I fear, is the "us and them" mentality. This is unfortunately, I think, a growing disease within our own borders.
    BTW, our long march toward globalization has also caused much loss in the natural world.

    1. Hillel! Thank you for your insights. I agree with you. I appreciate my tribe of ethnic Mennonites, but have learned much from other cultures both in South America and Europe. All have contributed to who I am. You are SO right that globalization has caused much damage to the natural world.