Learning to be Tribeless

by Kevin Currie-Knight

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I like to think that I’m a pretty distinct individual; that my thought is not easily swayed by the company I keep; and that I am relatively immune to thought bubbles. However, the year 2020 taught me not only that this is less true than I had thought, but also how hard [interesting and challenging, but hard] it is to resist being swayed by thought bubbles. Going it alone is hard, but 2020 has made me aspire to doing so.

I’ll frame this article as a story; part personal reflection and part analysis. I’ll be deliberately vague, because my intent is not to gossip but to describe what it was like for me to travel from the inside to the outside of a thought bubble, and what I learned from the journey. This story may seem trivial, and I suppose that part of my point in telling it is that what seems trivial can often have an outsized effect. Belonging to a group of like-minded people committed to a cause feels affirming and provides the kind of electricity that sparked by a strengthening conviction. Losing this proved harder – but more formative – than I originally thought.

During the first half of 2020, I was in my second year of participation in a 501c3 organization devoted to education and activism around a particular cause. [1] I contributed articles to this group’s online magazine and had recently attained a leadership position. As a relatively new member of the leadership team, I was invited into policy and strategy sessions. At one of them, I was asked for my opinion on a particular policy question: whether we should endorse and promote a particular film directly related to our cause. Two members of the group believed that certain aspects of the film could be interpreted in a racist way. My opinion was that while I could see how they got that interpretation, a non-racist interpretation of the film seemed much more likely and obvious. [I didn’t think of it at the time, but a discussion in which we participated after a screening of the film had three non-white panelists, and none of them seemed to find that this film was racist.]

The opinion I had offered regarding the film apparently was so wrong that it set off a strange chain of events. First, some long standing members of the leadership team resigned from the group and named me as a contributing factor in their resignation letter. As I gather, this led to internal discussions [to which I was not invited] devoted to determining what to do in order to get these members back. Apparently, however, all the discussion accomplished was more resignations.

It was made clear to me that my presence in the group would no longer be tolerated by its remaining members, so I went ahead and resigned myself. I tried to remain involved with other parts of the organization unrelated to leadership, but I was told that before I could be permitted to do that, I would need to prove that I understood why my opinion on the film was wrong and explain what I was doing to move in the right direction. Not having that, I left the group entirely.  Not long after, every article I’d published for the group’s magazine was retroactively removed, with neither my knowledge nor my consent.

C. Thi. Nguyen makes a pertinent distinction between two types of insular groups: epistemic bubbles and echo-chambers. Both are types of homogenous groups where members reinforce the opinions held in common by group members in a way resembling a ratchet effect. The difference, Nguyen writes, is in how they deal with dissent. An epistemic bubble is more like a network of like-minded friends on social media. Here, homogeneity is achieved by selection [those who join the network are likely of similar mind to current members] and attrition [dissenting members are not likely to last long]. In echo-chambers, however, homogeneity is also attained by finding ways to actively discredit dissenting voices. “Don’t listen to liberal news media. It is a propaganda arm for the Democratic Party!” “Don’t listen to critics; they just hate that we have our finger on the truth!”

Was I part of an epistemic bubble or an echo-chamber?

I’m not quite sure, because the line between these categories is fuzzy. The group I’ve been talking about was devoted to a countercultural cause, which had the effect of making everyone in it feel like a tight-knit network of the people who “got it” in a world that didn’t see as clearly as we did. The group never explicitly forbade criticism, but given the kind of group it was, it was unlikely to hold much appeal for anyone who wasn’t a hundred percent on board, and there were any number of ways in which members could justify dismissing outside critics. “They’ve just bought into the bogus societal values that prevent them from really seeing what we know to be true!” “Of course, academics are critical. The entire incentive structure for researchers is designed to prop up the current system!”

This is how an epistemic bubble emerges, and in our case, it was one with an impressively strong filters. Groups like this provide many benefits for their members. First, people who often feel odd within larger society for having the beliefs they do now have a support network of others who feel similarly. Second, it is refreshing be in a space where one can be open about one’s beliefs and be affirmed. Finally, it feels good to believe a thing strongly, and what better way to do that than to be amongst others who reinforce your rectitude. I am an academic, so I have always endeavored to be a scholar first and activist second, but the allure of belief sometimes has a stronger pull than does the responsibility of doubt and detachment.

So, I was asked by the group’s leadership for my opinion and gave it. The ensuing weeks left me confused and embarrassed because I hadn’t seen what now seemed obvious. The group looks a lot different to an outsider than it does to an insider.

