The Tribeless Tribe wants you…
… to help me figure out what the Tribeless Tribe is.
This is a free edition of the Nonzero Newsletter. If you like it and you’re not already a subscriber to the paid version, I hope you’ll consider becoming one. (The comments section, as always, is for paid subscribers only.)
One problem with declaring that a big part of your newsletter’s mission is the “Apocalypse Aversion Project” is that then you feel you have to, you know, help avert the apocalypse.
For example: If you say that taming the “psychology of tribalism” is a key ingredient in your apocalypse aversion formula, it’s not enough to just spend a few issues of the newsletter talking about the psychology of tribalism; you have to try to help do some of the taming.
Which seems kind of daunting! But I have a plan.
Actually, I don’t have a plan. I have the vague outlines of a general idea for the overall conception of the germ of the seed of a plan. I’m now going to sketch these vague outlines. And I’m going to ask interested readers to provide the kind of feedback that could help convert this sketch into an actual plan. Which makes sense, because one of the few specific things I think I know about the ultimate plan is that interested readers would play a role in executing it.
One more bit of expectations lowering before I get started: The idea here isn’t that this humble newsletter, in its current phase of evolution, has a readership big and powerful enough to extinguish the flames of tribalism and pull humankind back from the brink of catastrophe. The idea is that it has a readership engaged enough to participate in a kind of experiment. The experiment would help us figure out whether we have a strategy that, if scaled up, if blessed with a bigger and bigger army, could make a big difference. (And even the experimental phase, I think, could have non-trivial impact.)
OK, enough preamble. Here goes:
It seems to me there are two basic ways readers of this newsletter could in principle help fight tribalism.
One is to be good citizens—the kinds of citizens who don’t go around making the problem of tribalism worse and sometimes make things better. On social media, good citizens try to post and share and like content responsibly, and if they engage one-on-one with people they disagree with, they do so respectfully and earnestly; they may not very often change the mind of someone in a different tribe, but they can at least leave that someone convinced that there are decent people in both tribes. (Which comes as news to a surprising number of people!)
I like to think that aspiring good citizens get some benefit from the Nonzero Newsletter’s discussions of the psychology of tribalism—and of the various cognitive biases that underlie it, and of tools (such as mindfulness) that can help people become less captive to those biases and less susceptible to that psychology. And I hope to provide more of that benefit in the future. An effective fight against tribalism has to involve a lot of good intentions and wise action at the grassroots level, and if NZN helps foster those things, that’s success.
But the plan I have (vaguely, nebulously, etc.) in mind would go further than that. It would involve organizing grassroots energy—and organizing it to wield influence at the non-grassroots level. That is: at the level of “elites”—at the level of influential journalists and commentators and academics and politicians and anyone else who has way more impact on political discourse than the average person.
The idea would be to alter the incentive structure of elites. They currently have lots of incentives to exacerbate tribalism. After all, once a society gets deeply polarized, one of the most reliable ways to elevate your stature and influence is to signal your ferocious opposition to the other tribe—which often means doing things that deepen antagonism between tribes. Being on social media means facing lots of opportunities to do that and lots of temptations to do that. (I know; I’ve succumbed to the temptations in the past, and, unless I surprise everybody who knows me by attaining enlightenment, I no doubt will again.)
Could we—if there were enough of us—alter those incentives? Could we use social media, particularly Twitter, to give elites consequential amounts of negative reinforcement for doing things that exacerbate tribalism? And give them like amounts of positive reinforcement for more laudable behavior?
I should emphasize that I’m not talking about the most egregiously tribal elites. Sure, I’d love to get Rep. Lauren Boebert to quit saying untrue things about the other tribe—like tweeting last month that “Joe Biden is nominating an outright Communist to oversee our banks. In March she stated we should eliminate ALL personal bank accounts.”
But there’s no real hope of that. On both the red and blue sides, the extremists are beyond shaming—at least, beyond shaming by the likes of us; only their constituents and their fellow extremist elites could shame them, and that would as often as not be for showing signs of moderation.
I think the elites to focus on are the ones who might care about the opinion of people like us—if there were enough of us who deployed our energy in an organized, targeted way. I have in mind, in particular, journalists, commentators, academics and others who have a lot of influence and who like to be thought of as reliable sources of information.
Let me give you an example from last week and add the forewarning that you may not consider it a good example. Which is why I’ve chosen it: it illustrates how challenging this whole thing is—how hard it is, for starters, to decide which elite behaviors are worth singling out for criticism or praise.
The elite in question is Chris Cillizza of CNN. Here is the headline that ran atop a piece by him on Monday: “Have you heard the new Republican conspiracy theory about the Omicron variant?”
Obviously, calling a conspiracy theory “Republican” in the current environment will get your piece more clicks and prominence than leaving that word out would (especially if your initial audience is CNN’s audience). In fact, all I had to Google was “omicron variant” to get this at the very top of the search results:
Also obviously, this headline will reinforce or intensify the sense among some Democrats that Republicans—Republicans pretty broadly, not just one or two Republicans—are crazy. Which I guess is defensible if the piece under the headline indeed provides evidence about Republicans broadly. But does this piece do that?
