Your Team Sucks: The Dangers of Tribalism (and How to Avoid Them)

Here at M̶a̶s̶t̶e̶r̶S̶e̶l̶f̶ Aion Enterprises, we’re pretty open about being die-hard individualists. Self improvement, is, of course, a solo endeavor. I can only assume that you, dear reader, are of a similar mindset, since you’re here (reading dearly). However, it seems that society as a whole is tending towards the opposite of individualismcollectivism (and its more dangerous cousin, tribalism). Collectivism is here defined as a cultural proclivity to prioritize the group over the individuals that make up the group, and tribalism is the cultural proclivity to prioritize those with a shared group identity over those members of the outgroup.

Interestingly, there’s a good deal of evidence to support the idea that people are designed to live in small tribes- Dunbar’s number, or the number of coherent relationships that people can reasonably maintain, is estimated to fall between 100-230 total people, although often averaged as 150. Once groups get larger than this number, in-fighting begins. A great example comes from Malcolm Gladwell’s fantastic book “The Tipping Point.” Gladwell discusses the case of the company Gore-Tex, who discovered that once their locations grew larger than 150 employees, internal problems surfaced. To overcome this, they designed their buildings to only have parking and workspaces for 150, and when they got too big, they would just build another location (sometimes even next door.)

What really happens when you break the threshold of Dunbar’s number is that you end up splitting the tribe into a camp of ‘us’ and a camp of ‘them.’ While this is bad in a business, it’s worse in the highly connected world we live in today. With the advent of social media, it’s incredibly easy to find people that agree with you completely (other members of your tribe). These people who share your views end up becoming a means for you to validate your identity. This presents a problem, though, because identities are tricky things. If you’re familiar with my earlier article, The Wisdom of Solomon, you’ll know that what the self actually is is quite different from what most people construct their identities from. Because we aren’t identified with the silent observer in our mind, we have our egoic (which is not an inherently bad thing) identities- constructed from experiences, culture, and a variety of other elements.

For example, because my mother’s side of the family comes from Pittsburgh, PA, I was brought up as a Steelers supporter. Now, I have the benefit of being able to justify that the Steelers have more Super Bowl Rings than any other team, so they’re objectively better than your team, and your team sucks.

I’ll let that sit for a minute…

If your team isn’t the Steelers, you probably felt something between a twinge of anger to full-on outrage at my statement- and the degree to which you felt something is representative of the degree that you have incorporated that group identity of being a fan into your own individual identity. However, if your team is the Steelers, you’re not off the hook either- the degree that you felt good about hearing that is the counterexample here. If you felt nothing, or some sense of superiority, like “oh, I’m better than those football fans, I’m not a victim of tribalism,” actually, you are, too. The difference here is that your identity is based on not liking football (and to be honest, I don’t particularly like football, either.)

Now, take that example and exchange football teams for any other divisive system of groups- to name a few obvious ones, politics (left vs right), music genres (rock vs rap), economic systems (capitalism vs socialism), racism (black vs white), nationalism (USA vs everyone else), sexuality (gay vs straight), philosophy (individualism vs collectivism), and comic book franchises (Marvel vs DC [Marvel is better, by the way.]) There are an infinite number of possible socially generated divisions in which we can classify and segregate ourselves, but the important thing to understand here is that the primary issue is the degree to which these tribes are incorporated into our identity.

The root of the entire issue is essentially this: when we lack individual identities rooted in personal achievement, dignity, and self-knowledge, we need to find another source of esteem. This source of esteem varies, but the end result is the same- tribalism. The great irony here is that because it’s this singular driving need to develop a valued identity, there’s not much difference between those on either side of these tribally based debates. Because these people aren’t basing their sense of self-worth on their own achievements, they look to whatever is available.

To paraphrase Robert M. Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, there is a concept in Zen Buddhism called “mu,” which means nothingness. When one comes to a question that has two opposing answers, he says that we have actually found a mu answer- a non-answer, or the answer is nothing. This indicates that the question we’re asking is bad. As a result of this, whenever we find that there are two tribes saying the opposite from each other, realize that it’s very likely somewhere down the line, the forces that created the two groups missed a step and got a question wrong- mu.

Instead, consider the possibility that the real answer between which tribe is better is really mu- no tribe at all. To quote Ayn Rand,

“The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights cannot claim to be defenders of minorities.”

Be one, know yourself, and avoid the dangerous trap of tribalism by letting your identity be just your identity.

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