My experience was made all the more interesting [at least to my scholarly side] by the fact that  it seemed to mirror what was happening in the society at large. Epistemic bubbles were forming, and battle lines being drawn around everything from Donald Trump and anti-racism initiatives to J.K. Rowling. It seemed like in each case, there were two and only two acceptable tribes and everyone’s goal – at least on social media – was to find the one you fit into, affirm your membership with every post and tweet, and demand that others conform. Either Donald Trump is the only hope America has to fight the rise of socialism, or everything he does proves his fascism. Either racism is omnipresent and evident in every system that shows racial disparities, or racism effectively died in the 1960’s and systemic racism is a smokescreen to obscure other problems that are not racism. I noticed that among very different groups of friends and family, espousing positions more nuanced than these would often be met with confusion or insinuations that since I don’t play for x team, I must play for y.

The one team I’d grown used to being part of was now one I was wary of. I was teamless.

The first thing I did was examine my existing views to figure out which of them I was still prepared to endorse and which I was not. I have never been religious, but this process seems similar to what happens when religious people leave a church. They know they still believe the core doctrine of the religion, but over their time in church, they acquired other beliefs that may have been more a function of belonging to the church than their own conscience. I came to this group believing in the cause the group represented, and I left believing in its cause. But I came to believe the cause for reasons x, y, and z, where many other members came to the cause for other reasons, b, c, and d. Over time, and embarrassingly enough without noticing, I came to accept reasons b, c, and d also. I didn’t accept them uncritically, but insofar as cognition is a social affair, I often heard people I respected talk about reasons b, c and d, until over time, I accepted them as well. Only when I was no longer part of the group could I go back and examine all of my reasons in a more methodical way and reevaluate my commitments.

I also began consuming media therapeutically. I found videos and written stories about others recalling their own experiences being a part of – and then leaving – thought bubbles. I read philosophers and cultural critics who espoused a certain sort of individualism and freethinking. I appreciated it when Vaclav Havel laid into “post-totalitarian societies” and their “demands [for] conformity, uniformity, and discipline,” and urged people to move “towards plurality, diversity, independent self-constitution.” I tried to make sense of my experience with the help of Doris Lessing’s reminder that “People like certainties. More, they crave certainty, they seek certainty, and great resounding truths. They like to be part of some movement equipped with these truths and certainties, and if there are rebels and heretics, that is even more satisfying, because this structure is so deep in all of us.” Or Ralph Ellison, whose invisible man learns suddenly to exist on his own. I watched and read as much individuality-affirming media that I could find until something struck me. In my quest to affirm my own individuality, was I simply trading one feeling of belonging for another? Should an individual need others’ permission to think individually? Intellectual Dark Web types have made a cottage industry out of stories of bravely being an individual in a sea of conformity, but one can only digest so much of this sort of thing before the conformity on display becomes [ironically] evident.

Since leaving this group, I have become a lot more skeptical of ideological groups in general, to the point that I become leery if I find myself agreeing too much with any specific group or recognized position. I experience a twinge of discomfort when asked to provide a label for my thinking and orientation. [“So, would you say you are libertarian?”] I suspect there may be something of a pendulum effect going on.

If there is one lesson I’ve learned from this experience, it is that as much as people try to be individual in their thinking, we are all to some degree or other susceptible to the pressures that groups and thought bubbles exert. As already mentioned, the cause this group represented was one I came to on my own, primarily through my own research. Connecting with a group of similarly oriented others, however, pushed me in directions I might not otherwise have gone. Once one builds or finds a network of likeminded people, changing one’s mind or permitting oneself to be persuaded by criticism not only comes at the cost of having to rethink things, but of potentially losing one’s network and the benefits of being in it.

So I find myself here, in 2021, doing my best to live fully outside of thought bubbles in a world that seems replete with them and increasingly less tolerant of those who refuse to join them.

Notes

[1] My apologies for being vague. This cause is still one I care about, and I do not want to gossip. My focus is less on the specifics of the group and my exodus from it, but about what such a process taught me about myself, how I think, and how I must think going forward.

17 comments

  1. Great essay. I’ve never liked being in groups. Having grown up in an overwhelmingly Jewish part of Long Island, when I went to the University of Michigan, I joined the least Jewish fraternity I could find, “Alpha Tau Omega,” which had been formed by confederate soldiers in the South and whose name explicitly channels the New Testament and Christianity.

    Indeed, wherever I have found myself, I always preferred to be in the minority.

  2. Once you realize it’s a tribe, you’re no longer in it and once you’re out of a tribe because you realize it’s a tribe, there’s no going back to that tribe nor, I believe, any way to join another.

    And there’s no tribe of the tribeless. They’re too diverse and idiosyncratic.

