Why is courage so hard?
Being anti-tribal in the age of Kenosha
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A surprising judgment is rendered near the end of the New York Times’s 25-minute video reconstruction of the Kyle Rittenhouse shootings. It’s a judgment about Anthony Huber, the 26-year-old who rushed Rittenhouse, hit him with a skateboard, tried to take away his gun, and got fatally shot in the process.
The judgment comes from a guy named Ryan Balch, who was in Kenosha that night. He says, “Anthony Huber, man, he went down like a hero… He thought there was a threat there, and he was reacting to it.”
I call this judgment surprising not because it strikes me as unreasonable. Huber had just heard from the crowd that Rittenhouse had shot somebody (which was true), and he saw Rittenhouse fire two more shots in an attempt to fend off a pursuer. Huber no doubt considered Rittenhouse a threat to the people around him—and he intervened, even though he could have stayed where he was and stayed out of danger. By standard reckoning, Huber’s action was courageous and, yes, heroic.
What’s surprising is that the person who rendered that judgment wasn’t in Huber’s tribe. On the night of the shootings, Ryan Balch, a young military veteran, was out patrolling Kenosha’s streets, assault rifle in hand, literally shoulder to shoulder with Kyle Rittenhouse.
Balch no doubt had a comparably flattering view of Rittenhouse—someone who had come to Kenosha and exposed himself to risk in order to “keep the peace,” as Balch described his own mission that night.
Maybe Balch’s symmetrical sympathy shouldn’t surprise me. Maybe I’ve just been spending too much time on Twitter. There most people seem to have observed the Rittenhouse trial either from Rittenhouse’s point of view or from Huber’s point of view, but not both. Yet the symmetry you see when you combine their perspectives is real: Both guys, I feel sure, were convinced they were being good citizens, doing their duty.
Hey, maybe I should have tweeted that last observation! Naaah. That would have violated the fundamental adage of Twitter: If you can’t tweet something tribal about somebody, don’t tweet anything at all.
Or, to be more honest about my frequent reluctance to tweet anti-tribal messages: Tweeting them takes courage! Saying a kind word about both Rittenhouse and Huber would have triggered people in both tribes and not endeared me to many people in either tribe.
On the other hand, it’s not like I was in danger of physical harm. Tweeting anti-tribally doesn’t rank up there on the courage charts with confronting a shooter while armed only with a skateboard. So why is it so hard?
I think the answer to the question of why I don’t show more courage is at some level the same as the answer to the question of why Anthony Huber did show courage—and why Kyle Rittenhouse, too, chose to expose himself to risk that night. The answer has to do with something this newsletter has been spending a lot of time on lately: the so-called “psychology of tribalism.” This week I want to drill down a little deeper into that psychology to see how it can foster both cowardice and courage—and to see whether that knowledge can help us defy its dictates.
Last week I listed several senses in which “the psychology of tribalism” is a misleading term for the mental dynamics it refers to. But I forgot to mention the most fundamental sense of all, a sense that helps explain the other senses: The human brain didn’t evolve in a context of tribes.
The term “tribes” has been used in different ways by different anthropologists, but it just about always refers to a society with domesticated plants or animals and a social structure larger and more complex than a hunter-gatherer society. So tribes are pretty new; domesticated plants and animals have been a thing for a bit over 10,000 years, whereas hunting and gathering had been the only mode of subsistence available to our ancestors for the preceding, oh, one or two or three million years, depending on when you stop counting. The hunter-gatherer milieu is, overwhelmingly, the milieu in which human evolution took place.
And what was life like in hunter-gatherer societies? Well, it was like different things at different times and places. But here are four features it is thought to have exhibited pretty consistently as human nature was being shaped by natural selection:
1. Arguments of consequence. By “consequence” I mean Darwinian consequence. The winners of the arguments might get a bit more food, or better access to mates, or better treatment for their kids. These payoffs might not be immediate; the immediate payoff for adept arguers might be slightly more respect for them, or a new sense of indebtedness toward them—intangible things that could pay off in material terms down the road.
2. Arguments about good and bad. The arguments of Darwinian consequence were often about who deserved things—who had done most of the work lately and should be rewarded, who had been wronged and deserved recompense, who had done wrong and so owed someone recompense, etc. So not just arguments but moral arguments were part of the environment that shaped the evolution of our brains. In 1988 Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, who together made seminal contributions to evolutionary psychology, wrote, “Morality is the device of an animal of exceptional cognitive complexity, pursuing its interests in an exceptionally complex social universe.”
All of this helps explain why the human brain isn’t always good at seeing the world clearly. As I put it in my 1994 book about evolutionary psychology, The Moral Animal, the human brains is “in large part, a machine for winning arguments, a machine for convincing others that its owner is in the right—and thus a machine for convincing its owner of the same thing. The brain is like a good lawyer: given any set of interests to defend, it sets about convincing the world of their moral and logical worth, regardless of whether they in fact have any of either.”
