What is tribalism?

Sometimes when I speak in casual conversation (whether in person or over the Internet), I will use terms that I don’t even realize other people may not understand –or may not understand in the same sense that I use them. I’m typically fairly careful about this, but it does occasionally occur. This recently occurred when I was commenting on an article by Christopher Hitchens called: “Fool’s Gold: How the Olympics and other international competitions breed conflict and bring out the worst in human nature”, which was found in the magazine “Newsweek”, dated Feb 15, 2010. I essentially said that I thought that the article was important because it discusses the ugliness that is often associated with sports, but I stated that I didn’t think this was an inherent feature of sports, but rather a reflection of the “tribal mentality” that sports tends to attract (or, perhaps, that it brings out of otherwise rational people). Someone asked me what I meant by “tribal mentality”, and I told them I’d have to get back to them on it. This is my attempt to explain what I meant.

I knew that I probably picked up the term from an essay by Ayn Rand called: “The Missing Link”. (All references to this essay are from “The Missing Link” in Philosophy: Who Needs It, Ayn Rand (Signet Paperback Ed. ISBN 0-451-13893-7).) “Tribalism” is the term used to describe certain mentalities that choose group-conformity over their commitment to abstract ideals like “justice” and “individual rights”. “Tribalism (which is the best name to give to all the group manifestations of the anti-conceptual mentality)…” (Pg. 42, “The Missing Link”, Rand) My explanation here is meant to provide my (hopefully accurate) understanding of what Rand meant. Proving that she was right is not my primary goal here. I leave it up to the reader to think about what I am saying, and what she said, and decide whether the ideas expressed there are in accordance with reality, which is the ultimate criterion of what ideas are true and which are false.

I first read “The Missing Link” back in college. Since then, I have come to understand Rand’s views on concept formation – the mental steps associated with how we acquire knowledge- much better. (Her views on concept formation are found in _Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology_, for those wanting to study them in depth.) An essential feature to grasp about concept formation is the fact that some concepts are more abstract than others –by which I mean they require greater mental effort to grasp, and they depend on first grasping subsidiary concepts. For instance, the concept “organism” is more abstract than the concepts “dog”, “tree”, “human”, and “bird” –which are all concepts that the concept of “organism” subsumes and includes. The concept “furniture” is more abstract than the concepts “table”, “chair”, “desk”, and “stool” –which the concept of “furniture” subsumes and includes. A concept like “justice” is far more abstract than concepts that represent “perceptual concretes”, such as “human”, “dog”, “tree”, “table” and “chair”. A “perceptual concrete” is something that one can perceive with one’s unaided senses. You can perceive a table, you cannot perceive the atoms that make it up –although the use of scientific experiments and reasoning demonstrate that atoms are real. (I think scientific experiments typically work because the results of the experiment, which you can perceive, allow you to infer that those results must be caused by something you cannot perceive with your senses, and to know something about what that imperceptible thing is.) You can perceive individual men, but you cannot perceive “justice” –although a process of reasoning can relate that highly abstract concept back to things you do perceive in reality. The important thing to keep in mind here is that there are different “levels of abstraction” according to Ayn Rand. Concepts that denote things like “table”, “dog”, and “car” are generally regarded as “first level abstractions”. (As opposed to “higher-level abstractions”, like “justice” and “rights”.)

The “anti-conceptual mentality” “…stops on this level of development –on the first levels of abstractions, which identify perceptual material consisting predominately of physical objects –and does not choose to take the next, crucial, fully volitional step: the higher levels of abstraction from abstractions, which cannot be learned by imitation. (See my book _Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology_.)…In the brain of an anti-conceptual person, the process of integration is largely replaced by a process of association. What his subconscious stores and automatizes is not ideas, but an indiscriminate accumulation of sundry concretes, random facts, and unidentified feelings, piled into unlabeled mental file folders. This works up to a point –i.e., so long as such a person deals with other persons whose folders are stuffed similarly, and thus no search through the entire filing system is ever required.” (Pg. 39, “The Missing Link”, Rand)

In other words, an “anti-conceptual mentality” operates at the level of the first levels of abstractions, but operation at this level of concept formation will not allow him to live and function, so one possible way to deal with this is to adopt the rules, traditions, and ways of other people around him. In other words, an anti-conceptual mentality can deal with his inability to live successfully on the first level of abstractions by simply adopting the customs of his “tribe”. His success at living is then tied to the extent to which his tribe’s rules and customs conform to reality. If his tribal rules conform to reality, then he will be able to use those rules to live. However, since most principles of action tend to operate within certain contexts, the tribal mentality will tend to use rules outside of their proper context. For instance, some tribal groups have certain dietary rules that their members are supposed to obey. Keeping “kosher” might make sense if you don’t understand the germ-theory of disease, but if you use reason and science to understand the underlying causes of food poisoning, the underlying principles of action, then keeping kosher, as a rule, is unnecessary, and is being applied in a modern context where it makes no sense.