  3. Good essay. Thanks for the insider account.

    Humans are drawn to tribes because that’s how our ancestors survived for hundreds of thousands of years. An isolated human was a dead human. “Mutual dependence is key. Human societies are support systems within which weakness does not automatically spell death.”* I doubt that we can overcome tribalism altogether, but maybe we could form a tribe of the tribeless, so to speak, an association of those who value freedom to inquire and replicable methods for determining what is true. Criteria for membership would be fealty to method, not to any particular result of the method.

    *Frans de Waal, _Our Inner Ape_, p. 187.(New York: Riverhead Books, 2005.)

  4. A simple little problem: the EMAIL version (not the EA website version) of this essay starts with, “Learning to be Tribeless by Daniel Kaufman,” followed immediately by “by Kevin Currie-Knight.” Maybe somebody should fix this.

    1. ”Everybody in this room is wearing a uniform. Don’t kid yourself.” — Frank Zappa

  5. I guess this experience is related to your post on Kafka traps. (https://theelectricagora.com/2021/03/03/further-thoughts-on-kafkatraps/)

    Richard Feynman said understanding is based on a framework. For the same issue the framework for different people could be politics, panpsychism, religion, science or, perhaps, philosophy. Appreciating the methodology can bridge bubbles. Sharyl Attkisson and Noam Chomsky probably don’t belong to the same bubble but someone who belongs to either bubble should be able to respect the ‘other’, maybe even learn from them, because they both employ the same methodology, their minds work similarly in different contexts.

    Laurie Anderson’s affective poem “Big Science” cites individualism.

  6. Have you noticed that friends who are more active online have a higher tendency to also display these tribal behaviors in their real life?

    1. I’d be very interested in whether that’s true. Any studies on this? (Not that studies are the only way to get knowledge…)

      1. I would be interested as well. I think people 40 and older would tend to be more tribal the more they are on social media.

        But I think younger people like my kids, who are teens, it may be the opposite. Yes they are online and seem to crave and value likes. But they also see tons of likes for things they find absurd. So I think they are in many ways more knowledgeable and see “the online racket” for what it is better than some older people. I think they are much *less* tribal in their personal lives than I was when I was their age. I mean even parents are almost kind of allowed in! Gen Z is learning life is complicated and people think all sorts of different things and get really jacked about them. They seem much more likely to say yeah she is all about this crazy belief but she is still a great friend.

        By building up tribalism the internet is also exposing tribalism.

  7. A parable for our times.

    Insider or Outsider: the deadly dyad. I think of the great story ‘50 Grand’ by Ernest Hemingway –
    ‘So you’re going to be one of those popular champions,’ Jack says to him. ‘Take your goddam hand of my shoulder’.
    ‘Be yourself’, Walcott says.

    Walcott gets cute with him and tries to lose the fight by a foul. Jack Brennan remains himself and accepts the foul as an accident to continue the fight and then pulls a blatant foul to lose it. The thought of losing his money, him being seriously stingy is the key to his grace under pressure. There is the irony of being drawn into a scheme, being betrayed and then baffling the schemers. You need to keep your wits about you at all times.

  8. One way to avoid being too tribal is to belong to a wide variety of tribes. This was my less than entirely intentional solution during my formative years : high school, which occured in the late 60s into 1970. We referred to them as cliques in those days, not the more exclusionary , but similar idea. Many of my friends, especially closer ones, also adopted this multimodular style. But not all of them. There were the athletics, the politicos who cared about things like student councils, the intellectuals, the way-out intellectuals, the creatives, the hippies, the drug-enthused, and the normal sorts. And operating freely amongst them I somehow avoided labels of my own. Does this strategy carry over into adult life? Sort of, I think. Though admittedly I did not have to contend with social media during the bulk of my decades,

    A few years ago someone spotted some of my writings and presenting himself as an editor of a new online journal offered me a weekly column. I took a while to familiarize with the fledgling website and decided the quality and focus, hazy as it was. was alright ad so agreed. At the time I was looking for ways to be pushed a little with deadlines. Generally speaking, most of the other contributors were millenials, save perhaps for one other out of eight or so. I thought nothing of this and in fact figured to enjoy it. My first two contributions were met with sparkling praise, perhaps even excessively so. I commented duly upon others’ works, time permitting, and kept to my normal writing pace while planning ahead some for weekly submissions. About the third week I was summoned to an urgent online meeting, which I had to postpone for reasons relating to other duties. When I finally did reconnect next day I learned that there was sentiment to expel me, especially from the head editor and it seems my offense was an insufficient display of comradely empathy and supportive outrage towards a woman who had written a piece describing a long past episode of sexual abuse. I had expressed a mild mention of her bravery and candid frank writing style, publicly, and had thought to perhaps connect with her later more personally about it. AT first I made an impassioned and reasoned plea defense against the ‘charges’ emailed out about me, but to little avail, as it was soon clear that dynamics were in motion and much had been discussed in my absence with no input from me. Meanwhile I had worked hard up to the deadline to finish a short story as my next weekly entry, but it was held aside until I agreed to make some sort of amends which all who cared would agree to. Instead I wrote a resign letter describing the strong parallels between the editor’s mindset and behavior and the developing so-called cancel culture, making a convincing case as to why this trend had gifted us with the Trump presidency. After a month I glanced back at the website and saw that all my praised submissions had been deleted ad three other editors, at least one of whom was sympathetic to my viewpoints, had left the group.

