Can Buddhist Principles End Political Tribalism?

If there's one thing everyone can agree in our divided society, it's this: Tribalism —  the practice of forming political beliefs based on the identity of those who hold them, rather than their intrinsic merit — is getting worse. People on opposing sides of an issue not only have differences of opinion but can't even agree on the same set of facts.

Is Buddhism a solution to this problem?

Robert Wright, author of the recent book Why Buddhism Is True, believes that practices found in the ancient Asian religion, like mindfulness meditation, may help contemporary Americans transcend their political differences. Rather than make a series of rational judgments about world events, Wright argues that most people's beliefs are driven by an emotional need to identify with others in a particular tribe. He cites social media as an example.

"When you see a tweet or Facebook item that shares our tribe's point of view, you feel an urge to share it," he said on Tuesday at Asia Society. "It's a feeling, not a rational decision. It feels good to click 'retweet.' And this is responsible for much of the so-called 'fake news' problem: People uncritically share items that corroborate their views without actually considering them."

The trick is to be aware of emotions that surface before being consumed by them.

"When I'm practicing meditation regularly, I'm more likely to notice my emotions in real time, when they're happening, and be able to pause and reflect on them," he said. "And this disempowers them."

Wright acknowledged that Buddhism itself is no panacea: The destructive campaign waged against the Rohingya people by Myanmar's Buddhist-majority government is proof that no religious practice is free from the scourge of tribalism. 

But he says that a rigorous mindful meditation practice — by Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike — can mitigate the emotionally satisfying lure of groupthink.

"There's nothing as effective as a practice that makes us aware."

Watch the complete video of Wright's conversation with ABC News anchor Juju Chang below:

About the Author

Profile picture for user Matt Schiavenza

Matt Schiavenza is the Assistant Director of Content at Asia Society. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The New Republic, Fortune, and strategy + business among other publications.