Tribalism and Self-Esteem: Excerpt from “The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem” by Nathaniel Branden

This is an excerpt (or really three excerpts) from the book “The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem” by Nathaniel Branden. If you’re like me, and you’re very disturbed by growing tribalism in America and other countries, you’ll find this interesting.

Throughout human history, most societies and cultures have been dominated by the tribal mentality. This was true in primitive times, in the Middle Ages, and in socialist (and some nonsocialist) countries in the twentieth century. Japan is a contemporary example of a nonsocialist nation still heavily tribal in its cultural orientation, although it may now be in the process of becoming less so.

The essence of the tribal mentality is that it makes the tribe as such the supreme good and denigrates the importance of the individual. It tends to view individuals as interchangeable units and to ignore or minimize the significance of differences between one human being and another. At its extreme, it sees the individual as hardly existing except in the network of tribal relationships; the individual by him- or herself is nothing.

Plato, the father of collectivism, captures the essence of this perspective in the Laws, when he states, “My law will be made with a general view of the best interests of society at large … as I rightly hold the single person and his affairs as of minor importance.” He speaks enthusiastically of “the habit of never so much as thinking to do one single act apart from one’s fellows, of making life, to the very uttermost, an unbroken concert, society, and community of all with all.” In ancient times, we think of this vision as embodied in the militaristic society of Sparta. In modern times, its monuments were Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Between the ancient and the modern, we think of the feudal civilization of the Middle Ages, in which each person was defined by his or her place in the social hierarchy, apart from which personal identity could hardly be said to exist.

Tribal societies can be totalitarian but they need not be. They can be relatively free. Control of the individual can be more cultural than political, although the political is always a factor. What I wish to point out here is that the tribal premise is intrinsically anti-self-esteem.

It is a premise and an orientation that disempowers the individual qua individual. Its implicit message is: You don’t count. By yourself, you are nothing. Only as part of us can you be something. Thus, any society, to the extent that it is dominated by the tribal premise, is inherently unsupportive of self-esteem and more: it is actively inimical. In such a society the individual is socialized to hold him- or herself in low esteem relative to the group. Self-assertiveness is suppressed (except through highly ritualized channels). Pride tends to be labeled a vice. Self-sacrifice is enjoined.”

One encounters the tribal mentality again in the technologically advanced society of George Orwell’s 1984, where the full power and authority of a totalitarian state is aimed at crushing the self-assertive individualism of romantic love. The contempt of twentieth-century dictatorships for a citizen’s desire to have “a personal life,” the characterization of such a desire as “petty bourgeois selfishness,” is too well known to require documentation. Modern dictatorships may have a better grasp of individuality than did primitive tribes, but the result is that the hostility is more virulent. When I attended the First International Conference on Self-Esteem in Norway in 1990, a Soviet scholar remarked, “As Americans, you can’t possibly grasp the extent to which the idea of self-esteem is absent in our country. It’s not understood. And if it were, it would be condemned as politically subversive.”

The United States of America is a culture with the greatest number of subcultures of any country in the world. It is a society characterized by an extraordinary diversity of values and beliefs in virtually every sphere of life. And yet, if we understand that we will be speaking only of dominant trends to which there are any number of countervailing forces, there is a sense in which we may legitimately speak of “American culture.”

What was so historically extraordinary about the creation of the United States of America was its conscious rejection of the tribal premise. The Declaration of Independence proclaimed the revolutionary doctrine of individual, inalienable rights and asserted that the government exists for the individual, not the individual for the government. Although our political leaders have betrayed this vision many ways and many times, it still contains the essence of what the abstraction-America-stands for. Freedom. Individualism. The right to the pursuit of happiness. Self-ownership. The individual as an end in him- or herself, not a means to the ends of others; not the property of family or church or state or society. These ideas were radical at the time they were proclaimed, and I do not believe they are fully understood or accepted yet; not by most people.”