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.”

Turning Inward – Politics, Empathy, Selfishness, and Human Destiny

[Previous: Becoming a Political Indepenent in the Age of Trump]

In light of the recent Kavanaugh slow motion train wreck hearings, this might be incredibly poorly timed.

When I was fifteen years old, I was in a state of radical open-mindedness. I was in a position where all of my previous beliefs had proven to be false or incomplete, I was reading from multiple conflicting thinkers, examining my own motivations, and looking for ways to improve myself.

Over time, this attitude faded. I accepted one ideology or another, and lowered my priority on self-examination and self-improvement. I went to college, I made friends, I observed the political movements around me and tried to make sense of them.

I’m at a crossroads in my life, and I believe I need to adopt an attitude similar to the one I had at fifteen – hopefully without the emotional volatility of puberty or the risk of being quickly seduced by an ideology. I’ve come to a couple of realizations over the past year or so – about politics, life, and my own motivations, and I’m going to need that attitude of skeptical open-mindedness and concern for self-improvement to get anywhere.

Politics

I’ve said something about this in the political independent essay, but over time I’ve had a realization. I’ve come to the realization that many (if not most) people aren’t advocating for their ideologies or policies out of the pure goodness of their heart, let alone from disinterested careful examination of reality. You’ll also find more dubious or primal motivators: resentment, disgust, fear, embarrassment, pride, and other feelings or biases that most people are smart enough to hide. Alongside those motivators is the king of motivators: pure unadulterated self-interest, whether in the form of self-preservation, maintaining current power/privilege, and support for your tribe (and therefore, yourself).

This isn’t limited to the left or right. The current political climate is full of attacks on the left and left-leaners as being motivated by identity politics and political correctness – supporting policies and laws based on how good they are for specific groups (along lines of race/class/gender etc.), and then shaming anyone who bring up inconvenient facts or alternative policies as wrong. From the perspective of those bringing up unpopular facts/policies, they got rejected not for being wrong, but for being politically incorrect.

Yet as far as I can tell, these exact forces of identity politics and political correctness also exist on the right. In the current political climate, you’ll observe people on the alt-right publicly taking on the mantle of white identity politics, advocating for what they believe are the interests of white people.

Less obviously then that, it’s possible to interpret gun rights activists as those whose identities are centered on being a gun owner (which I don’t mean as an attack on gun owners or gun rights activists). Obviously not every gun owner makes it a part of their identity, but those who do most strongly will join the National Rifle Association, and vote against any politician who isn’t sufficiently opposed to gun restrictions (even if they agree with them on every other issue). So it goes with every other group, to the point where it’s hard to draw the line between “identity politics” and “interest group.”

And if you think conservatives are immune to political correctness, consider how difficult it would be for a modern American conservative to be honestly and publicly concerned about climate change (or any other environmental issue) without being suspected of being a secret liberal. You only have to go back a decade to observe current Republicans talk openly about believing in climate change and the need to do something about it – you don’t see that anymore.

I know. I realize that these probably aren’t radical ideas, and at least one person reading this is rolling their eyes, saying “Wow, look at the top quality galaxy-brain-meme thinking from this guy!” Alternatively, this probably stinks of BOTH-PARTIES-ARE-THE-SAME-WHATABOUTISM that tries to conflate the flaws of both parties, and justify apathy or inaction. But you have to admit: tribalism, and tribal epistemology run rampant in the current American political climate.

Questions

But when all of this comes together – that almost everyone has ulterior motives for their political beliefs, and most people are being influenced by their tribe to support certain people or reject certain ideas – I have to question large parts of my life that may have gone differently if I had realized this earlier.

What ideas have I supported because they were good ideas, and which ones did I support because they were popular at my school?

What groups did I declare my support or allegiance for out of ethics, and which ones were because those groups were the ones my peer group or generation supported?

What ideas, books, schools of thought, or people have I rejected not because those things were wrong, but because my political tribe rejected those things?

