Tribes and Ideologies

Okay, let’s start some explanation. One place to start with is what tribes are not.

Among people discussing the culture wars and social violence that plague the internet, there is a lot of discussion of tribes. Scott Alexander’s I Can Tolerate Any Group Except the Out Group is a pretty solid example of this. If you haven’t read it before, you should.

The implicit or explicit assumptions of this genre is that people treat people outside their “group” with different standards than they apply within their group. The moral assumption is that this is bad in of itself, and leads to a lot of bad consequences. The overtone of it all is that this sort of unfairness is responsible for almost all of the misery on the current internet, and if everyone treated everyone else by fair standards, our problems would go away.

There are certainly double standards in how we treat people, but often I think the term “tribe” is the wrong way to describe this. A tribe is a group of people who share some trait (be it ethnicity, or hobby, or location) and has some level of care towards everyone else in the group, and the group itself, that evolves from that connection. It’s “sure, I’ll give you a lift to the airport, anything for a fellow Husky.” Now, there is nothing in any tribal by-law about transport to airports for alumni of the University of Washington, there’s no specific rule about offering rides, it’s just the desire to help this person in any way that is reasonable for you, as if you gain pleasure from their happiness as well. In the sparsest logical terms, you would do anything for a small group of people.

This is contrasted with its moral opposite, the ideology, or a rule that you try to apply for everyone. For instance you may feel that no one should be silenced, even if you hate them and don’t wish to interact with them at all. To you, the freedom of speech is just too important. It doesn’t mean you have to like that person, or loan them your car, or trust them with your children, but you would not censor the free speech of even your most hated enemy. The logic on this is that you have limited obligations to every person.

(Often tribes and ideologies overlap. A whole tribe can believe the same ideology together. Or they can be torn apart in ideological wars. Or what starts as a group of people sharing an ideology can become a tribe united by that agreement, who end up doing stuff like giving each other rides to airports. But they are not necessarily the same, and in fact their obligations are in contradiction with each other.)

Ideologies can be good. But they can also be devastating. When someone does not agree with your ideology, if you are wholly committed to it… there is no common ground with them. If you think Margaret Thatcher violates your ideology, then no amount of compassion or polite manners can prevent you from dancing on her grave when she dies.

Tribes, when they are healthy, take an attitude of benevolent indifference to people outside their circle. This has some pretty serious problems when, say, they have all the resources and people outside their circle are starving or poor. But, absent these power dynamics, it’s not a particularly hostile attitude. You’ve got yours and we’ve got ours.

But ideologies are consumed by their obsession with the outsider. Someone who is an opponent of the ideology, whether your closest friend or a distant foreigner, represents an existential threat to the ideology’s universal morality. If you believe for instance, that sexism is responsible for all the evil in the world, then no sexist anywhere is really acceptable. Even secret sexists, ones hiding their sexism or unaware of it but possessing subconcious sexist biases, need to be dealt with before you can rest. If you spend enough time obsessing over this, then you literally become glad when other people die, or otherwise suffer ill fortune.

A great deal of what is consuming the internet is not tribal wars (like the blue tribe and red tribe and grey tribe that Scott discusses), but ideologically inspired civil wars. There can be no peace in these, even when your best friend is the enemy, because your entire identity becomes based on them being wrong, and this wrong being the original sin for all suffering.

(And for the few manipulators out there, ideology is way more useful than tribalism. With tribalism you can’t turn people against someone who’s obviously one of them. With ideology you can find impure fault with anyone and turn them into the pariah du jour. Try to find a pure Democrat according to your average left wing activist, or try to find a Republican who has not once been called a RINO.)

This is the spirit discussed in the Black Girl Dangerous article below. Since everyone is fallible, but their group is trying to find absolute moral standards to judge people by, when they gather they just turn their guns on each other.

For any morality that defines itself by a standard of behavior, the next question is “okay, what do you do with people who broke that standard of behavior?” (Or were perceived to have broken it.) If you’re a pacifist, how do you treat killers? This is a tricky question but there are generally practical answers that manage to avoid violating the standard of behavior they just set (like, lock the guy up but do not kill him.) However, it becomes incredibly, irresistibly tempting to say “Oh this guy gave up his right to be treated fairly when he violated the standard of behavior, so any and all punishments are acceptable.” When you’re really afraid that Donald Trump is a threat to free speech, then silencing his own speech does not sound so unreasonable. And so now your civil war, which has a fierce moral urgency, collapses into a rules-free melee.

And if you look at the worst arguments online, people aren’t saying “This person is scum and should be shamed because they drink a different caffeinated beverage than me” they’re saying “This person is scum and should be shamed because they are a threat to my existence and safety.” And if they actually believe that threat, can you really blame their reaction?

Perhaps the biggest difference to identify ideological groups vs tribal groups is that tribal groups are the ones that are happy.


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