Scott Alexander writes:

Once I tried “falling in with” a group, friendship became much easier and self-sustaining precisely because of all of the tribal development that happens when a group of similar people all know each other and have a shared interest. Since then I’ve had good luck finding tribes I like and that accept me – the rationalists being the most obvious example, but even interacting with my coworkers on the same hospital unit at work is better than trying to find and cultivate random people.

Some benefits of tribalism are easy to explain. Tribalism intensifies all positive and prosocial feelings within the tribe. It increases trust within the tribe and allows otherwise-impossible forms of cooperation – remember Haidt on the Jewish diamond merchants outcompeting their rivals because their mutual Judaism gave them a series of high-trust connections that saved them costly verification procedures? It gives people a support network they can rely on when their luck is bad and they need help. It lets you “be yourself” without worrying that this will be incomprehensible or offensive to somebody who thinks totally differently from you. It creates an instant densely-connected social network of people who mostly get along with one another. It makes people feel like part of something larger than themselves, which makes them happy and can (provably) improves their physical and mental health.

* When people talk about how modern society is “atomized” or “lacks community” or “doesn’t have meaning”, I think they’re talking about a lack of tribalism, which leaves people all alone in the face of a society much too big to understand or affect.

* There seems to be a generational process, sort of like Harold Lee’s theory of immigrant assimilation, by which religions dissolve. The first generation believes everything literally. The second generation believes that the religion might not be literally true, but it’s an important expression of universal values and they still want to follow the old ways and participate in the church/temple/mosque/mandir community. The third generation is completely secularized.

* So imagine you’re an evangelical Christian. All the people you like are also evangelical Christians. Most of your social life happens at church. Most of your good memories involve things like Sunday school and Easter celebrations, and even your bittersweet memories are things like your pastor speaking at your parents’ funeral. Most of your hopes and dreams involve marrying someone and having kids and then sharing similarly good times with them. When you try to hang out with people who aren’t evangelical Christians, they seem to think really differently than you do, and not at all in a good way. A lot of your happiest intellectual experiences involve geeking out over different Bible verses and the minutiae of different Christian denominations.

Then somebody points out to you that God probably doesn’t exist. And even if He does, it’s probably in some vague and complicated way, and not the way that means that the Thrice-Reformed Meta-Baptist Church and only the Thrice-Reformed Meta-Baptist Church has the correct interpretation of the Bible and everyone else is wrong.

On the one hand, their argument might be convincing. On the other, you are pretty sure that if everyone agreed on this, your culture would be destroyed. Sure, your kids could be Christmas-and-Easter-Christians who still enjoy the cultural aspects and derive personal meaning from the Bible. But you’re pretty sure that within a couple of generations your descendants would be exactly as secular as anyone else. Absent the belief that serves as your culture’s wall against the outside world, it would dissolve without a trace into the greater homogeneity of Western liberal society. So, do you keep believing a false thing? Or do you give up on everything you love and enjoy and dissolve into a culture that mostly hates and mocks people like you? There’s no good choice. This is why it sucks that things like religion and politics are both rallying flags for tribes, and actual things that there may be a correct position on.

* The holy book is the rallying flag for a religion, but the religion is not itself about the holy book. The rallying flag created a walled-off space where people could undergo the development process and create an independent culture. That independent culture may diverge significantly from the holy book.

* I think that very neurotypical people naturally think in terms of tribes, and the idea that they have to retool their perfectly functional tribe to conform to the exact written text of its holy book or constitution or stated political ideology or something seems silly to them. I think that less neurotypical people – a group including many atheists – think less naturally in terms of tribes and so tend to take claims like “Christianity is about following the Bible” at face value. But Christianity is about being part of the Christian tribe, and although that tribe started around the Bible, maintains its coherence because of the Bible, and is of course naturally influenced by it, if it happens to contradict the Bible in some cases that’s not necessarily surprising or catastrophic.

This is also why I’m not really a fan of debates over whether Islam is really “a religion of peace” or “a religion of violence”, especially if those debates involve mining the Quran for passages that support one’s preferred viewpoint. It’s not just because the Quran is a mess of contradictions with enough interpretive degrees of freedom to prove anything at all. It’s not even because Islam is a host of separate cultures as different from one another as Unitarianism is from the Knights Templar. It’s because the Quran just created the space in which the Islamic culture could evolve, but had only limited impact on that evolution. As well try to predict the warlike or peaceful nature of the United Kingdom by looking at a topographical map of Great Britain.

* Video gaming isn’t just a fun way to pass the time. It also brings together a group of people with some pre-existing common characteristics: male, nerdy, often abrasive, not very successful, interested in speculation, high-systematizing. It gives them a rallying flag and creates a culture which then develops its own norms, shared reference points, internet memes, webcomics, heroes, shared gripes, even some unique literature. Then other people with very different characteristics and no particular knowledge of the culture start enjoying video games just because video games are fun. Since the Gamer Tribe has no designated cultural spaces except video games forums and magazines, they view this as an incursion into their cultural spaces and a threat to their existence as a tribe.

* Nationalism and patriotism use national identity as the rallying flag for a strong tribe. In many cases, nationalism becomes ethno-nationalism, which builds tribal identity off of a combination of heritage, language, religion, and culture. It has to be admitted that this can make for some incredibly strong tribes. The rallying flag is built into ancestry, and so the walls are near impossible to obliterate. The symbolism and jargon and cultural identity can be instilled from birth onward. Probably the best example of this is the Jews, who combine ethnicity, religion, and language into a bundle deal and have resisted assimilation for millennia.

Sometimes this can devolve into racism. I’m not sure exactly what the difference between ethno-nationalism and racism is, or whether there even is a difference, except that “race” is a much more complicated concept than ethnicity and it’s probably not a coincidence that it has become most popular in a country like America whose ethnicities are hopelessly confused. The Nazis certainly needed a lot of work to transform concern about the German nation into concern about the Aryan race. But it’s fair to say all of this is somewhat related or at least potentially related.

On the other hand, in countries that have non-ethnic notions of heritage, patriotism has an opportunity to substitute for racism. Think about the power of the civil rights message that, whether black or white, we are all Americans.

* Maybe an even stronger example is the human biodiversity movement, which many people understandably accuse of being entirely about racism. Nevertheless, some of its most leading figures are black – JayMan and Chanda Chisala (who is adjacent to the movement but gets lots of respect within it) – and they seem to get equal treatment and respect to their white counterparts. Their membership in a strong and close-knit tribe screens off everything else about them.

I worry that attempts to undermine nationalism/patriotism in order to fight racism risk backfiring. The weaker the “American” tribe becomes, the more people emphasize their other tribes – which can be either overtly racial or else heavily divided along racial lines (eg political parties). It continues to worry me that people who would never display an American flag on their lawn because “nations are just a club for hating foreigners” now have a campaign sign on their lawn, five bumper stickers on their car, and are identifying more and more strongly with political positions – ie clubs for hating their fellow citizens.

* to talk about tribes coherently, we need to talk about rallying flags. And that involves admitting that a lot of rallying flags are based on ideologies (which are sometimes wrong), holy books (which are always wrong), nationality (which we can’t define), race (which is racist), and works of art

* the ideology is not the movement. Or, more jargonishly – the rallying flag is not the tribe. People are just trying to find a tribe for themselves and keep it intact. This often involves defending an ideology they might not be tempted to defend for any other reason.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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