    There is something very peculiar about the way opinions are held and seen as being vital to the life blood of individuals within today’s culture. It is quite alien to me, and I am doing all I can to make sure my eight year old son builds up enough individuality to be immune to it.

  9. “I tried to remain involved with other parts of the organization unrelated to leadership, but I was told that before I could be permitted to do that, I would need to prove that I understood why my opinion on the film was wrong and explain what I was doing to move in the right direction. Not having that, I left the group entirely. Not long after, every article I’d published for the group’s magazine was retroactively removed, with neither my knowledge nor my consent.”

    I know the inquisition was worse but it was the same sort of thinking. Galileo had to say he didn’t believe the sun was the center of the solar system in 1616. He didn’t do this sufficiently when he published “Dialogue on the Two World Systems” in 1632 so was placed under “villa arrest.” The church originally banned Copernicus’s book in 1616 but then 1620 allowed it after some slight modifications making heliocentric theory a hypothetical. At least with the Church they only banned particular views they disagreed with. You got everything deleted. Is the idea that your disagreement on one point proves your intellect is so badly malformed, everything that you typed must be dangerously wrong?

    I think the two lessons from the inquisition are roughly speaking:

    1) Stop being so quick to call people who disagree a heretic! (In your case it meant getting kicked out of the tribe instead of kicked out of the church)
    2) Not allowing people to come to their own conclusions and express their views, will almost always make things worse rather than better. It may not be true in every case, but it is so often true, that wise people find it easy to allow people to form their own beliefs and express them.

    If there is a tribe of us that believe in those 2 points I want to apply and buy a uniform. Sadly I think any such tribe will not only believe 1 and 2 but they will also believe b, c and d – or they won’t remain a tribe. But there are many people in this country (and in the world generally) wise enough to adhere to roughly those two views. They do not agree with much else, but I support those that espouse these views in various ways such as the University of Chicago statement on free speech, Harper’s Open letter etc. I will also continue to take issue with people that I think support policies (government or private) that demonstrate a lack of understanding and accounting of these lessons.

    1. There’s no way that you can form a tribe for the tribeless.

      A tribe first of all needs a shared mythology and second of all, a common enemy. The enemies for the woke tribe are transphobes and racists, while the enemy for the Trump tribe are illegal immigrants. The enemy must be seen as
      totally “evil”, while your fellow tribe members are totally “good” as long as they are loyal to the tribe’s principles.

      The shared mythology and the hatred of the common enemy provide cohesion, keep the tribe united.

      The regulars in this blog are generally tribeless, but when I glance around it, I don’t see that I, as a tribeless person, have much of a mythology in common with Kevin or with Dan or with E.J. Winner (just to name three regular contributors, nothing personal). I myself have a bit of an idiosyncratic mythology, as I imagine we all do, but I don’t see a tribe emerging among the tribeless.

  10. Apologies for being late to the discussion, but the insights of the piece and the comments are valuable and interesting. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of thought and how they affect our lives and culture is fundamental. However, it is so complicated that simple heuristics have not become generally accepted or useful. Freedom of speech, thought or conscience is oft repeated but generally not practiced.

    The phrase “cognition is a social affair” thus caught my eye because that is a generally accepted understanding. To the extent that all tribes engage in and depend on groupthink the idea that we think as a couple, a committee or a political faction seems true, but I have serious doubts.

    An empirical evaluation points in the opposite direction: all thoughts are formed within the individual and are then communicated, usually and mostly in narrative form. Spoken language is the main way by which to transmit narrative information, and therein lies the rub: “Language is public but meaning is private”. Words like freedom and justice, etc, are bandied about but all here would probably agree, the devil is in the details. Schools of thought and ideological purity are illusions. The more critical one’s thinking, the less likely it is that one would fit into a group. The ultimate clear thinkers will thus be tribes unto theirselves, but they have a problem: they have little to no influence on society unless they persuade others to engage in some groupthink.

    To solve this problem would require that we rethink government and the role of political parties.

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