There’s an identity-based community that has gained significant traction amongst a certain segment of online humans; a rather ironic identity that should be approached with skepticism. The core of this community identity is a feeling of social homelessness, of not holding allegiance to a community. A radically free individual. In the age of culture wars, this post-tribal identity is understandable for folks who want to reject what they see as an increase in puritanical identity politics. Nevertheless, I worry that the post-tribal identity can actually put people at higher risk of misinformation and socially pressured reasoning.
First, I want to address concerns about the term “post-tribal”. Critics have complained that the use of “tribe” in things like promotional business materials is inappropriate and could be considered offensive to indigenous peoples, because the term evokes ideas of savages stuck in the past. While I agree with these concerns, in this particular context I think they highlight why “post-tribal” is the right term to describe this identity. The modern post-tribal identity is, though not consciously for many adherents, an extension of the sort of 18th and 19th century enlightenment/early modern rationalism that consciously defined itself in contrast with the indigenous tribes that colonialists were “discovering” and exploiting during that period. From this colonial perspective, tribal communities are seen as morally and psychologically regressive, unable to grow beyond their in-group biases.
This is, of course, a terrible picture of actual tribal culture, and the attempted contrast ignores the pathological in-group racial biases that underwrote colonialism. That history needs to be emphasised while using this terminology, but I do believe the moniker captures the mindset better than “post-community” or “post-identity”. Many post-tribal individuals will likely concede they still have a community and an identity, they simply believe they either aren’t constrained by it in the way they think other people are, or that they are on a path towards liberation where others aren’t.
I genuinely understand the impulse to seek independence in this way. More and more, we’re all made painfully aware of our biases and epistemic limitations. As fields of human knowledge and content grow exponentially, the rising expectations for social and cultural literacy can feel overwhelming. Add in our highly polarised and toxic political climate, and it makes sense that many people feel compelled to aspire to greater independence.
That said, I find it implausible that post-tribal identities consistently correlate with an actual increase in social independence. There’s the basic reality that humans are heavily hardwired prosocial creatures, we form in-groups on the thinnest of pretexts and depend heavily on those groups for our mental wellbeing. While it is possible to marginally reduce in-group biases, they are generally resistant to change and there’s no evidence I’m aware of that they can be removed completely. In my experience, those expressing post-tribal identities tend to be part of a fairly well demarcated in-group. Without getting too far into the weeds of group dynamics, the post-tribal community that I frequently engage with seems to be centered around a group of commentators who’s unifying feature is the prioritising of woke overreach as the key issue in need of near constant vigilance. A major nexus in this community is the Intellectual Dark Web and the various communities that overlap with the IDW, such as the anti-woke contingent of movement atheism and the anti-woke contingent of the modern rationalist movement.
Anyone who spends time regularly interacting with self-identified post-tribal individuals online will quickly notice the content patterns, and social media recommendation algorithms have no trouble delineating the rough boundaries of these communities. As if to help me drive home this point, Bari Weiss and others have just announced the formation of what amounts to Galileo University. A place for fearless truth tellers to learn the skills they’ll need to succeed in the culture war job market:
Our project began with a small gathering of those concerned about the state of higher education—Niall Ferguson, Bari Weiss, Heather Heying, Joe Lonsdale, Arthur Brooks, and I—and we have since been joined by many others, including the brave professors mentioned above, Kathleen Stock, Dorian Abbot and Peter Boghossian.
We expect to face significant resistance to this project. There are networks of donors, foundations, and activists that uphold and promote the status quo. There are parents who expect the status quo. There are students who demand it, along with even greater restrictions on academic freedom. And there are administrators and professors who will feel threatened by any disruption to the system.
We welcome their opprobrium and will regard it as vindication.
To the rest—to those of you who share our sense that something fundamental is broken—we ask that you join us in our effort to renew higher education. We welcome all who share our mission to pursue a truly liberating education—and hope that other founders follow our example.
It is time to restore the meaning to those old school mottos. Light. Truth. The wind of freedom. You will find all three at our new university in Austin.
One of the paragons of the post-tribal identity is Sam Harris, the New Atheist author, former card carrying IDWer, and host of the Making Sense podcast. ‘Sensemaking’ itself is a popular piece of jargon amongst the post-tribal. It signals a commitment to seek the truth through reason, often in the face of perceived social pressure to keep quiet. Harris’s post-tribal identity appears to have crystalized around pushback he received for claims about Islam and racial profiling that some believed went beyond mere atheism and crossed into islamophobia. The influence of Harris’s anti-woke post-tribal identity is evident in his treatment of Charles Murray, a libertarian writer who has also received significant criticism from folks on the left, as well as other scientists, for his views on race, IQ, and achievement. On episode 73 of Making Sense, entitled “Forbidden Knowledge”, Harris presents Murray as an unbiased researcher with views that would be uncontroversial, if not for wokeness run amok. When Ezra Klein challenged Harris on this post-tribal identity framing of Murray’s work and on Harris’s unwillingness to consider Murray’s work in the larger political context of libertarian attempts to dismantle the social safety net by arguing that racial gaps are the result of unchangeable genetic differences, Harris doubled down on the claim that he doesn’t have a blind spot for anti-woke fellow travelers. On a recent episode of Decoding the Guru’s podcast, Harris further maintained that he cannot fathom how anyone would see him as belonging to a community that constrains how he sees the world. At this point, it seems unlikely that Harris will ever acknowledge the legitimacy of these critiques or reflect on how much his identity continues to be shaped by his community of anti-woke post-tribal sense-makers. This behavior has downstream implications for the many people who admire Harris and seek to emulate his post-tribal approach.
In my experience, everyone is a member of many overlapping communities that constrain and shape our identities and behavior in ways we can’t even begin to be conscious of, much less control. Maybe if a person truly cut themselves off from everyone else they could achieve some fleeting sense of genuine independence, but nobody who spends significant amounts of time around other people, especially online, can be in any real sense post-tribal. I can easily list off my many community commitments, and I encourage readers to do the same. Just in terms of politics, I’m a devoted member of the community of progressives who are skeptical of right-wing moral panics about social justice. I accept being called “woke” and “socialist”, but I’m also frequently and correctly labeled a “liberal”. I’ve also been spending increasing amounts of time interacting with “get a grip” centrists. While I’m not a member, I try to venture as far as I can into communities who identify as right of center, but who recognize that the larger threat to our society is currently emanating from the right. I could go on across a wide range of social fields, but you get the point.
There are real implications for these community commitments. Within my communities there are experts that I trust, which means, unless there’s a glaring red flag, I’m more likely to take onboard their claims with minimal examination. This goes for straightforward factual claims, but also for some ethical considerations. If the right people told me I don’t know what I’m talking about on a given issue and I need to stop talking until I better understand, because my errors are hurting people, I would stop. I think that’s epistemically healthy, because the alternative that I see in post-tribal communities are people having real trouble assessing who to trust, and so ending up succumbing to a mix of particularly charismatic gurus and perpetual fence-sitting on serious issues.
For some folks in the post-tribal community, especially amongst the more prominent figures, this identity is something of a humblebrag. It’s often presented as a lament, where the person is sad that they were either abandoned by their former community or had to leave it for ideological reasons, but they’re thankful to be free of those social pressures and able to better access the truth. This sense of intellectual achievement is likely part of the lure of the post-tribal identity for individuals struggling to find meaning in the modern world. That, combined with the earnest aspiration to reduce one’s biases, is a powerful mix. Unfortunately, it leaves community members wanting for something that may not actually be possible or desirable. A post-tribal world.