What is Tribalism?
(And why does Sam Harris keep misunderstanding it?)
A few weeks ago, at the beginning of a long debate between anthropologist Chris Kavanagh and secular guru Sam Harris over how tribalistic Harris is or isn’t, Harris posed this challenge to Kavanagh (who was taking the “is” side of the debate): “I’d just ask you… what is my tribe?” At the end of the debate, Harris, confident that the question hadn’t been satisfactorily answered, said with an air of triumph, “I look forward to hearing the name of my tribe, after all of this.”
I thought that had a familiar ring, and, sure enough, it turns out that in 2018, after I wrote a piece for Wired saying Harris is more prone to the psychology of tribalism than he realizes, he tweeted this about the piece: “Any honest journalist would notice that @ayaan, @MaajidNawaz, and @sullydish are among the people I most often promote and defend (and who most often promote and defend me). So, Robert, what's my ‘tribe’?”
Harris’s question—“What’s my ‘tribe’?”—made no evident sense as a response to the critique in my Wired piece, as I’ll explain below. And I don’t think his question gets at the core of the critique that Kavanagh was making. More important, I think his question reflects a not very helpful way of thinking about the much discussed “problem of tribalism.” It’s a way of framing the problem that in some ways makes it harder to address.
In last Monday’s issue of the newsletter, I used the Harris-Kavanagh debate—which took place on the podcast Decoding the Gurus, co-hosted by Kavanagh and psychologist Matthew Browne—to highlight some ways people can be commendably anti-tribal or deplorably tribal (using Harris as exhibit A in both cases). But I didn’t explicitly address the question of what I meant by “tribal.”
I’ve since realized that saying more about what I mean by that term—and what that meaning implies about the dynamics of “tribal psychology”—might be helpful for some people as they try to do fewer deplorably tribal things and more commendably anti-tribal things. So now I’m going to lay out that meaning, and contrast it with the meaning that Harris seems to have in mind, and explain why I prefer my meaning to his.
But first I should say I’m actually not a big fan of the term “tribalism.” It has, among other problems, a tendency to foster misconceptions about the thing it refers to. But I use the term, and I’ll continue to use it, because at this point it’s firmly ensconced as the standard label for an important phenomenon. Trying to dislodge it would be a fool’s errand even if I could think of a better label—which, actually, I can’t.
What I can do is put the term’s badness to good use. My plan here is to list a number of unfortunate things about the term—mainly ways in which it misleads us about the thing it’s a label for. In the process of filing those complaints, I’ll try to close in on a clearer conception of the thing itself. So here are five unfortunate things about the currently popular use of the term tribalism, along with some commentary and some closing thoughts on the meaning of the term.
1. The term “tribalism” can offend people, notably including some people who identify with actual, literal tribes, in the traditional sense of the term. And I can see why. There are lots of things that happen within traditional tribes—beautiful things, inspiring things, boring things, annoying things, mundane things. So it must feel disconcerting, if you’ve experienced all those things, to see the term “tribalism” referring to none of them and instead referring to something that isn’t a very common part of life in the average tribe: fighting with other tribes. All the more so since focusing on this one dimension of tribal life reinforces stereotypes of traditionally tribal people as morally primitive or barbaric.
I guess you could make a superficially similar complaint about the term “nationalism.” Lots of good things happen within nations, yet “nationalism” is often used to connote the darker side of national allegiance. On the other hand, “nationalism” isn’t used metaphorically, the way “tribalism” is, to refer to the darker side of all kinds of groups—ideological groups, religious groups, and so on. “Tribalism,” as used these days, makes the traditional tribe a generic icon for groups behaving badly.
I hope that by the end of this piece it will be clear that the phenomenon that is labeled, however unfortunately, “the psychology of tribalism” doesn’t reflect badly on traditional tribes, at least not as I conceive it. I see this psychology as the expression of a universal human nature, a reminder that people everywhere, in all kinds of societies, are fundamentally the same, capable of good and bad behavior, depending on the circumstances.
