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Lessons from an intergalactic refugee crisis: What the new season of ‘The Expanse’ can teach us about tribalism on this planet

Tribalism influences us all, but it is possible to rise above it.

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At a gut level, the idea of tribalism is straightforward: us versus them. We experience this instinct here on Earth every day, but for an especially clear example of this phenomenon, cast your gaze all the way into outer space.

In season four of Amazon Prime Video’s The Expanse, Captain Jim Holden and his crew on the Rocinante — Naomi, Alex, and Amos — are tasked with mediating a refugee crisis on a new planet 200 years in the future. Although their technology may be futuristic, what makes their situation feel so relevant to today is that it is all about tribalism.

Back on the third planet from the sun, Míriam Juan-Torres is the senior researcher at More In Common, an organization that studies polarization, division, and political tribalism. She describes tribalism as a psychological phenomenon that “relates to a series of feelings around your identity — who you are and what group you belong to.” But the problems come when, as Juan-Torres says, “we’re becoming tribalized in a way that actually leads us to dehumanizing the other, the other is actually a threat, it’s after me. And our feelings become heightened, our anxieties surface, and that’s when us versus them becomes problematic.”

To understand how the show brings this issue to life on screen, a brief plot refresher will help. In season four of Amazon Prime Video’s The Expanse, three factions — Earth, Mars and the Asteroid Belt — are rushing to uncharted galaxies to stake their claim. Conflict arises on a new planet called Ilus with different groups claiming ownership, leaving other factions with nowhere to go. The crew of the Rocinante is sent to mediate the situation; an intergalactic refugee crisis ensues.

Remove the word intergalactic, and those issues of control versus co-existence ring true today, too. As Juan-Torres sees it:

“What’s happening now is that we are becoming more exclusionary and we are seeing the rise of some movements and some individuals that actually... make coexisting peacefully much harder. They make people retreat into narrower definitions of what it means to be American, what it means to be from a particular place, what it means to be of a particular characteristic, and that is done in a way that excludes and dehumanizes others.”

Unlike many modern day political leaders around the world, on the show, there are some characters trying to appeal to common humanity instead of the tribal impulses that drive us apart. The show’s most influential politician to fit this description is Chrisjen Avasarala, the U.N. Secretary for Earth. She pleads with the three factions to co-exist peacefully:

“The war does not end when people put down their guns. It ends when they reconcile. Until then the war has only paused… We are one people, and our true loyalty is... to our shared humanity.”

The four central characters on the show — the crew of the Rocinante — are able to personify this co-existence. Although they come from different factions (Jim and Amos from Earth, Naomi from the Asteroid Belt, and Alex from Mars) they are able to form connections across these barriers. What originally brought them together was a job, but it became much more as they faced challenges together that decided the fate of mankind.

And it is exactly that bond that Juan-Torres says is the key to overcoming tribalism today:

“Tribal instincts are rooted in human psychology, but they’re not deterministic. That doesn’t mean that we can’t overcome our tribalism. There are many ways in which we can think about what can we do to move past this… we need to connect with people who look differently from us, but also who think differently from us.”

If you want to see how it’s done, be sure to watch season 4 of Amazon Prime Video’s The Expanse, available December 13.

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