Such a tribal mentality will also likely face a certain amount of “mental distress”, “anxiety”, or “emotional uneasiness” when he encounters someone from another “tribe”, who acts in accordance with different customs and rules. To understand why, you must understand that in dealing with the world around us in a manner that allows us to live successfully, there is a certain amount of variation that is possible. For instance, it is necessary to dispose of corpses because they can be a source of disease, and the smell of rotting flesh is one of the worst things you can smell -we’ve probably evolved that way to prevent us from consuming something that could make us very ill. Even though it makes sense to dispose of a corpse, the method of disposal can vary, based on such random factors as geography. So, for instance, members of “Culture A” may dispose of their dead by burying them because there is very little burnable wood around for cremation, while members of “Culture B” may cremate their dead because their soil is very rocky, which makes digging holes very labor-intensive. What happens when a tribal mentality from Culture A encounters members of Culture B, and sees them cremating their dead? A rational person would simply regard this as one possible way to achieve the ultimate goal –corpse disposal. An anti-conceptual tribalist will likely feel a sense of anxiety or unease because he is not very good at mentally abstracting out what is essential and what is not essential. All that is essential in this scenario is that corpses are removed from where people could encounter them, so that they won’t get sick from them –it is not essential that it be achieved in any particular way. But, since the tribal mentality cannot, at least to the extent he is a tribal mentality, determine what is essential, he will respond with “…fear to resentment to stubborn evasion to hostility to panic to malice to hatred.” (Pg. 40, “The Missing Link”, Rand) “If his professed beliefs –i.e., the rules and slogans of his group –are challenged, he feels his consciousness dissolving in fog. Hence, his fear of outsiders…The threat is not existential, but psycho-epistemological: to deal with them [outsiders] requires that he rise above his ‘rules’ to the level of abstract principles. He would die rather than attempt it.” (Pg. 40-41, “The Missing Link”, Rand)

What are some examples of the manifestation of the tribal mentality? “Racism is an obvious manifestation of the anti-conceptual mentality. So is xenophobia –the fear or hatred of foreigners…So is any caste system…So is any kind of ancestor worship or of family ‘solidarity’…So is any criminal gang.” (Pg. 40-41, “The Missing Link”, Rand) This last example would include various ethnic street gangs such as the “Crips” and the “Bloods”. In that case, the anti-conceptual mentalities associated with those criminal groups don’t even use race as a criterion of who is part of their group, since they are made up of members of the same racial group. Instead, their leaders have adopted certain arbitrary manners of dress, especially in certain colors, to differentiate their “tribes”, and then they manifest their hostility towards those that are not part of their tribe by engaging in assault and murder. (Remember the “drive by shooting” phenomena of the 1980’s?) This phenomena isn’t limited to any particular racial group either. The Mafia, associated with a white ethnic group, has “…a rigid set of rules rigidly, efficiently and bloodily enforced, a ‘government’ that undertakes to protect you from ‘outsiders’…” (Pg. 44, “The Missing Link”, Rand)

How do rational people associate according to Rand? On the basis of ideas: “There is a crucial difference between an association and a tribe. Just as a proper society is ruled by laws, not by men, so a proper association is united by ideas, not by men, and its members are loyal to the ideas, not to the group. It is eminently reasonable that men should seek to associate with those who share their convictions and values…All proper associations are formed or joined by individual choice and on conscious, intellectual grounds (philosophical, political, professional, etc.) –not by the physiological or geographical accident of birth, and not on the ground of tradition.” (Pg. 44, “The Missing Link”, Rand)

Now, bringing it back to where I initially started. Why do I think that sports attract a tribal mentality? I believe that sports, specifically team sports, like football, soccer, and basketball attract a tribal mentality because they are typically organized along group lines. One roots for the team of one’s city, one’s school, or one’s nation. To a tribal mentality, who views members of other cities, schools, or nations as “outsiders”, and who is incapable of recognizing his essential similarities and differences from members of other groups, a form of physical confrontation or contest –which sports embody- with members of that other group, is one step from what all tribal mentalities truly want to manifest –physical violence. This is why you get soccer riots in some countries, and this is why you will sometimes see students engage in brawls with members of another school over a football game. All such violence is a physical manifestation of the tribal mentality.