September 8, 2021

I am no stranger to contentious politics. I spent my early twenties in the Communist Youth of Greece, where activism involved a bit more than blacking out one’s social media profile: picket lines defended with sticks, occupations of universities and ministries, brawls against Right-wingers and anarchists. Whatever being part of a self-described revolutionary party demanded, we did it.

Looking at the tribalism prevalent in today’s public sphere, however, I am concerned and worried. Indeed, the toxicity of the West’s ongoing culture wars seems uniquely suffocating. People across the political spectrum agree that this needs remedying — but the solutions on offer are largely inadequate.

“Can’t we all just get along?” is a common refrain. But how? Shrugging off unpalatable ideas without challenging them only has a further corrosive effect in our society. “How about we all meet in the middle and leave behind us the strict commitment to ideologies?” But why meet in the middle if it requires us to compromise our ideas, values and what we believe is the truth?

What these approaches have in common is that they ultimately ask us to abandon our capacity for independent thinking — but isn’t that the essence of tribalism? Tribalism is not people disagreeing or even engaging in a robust battle of ideas. Disagreeing and taking ideas seriously are, and always have been, at the root of progress.

Tribalism is something completely different: it is surrendering one’s independent thought for the sake of a group. It is viewing oneself, others and the world through the prism not of one’s mind, but through that of the tribe. It elevates a group mentality to one’s existential horizon, placing other people over and above reality.

Of course, when we think independently it inevitably leads to disagreement, and it might often turn out that we are wrong. But we still retain the ability to appeal to others through persuasion, rather than force. And when we are wrong, we learn and correct our mistakes. Because even when independent thinkers disagree on specific issues, they retain a mutual commitment to the free exchange of ideas. Their final arbiter is reality, and they agree that truth is something that we can know, if only we use our reason.

Tribalism, on the other hand, makes persuasion impossible. It implies that different groups view the world in a different way. Notice how many prominent intellectuals today reject the idea of universal reason and talk about different kinds of knowledge: black, indigenous, gendered — the list goes on. But if we find ourselves confined to such an epistemological tower of Babel, the only way to resolve disputes is ultimately to force our ideas on the outgroup.

Yet even people who identify tribalism as a problem disagree on its nature. For Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, tribalism is an “evolutionary endowment”, preparing us for conflict with other groups. Amy Chua, meanwhile, sees tribalism as an instinct of belonging and of excluding; Joshua Greene agrees that the tribal tendencies in us are innate.

So is tribalism wired into us? I am not convinced. As I explain in my new book, tribalism is first and foremost a voluntary option, taken in default of thinking. It is the lazy route of following the herd and letting the heavy lifting of judgment to others. It is the abandonment of the responsibility to do the mental work required for grasping the world, of judging what is true and what is false, what is right and what is wrong, and what one should do. Tribalism should not be seen as an inescapable fate, but as an epistemological choice.

The Rwandan genocide is a case in point. In the summer of 1994, more than half a million Tutsis were massacred with machetes by their rival group, the Hutus. These were people of the same racial, religious and linguistic background. There was no way to tell if someone was a Tutsi or a Hutu, except by personally knowing the family history of someone.

As a Hutu killer reflected years after his crimes: “Our Tutsi neighbours — we knew they were guilty of no misdoing, but we thought all Tutsis at fault for our constant troubles. We no longer looked at them one by one; we no longer stopped to recognise them as they had been, not even as colleagues.” So the killer knew very well that his victims were innocent and often even people he used to love, and that what he was doing made no sense. But he had to suppress that knowledge, and put his loyalty to his own tribe above his thinking. The horror in Rwanda is the most naked exhibition of tribalism in recent history.

However, three decades after one of the darkest moments of the 20th century, the country is more peaceful, scoring above the world average on the Freedom Index. Same people, different culture, different outcomes. Tribalism, then, is neither an instinct nor a gene; it is a choice.

And if that is true, it becomes easy to discern the cure for tribalism: independent thinking — using one’s mind and having one’s own judgment as the final arbiter and horizon, rather than being guided by loyalty to a group or by hatred to an opposing tribe.

That isn’t to say that independent thinking is easy to achieve. Almost everyone — from the social justice warrior to the white supremacist — believes that they have truth by their side. I thought I was an independent thinker in my radical leftist past. I remember protesting with a Palestinian scarf, indignant about what I considered as injustices in the Middle East and Israeli imperialism. The fact that I couldn’t even point to Israel on the map and thought that Hezbollah were merely leftists on the side of progress was an insignificant detail. Under the tribalist mindset, if the facts of reality are against our narrative and the way we view the world, reality doesn’t stand a chance.

Being an independent thinker is therefore neither a default mindset nor something that is easily attainable. It is an achievement, and a rather heroic one. It requires someone to overcome their own prejudices and emotional investments. It requires a commitment to reality as the final court of appeal.

Of course, one can learn and benefit from the knowledge and insights of others. But whether they are right or wrong needs to be judged meticulously. Other people might be great thinkers, but they cannot think for us. This might sound like a burden; these judgment calls are often hard to make. But who is in a better position than each one of us to make them?

After all, the ability to make sense of the world through reason is the distinguishing characteristic of human beings. Thinking for ourselves is not an unjust requirement, or a burden we should wish to place on somebody else. It is precisely what makes us humans — and what sets us apart from the tribe.