An Individualist Humanist in a Tribal World

Stand on a beach some time, somewhere well up on dry land. Above the high water mark. Notice you don’t drown.

Then walk down toward the water. If the wind is blowing and the water is rough, there will be a boundary region that’s maybe a metre or more wide where the land is wet but the water isn’t really there.

The boundary, the edge, isn’t really very sharp. In fact, the very word “beach” was invented because there is no infinitely crisp line between land and water. The edge is so fuzzy that it was useful to invent a word for the breadth of it: beach.

Keep walking, and pretty quickly you’ll be swimming.

This is important. Reflect on it: you started off on dry land. You ended up in water over your head. This despite the complete lack of any infinitely sharp dividing line between the two.

Remember this the next time you hear someone say, “Where do you draw the line?” as if the difficulty in drawing a line between two things means there is no difference between them. It isn’t easy to draw the line between land and water, but most of us still have no problem not drowning when we’re on the right side of it.

The world is not given to us in sharp, crisply divided categories. Water and land overlap. Good and evil blur into each other. That doesn’t mean there is no difference between them. It means that the sharp edges we draw between them are somewhat arbitrary. They are constrained by reality but not determined by it: anyone who decided that the appropriate place to draw the edge between land and sea fell somewhere in Saskatchewan would be wrong. But different people might will draw the line in different places on the beach.

Each one of them, though, will likely have the sense that there is a line, and that it is a sharp line, a discontinuity between land and water. That is because there really is a discontinuity: the discontinuity of our attention. We choose to attend to one side of the line as “water” and the other side as “land”. Our attention has no mass, no energy, no momentum. It can move vast distances instantaneously. It can react to changes in the world without us even noticing.

All edges, all crisp, discontinuous, categorical distinctions, are the edges of our attention, imposed on the world by us, constrained by the underlying reality if they are to serve our purposes as knowing subjects.

Not everyone has the same purposes, though. Many people–most people–go out in the world each day with the intent to divide, to Other, to tribalize. They use the way they attend to the world to draw lines around groups of people, to create edges within the human population: this group is separated because of skin colour, that group is treated differently because of their Y chromosome or lack thereof, or the way their sexuality is presented. Tribalists have a desperate need to use their attention to draw edges between groups of people.

Tribalists disagree both on where to draw their edges and what the relationship between the tribes should be. Most tribalists identify themselves with the dominant tribe and attempt to impose both the edges they draw and the value judgements they make on the tribes they have created by doing so. To one group of tribalists “Christians” vs “non-Christians” is the dominant division. To another “Progressives” vs “Conservatives” is what matters. To another it is “Whites” vs “non-Whites” or “Women” vs “Men” or “Gay” vs “Straight” or “Vanilla” vs “Kinky”.

All tribes are created by the edges of the tribalist’s attention to human beings. The world is not given to us in sharp edges.

Tribalists insist that the edges of their attention have traced out the contours of something that is real and important to the world, although unlike edges that are more usefully constrained by reality, tribalist’s edges are all over the place. Tribalists always end up insisting that they have special perceptions and that the people they are busying Othering not only lack those perceptions but are permanently unable to experience them.

This is a good way to win arguments, apparently, that has worked for thousands of years: claim special privileges and perceptions for yourself and your tribe and then viciously attack anyone who suggests you’re just a power-hungry wanker with an axe to grind. It worked for the Church for many centuries, and in the 20th century secular wankers got in on the scam in a big way.

To a humanist–someone whose understanding of the world is informed by a deep belief that nothing human is alien to me, that no one’s experience is beyond my imagining–these claims of special perception by one tribe or another don’t even look self-consistent: they necessarily claim to have special knowledge of what the other tribe can or cannot have special knowledge of, but once you have granted that one tribe can know things others cannot, how can you possibly claim to know what another tribe knows? Tribalism is necessarily viciously hierarchical and anti-humanist, because the answer to that question is always, “My tribe is special, and I will kill/shame/attack/destroy you if you dare disagree.”

So not only are the edges tribalists draw mutually inconsistent they are not even self-consistent unless you grant one tribe or another the privileges of special perceptions that allow them to tell all the other tribes what they are or are not capable of perceiving. Tribalists always end up claiming special privileges for themselves because they can’t defend their preferred divisions of humanity by reference to any interesting constraints found in reality. To gain power for themselves and their tribe is the only use and purpose that tribalist’s edges have.

Tribalists–like all humans–are only able to keep five or ten things in mind at once, and so they necessarily insist on imposing on hundreds of millions or billions of people a small, stupid, simplistic set categories that has almost no explanatory power regarding anything of significance.

Unsurprisingly, there is a war of tribalisms going on today.

That these tribalists are fighting for different tribal divisions and privileging different tribes within their preferred scheme of tribal hatred does not make one group better than the other. They are all equally sad, at root. Lost children, ur-humans, huddled in their caves and denying the humanity of others.

I am an individualist humanist, or possibly a humanist individualist. That is not my nature: I am, like everyone else, heir to the tribal impulses that have divided humans from each other for as long as their have been humans.

But like any ordinarily decent person I do what I can to overcome those impulses. I don’t found political parties or university departments or think tanks or websites dedicated to Othering most of humanity for power and profit.

I don’t entirely despair of humanity, despite current events. We have come a long way since when our tribe was our family, or our village, or our county. We now have tribes that span the world, and anyone who isn’t a completely hate-filled husk of a human being is trivially capable of seeing that what supposedly divides us is far less than what actually unites us.

We are all humans, sharing the common vagaries of the human condition, and we are all individuals, each unique in our perspective and experiences.

Our uniqueness is part of our commonality. We each of us know what it is like to be alone in the world, the only one who sees through our eyes, who knows and feels what we feel. It is something we all share with every other human being on the planet, and the unfortunate people who would divide us into tribes based on irrelevancies necessarily try to erase all of that. As artists and as human beings we need to politely decline to do so.

This is important, because not only does tribalism make our lives smaller and poorer and uglier, attempting to divide humanity into tribes or to unite individuals into tribes always results in a mess, often the large economy-sized mess known as “war”. Tribalists today are working hard to make that happen, because war serves their end: by convincing arbitrarily created tribes to hate each other, the people of their own tribe will band together more tightly. That makes tribalists feel less alone, more powerful, and more loved.

Tribalists lack the intellectual capacity to feel at one with humanity–to make humanity their tribe–so they necessarily choose a smaller division as their own, and then foment hatred and division to solidify the feeling of security they get from that. Tribalists thrive on hate because for them, love of humanity isn’t enough. Without the contrast of another tribe to hate they cannot feel fully bonded with their own tribe.

Tribalists, like all humans, need love, and they sow hatred to help them feel that. If we love them regardless of their hate-mongering and divisiveness we may be able to get them thinking on a large enough scale that they can see themselves as simply “humans” rather than left or right, rich or poor, Muslim or Christian. Of course, there is a rather strong implication regarding both the rule of law and a certain level of social and economic equality in that. It’s unreasonable to talk about our common humanity if we aren’t serious about making sure everyone is fed and has a roof over their head and is reasonably secure in their person.

Tribalists need love. I’m going to do my best to remember that in the coming weeks and months and years, as more and more of my friends succumb to the powerful and natural tribalist impulse, and willfully contribute to the hatred and divisiveness that is currently encroaching on our world.

About TJ

Scientist, engineer, inventor, writer, poet, sailor, hiker, canoeist, father.
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