2. The term “tribalism” suggests that each person has only one tribal allegiance. In the cowboy movies I watched as a kid, there were Apaches, Comanches, Cherokee and so on, but there weren’t people who used more than one of those labels.
Sometimes, when I hear Sam Harris ask “What is my tribe?” I wonder if he’s watched too many cowboy movies. Shouldn’t it be obvious that, when “tribe” is applied metaphorically, people can have multiple tribes?
Certainly that was the way I used the term in the Wired piece Harris thunderously denounced without, apparently, reading it carefully. I argued that his membership in several different “tribes” had, in different ways, warped his view of the world. (Which happens to all of us—I only focused on him because he keeps saying it happens barely at all to him.)
One of these tribes was the “new atheist” tribe that was a central part of Harris’s identity when he first gained fame two decades ago. I suggested that this identity had led Harris to unfairly characterize a periodical that had published a damning piece about a fellow new atheist. Another of these tribes was the “pro-Israel” tribe. I argued that this tribal identity distorted his view of Palestinians. (I use ‘pro-Israel,’ as it’s often implicitly used, to refer to the more ardent, often right-leaning pro-Israel factions, not to all Zionists or to everyone who wishes Israel well.) A third tribe I linked Harris to you could call the anti-Islam tribe—the tribe Harris signified his membership in by famously writing, “We are not at war with ‘terrorism.’ We are at war with Islam.” I argued that this identity led him to commit a glaring logical error in assessing the causes of terrorism.
Now, obviously, if you’re a member of all three of these tribes, as my Wired piece said Harris is, you’ll have a diverse assortment of tribemates. You’ll have atheists in the new atheist tribe, you’ll have Christians and religious Jews, along with atheists, in the pro-Israel tribe, and you’ll have all those kinds of people, and more, in the anti-Islam tribe.
So it didn’t make sense to me when Harris responded to my Wired piece with a tweet that touted his friendship with a religiously and ideologically diverse array of people—Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Andrew Sullivan, and Maajid Nawaz—and seemed to be challenging me to explain what one thing he and they all have in common. He has different things in common with each of them!
For example, Ali is an atheist former Muslim who, having called Islam a “nihilistic death cult,” fits squarely in Harris’s anti-Islam tribe. Andrew Sullivan, a Christian, sits alongside Harris in a tribe I didn’t mention in the Wired piece: the anti-social-justice-warrior tribe.
It may be that the third person Harris mentioned, Maajid Nawaz, fits into that tribe, too, but I want to emphasize that it doesn’t matter whether he fits into any of Sam Harris’s tribes. There’s no rule that says all your friends have to come from within some identifiable tribe you belong to.
I guess it’s possible that Harris’s tweet wasn’t challenging me to group everyone he mentioned into one tribe. Maybe he just meant that some of the people he mentioned are members of a tribe that opposes one of the tribes I’d placed him in (like Sullivan and Nawaz, both religious, in the case of the new atheists). Well, this riposte, too, is irrelevant to the argument in my Wired piece—which was about the cognitive biases that seemed to be triggered by his tribal affiliations, not about whether those affiliations completely governed his social interactions. But at least this riposte serves as a good transition to my next bullet point:
3. The term “tribalism” misleadingly suggests—to some people, at least—membership in a group with strict internal cohesion and firm borders.
In the average cowboy movie, when you see a tribe’s warriors appear menacingly on the horizon, they seem to have complete unity of purpose and zero interest in making friends outside the tribe. That’s the kind of image that can come to mind when you listen to Harris rebut Kavanagh’s allegations of tribalism. Here’s his basic rebuttal algorithm:
Tell me what tribe you think I’m part of and I’ll give you two pieces of evidence that I’m not part of it: (1) there are people within that tribe that I’ve criticized; (2) there are people in an opposing tribe I’ve been charitable toward.