Worst of all, I suddenly have to ask a question I really don’t want to ask. I’ve spent about 75% of my political development on the left, in one form or another. On quick reflection, one of the biggest motivators I’ve had for my liberal and left-leaning beliefs has been a sense of empathy and compassion for those in need. But in this moment where I’m questioning the motives of myself and others, I have to ask:

What have I believed because it was true or good… and what have I believed because someone hijacked my empathy?

It sounds like a bizarre question, and I don’t like asking it. I don’t like considering the possibility that someone manipulated me into believing something or supporting something that I otherwise wouldn’t have – even unintentionally, even if the goal or belief itself is noble. I don’t like the idea that I’ve been manipulated to ignore toxic people and ideas on the left, or label any uncomfortable realities as toxic only because the current available solutions to those realities are toxic solutions.

I don’t like being manipulated. I don’t like being lied to, exploited, or influenced to do something I wouldn’t normally do. I don’t know if any of those things have happened during my time on the political left (or currently, for that matter), but if they have, that’s unacceptable – and it’s a possibility I can’t ignore.

A Turn Inward

“Okay, you’re wondering how many of your previous beliefs were your own rather than being influenced into having them, what are you going to do about it? You already said you recently became a political independent, what else are you going to do?”

I’m making an intentional decision to turn inward, and focus on myself for the foreseeable future.

There are a lot of problems in society, and problems in the world. Problems that haven’t been solved because they require complex solutions, or the cooperation of large numbers of people who wouldn’t normally cooperate. Meanwhile, I’ve got my own set of personal problems, faults, weaknesses, and obstacles towards making the world look more like I would like it to look.

How am I supposed to solve the world’s problems, when I can’t even solve my own?

I’m going to focus on understanding myself, and improving my competency as a human being. I’m going to focus on understanding my motivations, my goals, my desires, and my overall psychology. I’m going to focus on improving my skills, improving my health, improving my thinking/decision-making, and improving my overall quality of life as a human being. I’m going to ask “What would it look like if I got everything I need, everything I want, and everything that would be good for me?”

In short, I’m going to be selfish (at least more than I consciously was).

However, as they say: no man is an island. It’s hard to ask what you want for yourself without also stating what you want for the world. It’s hard to understand yourself as a human without understanding humans in general. So I’m also focused on increasing my knowledge about reality, about humans, about society, and about the world at large.

While doing this, I’m prioritizing psychological health over ideological purity, and prioritizing knowledge about reality over social approval. If someone tells me that it’s unacceptable to have a certain belief, then that’s the belief I need to explore. If someone tells me that listening to a toxic person will make me toxic, I’m going to listen to them regardless. If someone tells me that reading a certain book will make me an evil person, then that’s the book I need to read.

In short, becoming a better man is the priority. Everything else is secondary. Any distractions from my own improvement are unacceptable, as are any obstacles to getting the knowledge and perspective that I need.

“Okay, so you’re becoming a better man, but whose side are you on? Are you on my side? Are you on the side of the people who hate me?”

None of the above. I’m on my side.

“You can’t stay neutral on a moving train!”

I’m aware of that. I’m trying to figure out 1. How do I make myself the best train-mover possible? 2. Why is the train moving in the direction it’s going? 3. Where do I want the train to move instead?

Regardless, even as I explore new ideas and taboo ideologies, there is one belief that I doubt is going to change: my belief in the importance of preventing human extinction. It should go without saying that you can’t improve your life if you’re dead, you can’t improve your family’s lives if they are dead, and you can’t improve your society’s political situation if your society no longer exists.

I say that, knowing full well that it’s not enough to just want to avoid complete disaster. When the bar is that low, any outcome is acceptable, even extremely negative futures.

With that in mind, if I wish to avert disasters, I must be capable of averting disasters. If I wish to fix the problems outside of myself, I must fix any and all problems within myself. If I want to believe the best (or least flawed) ideas, I need to be aware of the full spectrum of ideas, and why people support them.

But first: I need to bring home the bacon for myself.