As damning an indictment as that may sound like, it’s incomplete. If you want to fully appreciate how unreliable a guide to truth the brain can be, you need to ponder one additional feature of life in hunter-gatherer societies:
3. Arguments involving groups. Consequential arguments can be one-on-one, but they can also be group vs. group. In fact, the former have a way of becoming the latter as the original two arguers see kin and friends line up on their side. Sometimes these networks become durable—so that on a range of issues the arguments wind up being between, say, the same two networks within a hunter-gatherer society. Which leads to:
4. Coalitions. A lot of what we think of as “the psychology of tribalism” seems to have its roots in hunter-gatherer coalitional politics. This is ironic not just for the obvious reason—that hunter-gather societies aren’t tribes—but for a more important reason. The word “tribalism” brings to mind images of fighting that takes place between two physically separate societies, but “the psychology of tribalism” evolved largely in a context of arguing that took place within a single society.
This doesn’t mean the arguing couldn’t escalate into violence—either one person fighting another or whole coalitions fighting each other. It also doesn’t mean that, even in in the absence of violence, one coalition couldn’t dominate another coalition via physical intimidation. This whole continuum for settling disagreements between groups—from argument to intimidation to violence—was part of the context of human evolution, and we have the brains to show for it.
John Tooby, an anthropologist who did much to lay the foundations of evolutionary psychology (often in collaboration with the psychologist Leda Cosmides) has written that our species possesses “evolved neural programs specialized for navigating the world of coalitions.” These programs “enable us and induce us to form, maintain, join, support, recognize, defend, defect from, factionalize, exploit, resist, subordinate, distrust, dislike, oppose, and attack coalitions.”
That’s a lot! Indeed, the consequences of our having evolved in a fluidly and sometimes explosively coalitional context are so diverse and important that you could spend many issues of a newsletter fleshing them out. And I may! But for today’s purpose—explaining my lack of courage—I want to focus on a single point Tooby makes. (And thanks, btw, to reader Raymond Scupin for steering me to Tooby’s piece, the shortest and pithiest essay in the entire Tooby oeuvre, so far as I know.) Tooby writes about life in our ancestral environment: “If you had no coalition you were nakedly at the mercy of everyone else, so the instinct to belong to a coalition has urgency, preexisting and superseding any policy-driven basis for membership.”
In other words, the first rule of coalitions is: Make sure there’s one you’re part of. The second rule is: Once you’re part of one, avoid jeopardizing your status as a member in good standing. It makes sense that natural selection would leave us with genes that encourage compliance with these rules. Which could explain why the idea of antagonizing my tribe with a tweet that sounded sympathetic to Kyle Rittenhouse felt scary. That fear was engineered by natural selection to give us pause. Discretion is the better part of valor.
Sometimes, though, coalitional psychology encourages boldness. Showing a willingness to confront the other tribe is one way you remain a member in good standing of your own tribe. I think both Anthony Huber and Kyle Rittenhouse believed they were being good citizens in a broad sense, but they were also engaged in displays of commitment to their respective tribes. (Or, as people in the opposing tribe might more disparagingly put it: they were being “performative.”)
On Twitter you show commitment to your tribe by tweeting unflattering, and sometimes snide, things about the other tribe. Sure, you may get blowback from the other tribe, but it’s pretty painless so long as you keep getting affirmation from your own tribe. And if you get enough affirmation from your own tribe, the experience is thrilling. Hostility—the thing that feels so bad when it comes from your own tribe—can feel downright good coming from the other tribe. You wear their scorn as a badge of honor!
So back to the original question: How can I—or anyone who wants to experiment with being less tribal and more anti-tribal—find the courage to do that? If (for example) trying to see things from both tribes’ perspectives incurs the thing our brains naturally find excruciatingly painful—blowback from our own tribe—where can we find the strength to persevere?
Well, maybe if we had a kind of support group, a community, a… a tribe!
More than five years ago—even before Donald Trump was elected president and helped turn “tribalism” into a buzzword—I reserved the Twitter handle @TribelessTribe. The idea was… well, by now you probably get what the idea was. But I never did anything with that Twitter feed. It has, as I write this, six followers—and I have no idea how many of those are actual humans.
But now I’m starting to think about finally cranking it up! If you think that’s a good idea, you can signify as much by following it. (If you act fast you can help push its following to the two-digit, mainly human level.)
I want to emphasize that being part of a Tribeless Tribe (as I conceive it) wouldn’t mean abandoning all your other tribes. I have a foreign-policy ideology tribe, for example, and I’m not planning on jettisoning either the ideology or the sense of solidarity with people who share it.
But subscribing to the values of the Tribeless Tribe would mean thinking critically about what such an allegiance—to an ideological tribe or some other kind of tribe—should and shouldn’t entail. And it would mean working to keep these allegiances from warping your view of people who disagree with you and your view of the world more generally. It would mean periodically trying—even while realizing that complete success is impossible—to view the human spectacle from a tribeless perspective. The overarching idea would be that this kind of thing is what the world very much needs.
Feel free to suggest other things a Tribeless Tribe might stand for in the comments section below.