Harris does manage to cite some such examples. (He has, for example, criticized Bret Weinstein, once considered one of Harris’s “Intellectual Dark Web” tribemates, for going haywire over the Covid vaccine issue.) But these examples aren’t a powerful rebuttal unless you conceive of a tribe as something that commands such comprehensive allegiance that there is no internal disagreement and there are no overtures, ever, to anyone in an opposing tribe. The fact is that all tribes feature intratribal disagreement, and I’m not aware of any tribes with borders so firm that they aren’t ever crossed by overtures of charity or bonds of friendship (except maybe the most extreme religious cults).
Kavanagh tried to convey this general idea to Harris—that the things we call tribes, while possessing enough internal cohesion and unity of purpose to influence our thought and behavior, are fluid and overlapping and have internal tensions and porous bounds. It didn’t seem to work.
4. The term “tribalism” suggests that the key ingredients of tribal psychology are emotions like hatred and rage. If you list the kinds of cinematic moments that helped make “tribalism” a popular metaphor for the bitter division between red America and blue America, your list has to include images of rampaging tribal warriors full of bloodlust.
There’s no doubt that hatred and rage can figure in the dynamics between red and blue America—and in the psychology of tribalism more broadly. But I think a subtler, and therefore more insidious, part of tribal psychology is the human repertoire of cognitive biases, certainly including the justly famous confirmation bias and the unjustly less famous attribution error. These are the things that keep you convinced that your tribe is right and the other tribe is wrong (if not downright evil), regardless of the facts of the case. And these are the biases that, in the Wired piece, I said I thought Harris evinced in several different tribal contexts.
Once you see cognitive biases as the underpinning of tribal psychology, you become suspicious of anyone (like Harris) who talks as if he’s all but transcended tribalism. After all, from the standpoint of evolutionary psychology, the function of cognitive biases is to warp your perception and thought without your being aware of the warping. Your mind was engineered by natural selection to convince you that you’re in the right even when you’re not.
I don’t mean it’s impossible for you to spot these biases, and I don’t want to rule out the possibility that Harris is good at spotting them. He’s an accomplished meditator, and he’s an advocate of mindfulness (as am I), and I do think mindfulness, especially as honed through meditation, can help you do the spotting. (The main reason is that the “cognitive” in “cognitive bias” is a misnomer, or at least an oversimplification; these cognition-warping biases seem to be triggered by feelings—feelings that, though often subtle, can in principle be sensed, and even disempowered, via techniques of mindfulness.)
Encouragingly, Harris at one point in the Kavanagh conversation acknowledges the possibility that his brain may house biases. But he does so in a strange way:
I can certainly be biased insofar as there's quasi tribal biases that have gotten grandfathered in. If I've got a male bias or an American bias, or like I've got cultural blind spots based on my upbringing. No doubt. But in terms of the ideas that I talk about publicly and the things that I fight for—if you've listened to what I've said about Trump, and you look at what that's done to these quasi tribal allegiances in the so-called IDW [Intellectual Dark Web], I have no tribe.
I don’t know why Harris would think biases operate only in parts of his identity that are “grandfathered in,” like gender or nationality. Why couldn’t they operate in parts of his ideological identity—in the realm of “the ideas that I talk about publicly and the things that I fight for”?
His answer, judging by that quote, would go something like this:
The Intellectual Dark Web qualified as part of his ideological identity; it was anti-woke, anti-social-justice-warrior, anti-cancel-culture. And he can prove that the IDW didn’t warp his vision—just look at how readily he ruined his relations with some IDW members over the issue of his anti-Trumpism.
Well, it’s certainly true that tribal psychology can keep you uncritically bound to members of your own tribe—keep you from saying things they’d disapprove of, or keep you from disavowing or even criticizing them even when that’s in order. So in cases where Harris strains or breaks relations with tribemates, that’s a kind of defiance of tribal psychology—and often, I’d say, a commendable one.
But another big thing tribal psychology can do is the thing I emphasized in my Wired piece: make you undiscerningly critical of the opposing tribe—make you overlook evidence in its favor, casually embrace evidence against it, unfairly attribute malign motives to it, etc. So even after Harris breaks with some people in his anti-woke tribe over his anti-Trumpism, his vision of the woke could still be blurred.
