The Human Mind is Prepared For Tribalism

The human mind is prepared for tribalism

I wish I’d come up with that line, but I didn’t.  It’s academic and moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s line in his new book (co-written with Greg Lukianoff): The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions And Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation For Failure.


What’s Haidt saying?  Simply that given the right set of circumstances, humans will not merely be tribal – after all we’re all that – but tribalistic.  We will define ourselves over and against another tribe that quickly becomes the enemy.

And that’s (mostly) a fun thing in sports, although football in Europe’s dark days of the 80s would say otherwise.  But it’s definitely become a toxic thing in politics across the West today as the modern liberal consensus falters and breaks apart.

Haidt’s new book is already a bestseller, as was his other great work of the past decade: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.  

There he argued, convincingly, that we make our decisions based on emotion, only allowing our reason to catch up in the nanosecond after the “elephant of our intuitions” has leaned us in a certain direction.

All along we thought we were rational jockeys steering the horse of our intuition down a certain pathway.  We thought we directed our intuitions after making a rational decision, when in fact, it turns out, as many conclusive social experiments proved, it’s the other way around.

Good as Haidt’s books are, they’re probably too late in offering a solution, and will probably in the future be seen as timely warnings that we as a culture ignored.

And the sewer-fest that is the SCOTUS hearings around Brett Kavanaugh is simply proof of that.

Haidt’s work aims to draw the sting out of our deep differences; to acknowledge that we form tribes, but without having to descend to the hateful – and hate-filled – tribalism that is our politics in the early part of the 21st century.

Sorry folks, but that particular boat has sailed.

Having read the Kavanaugh/Ford debacle across the political and social spectra:  The Guardian, The New York Times, The Conversation, The Huffington Post, the ABC on one side; The Australian, The Wall Street Journal, Breitbart online and others, on the other, here’s the conclusion I have come to, and it’s not about Kavanaugh:

We now make our ethical decisions based upon tribalism alone

With zero evidence in the SCOTUS hearing other than the assertions of both parties, what we are left with is a tribalism that pits “good” (us) against “evil” (them).  Meaning that once again, here in our hard secular age, in which there is no public acknowledge of anything transcendent, we are borrowing transcendent terms to describe each other.

And that’s worrying. Our default is no longer to identity ourselves – as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn noted –  as possessing the fault line of good and evil within each of us.

No.  Our actions are merely psychological and require therapy.  Your actions are deeply sinful and require judgement.  I need to be “understood”.  You need to be “condemned”.

Of course the seeds of this have been sown some time ago. It’s twenty years ago this year that feminist writer Gloria Steinem wrote her (in)famous Op-Ed piece in The New York Times, in the wake of the Bill Clinton scandals.

There she argued for a fair hearing for Clinton, a rejection of any impeachment, and a good case for sex-addiction therapy not prosecution.

After all, when he dropped his pants as Governor and asked a female employee for oral sex he was a good enough man to pull them back up again and say: “Well I don’t want to make you do anything you don’t want to do.”  And by that I don’t think he meant the typing.

But Steinem’s kicker line is her last line in calling for understanding:

Until then, we will disqualify energy and talent the country needs — as we are doing right now.

In other words, something is more important here than what happened sexually.  There’s a bigger fight going on of which Clinton is a part: The fight between good and evil.

In her defence Steinem has recently said she would not write the same article now.  Yet she still says she does not regret it because it was written then for a great cause, the cause being a greater good versus a greater evil.  So what if a bunch of women got thrown under the bus in the process.

Her primary justification for giving Clinton a hall pass back then was to ensure that the greater good of the Democrat dream of “reproductive freedom” would not be upended by the Republican nightmare that might end in abortion control.

Hello history.  Nice to see you back again.  That’s pretty much where we are twenty years later, the same language being used, the same battles being waged.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the bigger picture is that “those evil people” don’t get their hands on the levers of power and take away our hard earned rights. Or vice versa. It’s our dream versus their nightmare.  And Steinem simply paved the path for what is happening today with her essay.

And both sides do it, and increasingly unashamedly.  After all if you are good and they are evil, rather than both of you being good, but seeing things differently, does not the glorious utopian secular end not justify every means?

The subtitle of Haidt’s first work is this: Why Good people are Divided by Politics and Religion.  Haidt tasked himself with the goal of taking the heat out of an increasingly toxic public square by positioning people to see their opponents first and foremost as “good”.  Good, but merely holding different perspectives on things.

But some seven years later in this second book, Haidt has a whole section devoted to one of three great “Untruths” that have gripped the culture (and particularly the emerging campus culture of the West): “Life is a Battle Between Good People and Evil People.”

There we were in the 80s doing Po-Mo Arts degrees in which there was no way to access ultimate truth, but suddenly now we’ve got it all locked away.  Me good, You evil. It’s almost, er, religious.  Which is exactly what it is.

And this is played out in real time as I across the progressive and conservative spectrum on the Kavanaugh hearings  Your facial expressions betray your lies.  Our facial expressions reveal our honesty.

My a priori assumption is that you are evil and wish to conceal your evil deeds.   And that’s before we even get to the comments sections in the media, in which the general populace descends even further into this cesspool.

It reminds me of the hilarious pomposity of Captain Mainwaring in the UK TV series: Dad’s Army.


On one occasion, in preparing his rag-tag bunch for a possible German spy infiltration in Blighty. Mainwaring has prepared a slide show for his men called “Know Your Enemy”.  One slide is of a German soldier, and the good captain commences with his pointer:

Note the eyes – close together, mean, shifty – that’s typically Nazi.
Look at the thick red bull neck, watch out for that.
He has no lobes on his ears, a well known criminal trait.

Now times that by one hundred in our social media age in which every facial contortion, tug of an ear, shake of a head, tearful expression, can be captured out of context and sent around the globe in minutes.

“I knew he was guilty – just listen to how he raised his voice.  Look at the frat school background”

“I knew she was lying – look how she tossed her head back.  Look how she was a stooge for the Democrats.”

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He may well be lying.  He’s got reason to do so.  She may well be telling the truth.  OR she may not be.  I can’t imagine she’s telling a lie.  But, sadly, given the lead up to this debacle,  there are plenty of those opposed to Kavanaugh who would not care if she were.

If she is telling the truth and he gets away with it because several months ago senior Democrats spiked the punchbowl by consistently and loudly saying they’d “do anything” to scupper this, then shame on them.

It’s just as well to know (echoing the words of Abraham about God’s intentions to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah), “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?”

Now to see if we can find ten righteous men and women in the Sodom and Gomorrah that is US politics at the moment.

In the meantime, with the rampaging elephant of emotion leaning so hard in this one, our teeny weeny jockey of reason is almost helpless to do anything other than lean in with it, and hang on for what will be an increasingly bumpy ride.

Forget trying to convince people that their political opponents are “good” – that elephant/donkey has already bolted.  Haidt’s books are doomed to become best-seller curios – a picture of what public life might have been like if we’d heeded his warnings.  We are well and truly in the Good People/Evil People paradigm and we’ve got all sorts of slideshow and pointers to prove it.

Both Kavanaugh and Ford are means to other ends. Actual living breathing human funnels down which we pour meaning, rather than from where we draw meaning.  It’s the ultimate in eisegetical exercises and as with all eisegesis it will confirm our biases, cloud true meaning, and set us on the path we have already, in our hearts, decided to go down.