Cillizza names two people who have endorsed the conspiracy theory in question (whose details I won’t bore you with)—a Republican member of the House of Representatives and a “Fox News personality” who is a Republican. Is that enough to qualify this theory as “Republican”?
Maybe in some highly technical sense. But I don’t think this headline is in keeping with standard journalistic usage. If CNN has a headline about a “Republican plan” or a “Republican initiative,” that generally signifies more Republican sign-on than Cillizza demonstrated this conspiracy theory having.
Maybe I’m being too picky. But it seems to me one of the most pernicious tribalizing dynamics in America is people in each tribe depicting the most extreme behaviors in the other tribe as being typical of that tribe. And one of the most reliable ways to get attention—to get retweets, or get clicks on your CNN piece or whatever—is to misleadingly suggest as much. So even if you don’t think this particular example deserves a wrist slap, there are plenty of other examples out there to choose from. (In this case, there’s also the question of whether Cillizza is responsible for a headline he may or may not have written, but let’s leave that aside for present purposes.)
At the bottom of this piece, as a postscript, I’ll give a couple of examples of (arguably, at least) anti-tribal behaviors by elites—the kinds of things that might merit commendation, not condemnation. And those, like the Cillizza example, can be fodder for commenters who want to help give shape to my inchoate plan. But first I want to offer a few other things, in the form of an FAQ, that you can comment on:
1. In what tone would we deliver our critical feedback to elites?
In general, I think, the answer is: in a civil, even humble tone. I can imagine a tweet politely asking Chris Cillizza whether his headline was warranted in light of the contents of his piece.
If you spend much time on Twitter, your first reaction to that idea may be: You honestly expect to get attention on Twitter by being meek? Being meek never works! If you want your tweet to get visibility, you need to attract a vigilante Twitter flash mob—and the way to do that is with full-throated condemnation!
Historically, yes, loud voices have carried the day on Twitter. That’s why I want to organize a more mindful vigilante Twitter flash mob—so that we don’t have to follow the traditional rules governing what kinds of tweets get attention (and so that, as a bonus, the meek shall inherit the Earth).
The idea is that if enough members of this mindful vigilante flash mob (like you, maybe) retweet the civil, even humble, tweet, Cillizza wouldn’t be able to ignore it—especially if Twitter’s algorithm, sensing the initial mindful-mob-imparted momentum, carried the tweet farther and wider.
I don’t want to completely rule out edgy, even sarcastic, as a sometimes useful tone. Comments on this question of tone are welcome.
2. So would there be an official Twitter account of the MVTFM (mindful vigilante Twitter flash mob)?
That’s the idea, yes. And a logical choice would be the @TribelessTribe handle that I reserved four years ago and then never got around to using. BTW, thanks to the couple of hundred of you who signed on to that feed as followers when I mentioned it a couple of weeks ago. More are welcome!
3. So, if I’m part of this MVTFM or Tribeless Tribe, or whatever it’s called, what else would that involve—aside from retweeting and liking official tweets that I think are worth retweeting and liking?
One thing it could involve—if this sort of thing appeals to you—is scouring the landscape for elite behaviors to criticize or commend. You can even start sending us nominees now, at email@example.com. Maybe I’ll toss a few of these nominees out for consideration in a future issue of NZN.
When I get into visionary mode, I can imagine a day when Tribeless Tribe members would go beyond coming up with candidates for criticism or praise and actually vote on the candidates. In other words, the Tribeless Tribe Twitter feed would be at the disposal of a community which, through formal mechanisms of nomination and voting, could decide how the feed is used.
That’s a ways off, at best. But it’s something to aspire to. And I think it’s useful to have that long-term possibility in mind as we consider more immediate questions. Such as:
4. Are there criteria that can guide us in our selection of nominees?
Good question! After all, “tribal” and “anti-tribal” are pretty broad and vague categories. It would be good to have each of those broken down into specific sub-categories. The Cillizza example suggests one sub-category of tribal behavior: “Depicting behavior exhibited by the more extreme members of a tribe as typical of the tribe.”
As for sub-categories that could come under “anti-tribal”: The anti-tribalism “report card” I issued Sam Harris a few weeks ago suggests some possibilities—and also is a reminder of how hard some of these calls can be.
I think developing a list of sub-categories of “tribal” and “anti-tribal” behavior is a very important near-term objective. Nominations are welcome.
OK, that’s enough food for comment for now, I think. Have at it. And below are the two examples of anti-tribal behavior I mentioned.
1) This example suggests the possibility of a sub-category of anti-tribal behavior called something like “Raises questions about whether the opposing tribe is being treated fairly.” It’s a recent tweet from science journalist Daniel Engber, who I’m 99 percent sure qualifies as a blue triber. The tweet is calling into question the logical basis of this tweet from NPR: “Pro-Trump counties now have far higher COVID death rates. Misinformation is to blame.” (Engber’s point is that the data used by NPR includes the summer months but not the winter months, and the summer months have tended to be bad Covid months in the south, where many red states are.)
Like the Cillizza nomination, this one is not beyond disputing. So feel free to do engage in disputation.
2) Here’s an interesting Van Jones segment on CNN from a couple of years ago. It is more or less explicitly anti-tribal. Do you think it lives up to that billing?