And, for that matter, what about the anti-Trumpism itself? As I recall, Harris made a big deal of Russiagate, which now seems to have involved more smoke than fire. Was confirmation bias at work?
I’m not saying it was—I haven’t looked closely enough at the evidence to have a view. I’m just saying this: You can talk all day about how many former tribemates you’ve split with, and how you’ve been charitable toward people in opposing tribes. And you can actually deserve credit for that! But none of that means your persistent tribal antagonisms—your opposition to the woke, to Islam, to religion broadly, whatever—aren’t blurring your vision of the world in ways that sustain or even deepen those antagonisms. And for my money, that’s the part of tribalism that most needs tamping down.
5. The term “tribalism” suggests that the psychology of tribalism is confined to group identities.
One of the most valuable things Harris said in his debate was that sometimes what might seem to be a reluctance to criticize tribemates is actually a reluctance to criticize a friend—or just a reluctance to criticize someone you’ve had a couple of friendly face-to-face encounters with.
He’s right! Many of the psychological mechanisms that give cohesion to whole tribes are the same mechanisms that give cohesion to a single friendship. And, to look at the other side of the coin: the psychological mechanisms that keep one tribe convinced of the other tribe’s wrongness and badness are the same mechanisms that keep you or me convinced of the wrongness and badness of a single enemy or rival. Things like confirmation bias and attribution error can work at the individual level, at the level of large groups, and at all levels in between.
In other words, the psychology of tribalism—the psychology that can sustain needless or counterproductive antagonism and distort our view of reality—is also the psychology of individual relations.
In that sense, Harris’s odd tweet about my Wired piece may itself reflect elements of tribal psychology. I don’t know for sure why he didn’t read the piece carefully or why he asserted confidently that any flaw he detected in it reflected dishonesty on my part. But confirmation bias and attribution error, respectively, are two plausible explanations. And both of those perform the same function at the tribal level that, in this case, they seem to have performed in a one-on-one context: convincing you that you’re in the right and that your adversaries are bad people.
In a way, the fact that the psychology of tribalism and the psychology of individual relations have such large overlap is good news. It means that we all have plenty of opportunities to work on weakening the psychology of tribalism! If you manage your one-on-one relationships more mindfully—with, for example, greater awareness of how distortions of thought and perception can be triggered by antagonisms and can in turn reinforce antagonisms—you will almost certainly be helping to mitigate the problem of tribalism; it’s hard to cultivate that awareness in one context and leave it entirely behind in another.
I want to emphasize that Harris’s own approach to fighting tribalistic tendencies has value. It’s good to do the thing he seems proudest of—try to be willing to criticize tribemates, try to be willing to extend charity toward members of opposing tribes (even if the latter, especially, seems far from a consistent Harris policy). We should encourage those behaviors!
But if you consider compiling a short list of such things proof that you’ve essentially overcome the psychology of tribalism, you’re deluding yourself. The perceptually and conceptually distorting mechanisms of tribal psychology are subtle and persistent, and there’s no substitute for addressing them head on—trying to become more aware of them wherever they appear.
The bad news is that that’s a big job, because these biases appear in lots of places—in your family life and your social life, not just your obviously “tribal” life. The good news is that the job pays well: becoming more aware of them can improve your life in a commensurately broad way.
If I were forced to undertake the hopeless task of coming up with a one-sentence definition of “tribal”—in the contemporary pejorative sense of the word—my first draft would go something like this: You are being tribal when your identification with a group, or the cause it embodies, creates distortions of thought and perception that lead to behaviors that heighten antagonisms with other groups.
I guess my main point here is about the words “distortions” and “behaviors.” It’s fine to be able to list some behaviors that show you’re not rigidly bound by “tribal” affiliation in the most simplistic sense of that term. It’s even better to be able to list some behaviors that show you’re not bound by tribal affiliation in subtler senses of that term. But your list of the second kind of behaviors probably won’t be very long unless you try to stay aware of the distortions of thought and perception that drive tribalistic behavior, which means recognizing how subtly and pervasively they infiltrate our lives, well beyond the realm of “tribes”.