One of the most damaging illiberal beliefs is the belief in the supremacy of the tribe. From that meta-belief, other illiberal beliefs flow. Mistakenly believing others are less worthy, it becomes easy to fail to see the humanity in others. From that mistake, it is easy to adopt a zero-sum mindset and believe all that matters is one’s own welfare and the welfare of the group with which one is identified.
During the winter of 2021, journalist Virginia Heffernan sheltered from COVID in her upstate New York getaway. After a heavy snow, she was astonished when her Trump-supporting neighbor plowed her driveway. One could conclude that her neighbor saw an unprepared individual in need and acted with decency and kindness.
In her opinion essay for the Los Angeles Times, Heffernan revealed her tribal thinking as she weighed whether to offer thanks to her neighbor. After alluding to the Nazi occupation of France and Hezbollah’s policy of giving out free things in Lebanon, Heffernan concluded she could not give her neighbor “absolution.” She wrote, “Free driveway work, as nice as it is, is just not the same currency as justice and truth.”
She tells us nothing of her neighbor other than he is a good snow plower and a “Trumpite.” Her neighbor saw her humanity; she saw him through her labels.
A simple act of kindness from a neighbor became an opportunity for Virginia Heffernan to express her tribal prejudices. The basis of Heffernan’s perception was her tribal mindset and her inability to see the humanity in others.
In his book Open, Johan Norberg writes, “Historically, we have expanded the circle of people we feel empathy for by discovering that we belong to groups that overlap the old divisions.” If she spoke to her neighbor, she might find they share a love for upstate New York, and maybe they have a hobby in common. Without her thinking getting in the way, she might discover they are both human beings striving to have a happy and purposeful life.
This spring, in Wired, Heffernan, without a trace of irony, observed of others: “When a person…grounds their serenity and joy in a false claim about reality, you do little but cause pain if you try to root it out.”
Heffernan’s false claims about the tribal nature of reality can instruct us all. She has assigned other people a terrible purpose. Other people are objects that either share her views or are against her. The character and actions of others don’t matter. What matters is the maligned category Heffernan has assigned to them.
In his book, Less than Human, philosopher David Livingstone Smith explains that “Journalists have always had an important role to play in disseminating falsehoods to mold public opinion, and this often involves dehumanizing military and political opponents.” Smith quotes Aldous Huxley, who explained we lose our “scruples” when a “human being is spoken of as though he were not a human being, but as the representative of some wicked principle.”
Heffernan doesn’t seem ready to examine the cost of her tribal thinking. Why would we see the havoc it creates if we think our mindset works for us? What if the “justice” Heffernan is seeking can emerge only when tribal thinking is relinquished?
One of the most damaging illiberal beliefs is the belief in the supremacy of the tribe. From that meta-belief, other illiberal beliefs flow. Mistakenly believing others are less worthy, it becomes easy to fail to see the humanity in others. From that mistake, it is easy to adopt a zero-sum mindset and believe all that matters is one’s own welfare and the welfare of the group with which one is identified. Freedom for me but not for thee is a zero-sum mindset.
Tribalism is the belief in the supremacy of one’s group identity over individual rights. Tribal identity fosters negative feelings, even hatred, toward those outside the tribe. In the grips of the tribal mindset, we see the world through a lens of us vs. them, victims and victimizers. “They” are out to get me is an oft-heard refrain. We are certain our tribe deserves more than it has.
Tribalism rests on the destructive mental delusion of denying the humanity of others: I am fundamentally different and separate from those I’m judging.
A second, more destructive delusion can follow from the first: My well-being depends on destroying or marginalizing those from whom I am different.
Matt Ridley explains in his book The Origins of Virtue, the “tendency of human societies to fragment into competing groups has left us with minds all too ready to adopt prejudices and pursue genocidal feuds.”
Most of us learned long ago to value human cooperation; we recognize that harming others doesn’t foster either our own well-being or the well-being of others.
Many don’t have the same probity when it comes to harming others indirectly through the coercive agents of government. In business, some seek subsidies, tariffs, or demand government force people to buy their products, such as ethanol and vaccines. Some want loans canceled. Others want to live rent-free. Still others want a guaranteed annual income.
The mindset driving all these examples is zero-sum thinking. Zero-sum thinking—the philosophy that someone else must lose so I can win—is a mistaken idea that destroys lives and economies. Is zero-sum thinking, fueled by growing tribalism, threatening human cooperation and progress?
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt recently observed, “There is a direction to history and it is toward cooperation at larger scales,” adding that “[N]ew technologies (writing, roads, the printing press) …created new possibilities for mutually beneficial trade and learning. Zero-sum conflicts…were better thought of as temporary setbacks…”
Norberg asks, “Why are we so bad at understanding that voluntary relations and an open economy are non-zero?” It is not possible to change the nature of reality, but it is possible to adopt beliefs at odds with reality and experience harsh consequences. Norberg points us toward understanding how our failure to understand reality has polarized politics:
Almost every kind of angst the nationalist Right and the populist Left feels over the economy is based on it [zero-sum thinking] in one form or another. If the rich get richer, it’s because they take it from us. With more immigrants, there are fewer resources left for the natives. If robots become smarter, there will be no jobs left for us. If trading partners like China and Mexico gain, it must be at our expense.
Neither conservatives nor progressives are immune from zero-sum mindsets. Today, with inflation raging, many are sure greedy supermarkets and energy producers are responsible. Not understanding that the Fed and politicians are culpable, it is easy to have strong opinions about which prices and salaries are too “high.”
To be fair, lies propagated by government generate malcontent feelings and zero-sum thinking. If, as President Biden claims, “America has achieved the most robust recovery in modern history,” why are your finances feeling squeezed? Someone or something must be holding you back while others are getting ahead. This is not fair, you might reason. And the President is eager to channel your anger, greedy corporations are part of the problem that he will solve.