Tribalism: Definition, Examples, and What Makes Someone a Free Thinker


Do you do your thinking in house or do you outsource it to other people? I used to outsource my thoughts. I let other people think for me. That was a mistake. So I took back control of my mind. I became a free thinker.

A free thinker is committed to knowing and understanding what’s true. Free thinkers don’t accept or reject claims without looking into the reasons behind them. They recognize the biases that affect human thinking, including their own. They withhold judgment until they look into the reasons both for and against a claim, and if those reasons aren’t enough to convince them either way, they continue to withhold judgment. 

My journey to become a free thinker started with the 2020 US presidential election. 

I spent a lot of time speculating how the Presidential election would end. I followed the coverage on CNN, National Public Radio, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and had countless political talks with friends and family.

Every outlet that I watched made me believe that everyone in the US was thinking the same thing: Biden was going to win in a landslide. 

In the end, the election results were close to 50/50. I was wrong, and apparently the media sources I was listening to were wrong as well.

What happened? 

Enter the Tribal Echo Chamber

The fact is, I was accepting what the media sources were telling me because I wanted their narrative to be true. I wanted to believe that most people were feeling the same frustration about the last four years that I was. The liberal media sources I was listening to were telling me what I wanted to hear. 

By listening to the same pundits again and again, I was stepping into an echo chamber of liberal beliefs like my own. The same biased messages that I already accepted were being played on repeat. 

Spending time in that echo chamber intensified my beliefs and my loyalty to the liberal tribe. Humans are social animals. When we belong to a tribe, our interactions with other tribe members make us feel good—they give us a dopamine hit. That dopamine hit keeps us coming back to our tribe for more—like crack addicts—and makes us cling ever more tightly to it. 

Every Tribe Needs a Villain 

One activity that gives tribe members a dopamine hit is bashing people from opposing tribes. Every tribe needs a villain to build unity within the tribe, and the tribe builds this unity by passing judgments on how other tribes look, or talk, or think. 

Members of my tribe were no different. We vilified conservatives. We constantly used terms like ‘racist,’ ‘xenophobic’ and ‘homophobic’ to describe their views. The liberal media sources regularly mocked their main conservative rival: Fox News. The Daily Show, for instance, would take short clips from Fox News out of context and spin them to make conservatives look foolish. 

The net effect was that I came to feel more and more as if conservative Americans were mindless, bigoted monsters serving an evil empire that was seeking to eliminate liberals and destroy the country. Hearing this message again and again had me feeling anxious, angry, and helpless.  

Almost by accident, I decided to watch Fox News’ coverage of the election. When I watched clips in their long form, not taken out of context for shock value, I found Fox’s coverage to be fair. Were they conservative? Yeah. But fair. 

In hindsight, I can see what was going on. CNN and Fox News weren’t trying to report the news in a fair way, and they weren’t trying to address American viewers as a whole. They were trying to address their specific viewership to build viewer loyalty and tribal solidarity. 

Both sides of the media turned their own side into a hero and the opposing side into a villain. Each made it seem like members of the other tribe didn’t have any values worth considering, and both were making members of the opposing tribe look like mindless monsters. 

Every Villain is a Human Dehumanized

There’s a word for what the media was doing to members of opposing tribes: they were dehumanizing them. Human tribes have been dividing themselves from each other for thousands of years based on race, religion, ethnicity, politics, economics, and many other things. One tribe labels the other as inferior or evil, and treats members of other tribes as if they are not entitled to the same care, concern or respect that is owed to members of their own tribe. 

We’re all familiar with the extreme forms that tribalism can take—white supremacy, anti-Semitism, ethnic cleansing, religious or political mistreatment. The foundation of any tribalism is dehumanization, and we’re right to get upset by it. 

The thing is, the more I stepped out of my liberal echo chamber to listen to opposing views, the more I came to realize that the liberal media I was so fond of listening to was doing the same thing. It was dehumanizing other people—conservatives in particular. And it wasn’t just the media, I was dehumanizing conservatives too. 

My Tribe versus My Values 

I began to inspect my value system. I realized that what I was doing with my tribe was opposed to one of my values—a very important value. In fact, it is one of the things that defines me as a person—a non-negotiable part of how I approach the entire world: respect for other people. I don’t care who they are: conservative, liberal, rich, poor, men, women, straight, gay, white, black, or brown. It doesn’t matter. We’re all human beings, and we all deserve respect. 

Dehumanizing others was incompatible with respecting them. I was failing to live up to one of my core values. My tribal loyalty was putting me at odds with those values. Belonging to the tribe created in me expectations that I would think and act the way other tribe members did. When I reflected on it, I realized that those ways of thinking and acting were at odds with who I really am, that I was pretending to be someone I’m not, that I was thinking and acting like someone who’s fine dehumanizing other people. But that’s not who I am.

I could see only one way of realigning what I was doing with my core values: I had to leave my liberal tribe. But I wasn’t going to leave it simply to join some other tribe. The problem wasn’t specifically liberal. The problem was tribal. Tribal identity is built on a dehumanizing foundation. I don’t want to dehumanize other people, and that means I don’t want to belong to any tribe.

The alternative to tribalism is free thinking.

What Makes Someone a Free Thinker

For the tribe members, belonging to the tribe beats truth. They accept popular tribal answers and get persuaded easily by tribal authority—whether their parents, teachers, religion, government, or general tribal feeling.

Being a free thinker is the opposite of that. Free thinkers value truth over tribe. They strive to see things as they are instead of through the lens of tribal opinion. They seek to examine things independent from the influence of bias, authority, or popular opinion—hence the “free” in “free thinking.” 

Being a free thinker is not easy. It means you can’t let your mind be on autopilot, carried along by popular opinion or authority. Free thinkers examine claims on a case-by-case basis without regard for who says them. They try to answer the question, “Is this claim true?” not “Who says this claim is true?” They ask about the reasons for accepting a claim and also the reasons for rejecting it. If neither of those reasons is decisive, they withhold judgment: they neither reject the claim nor accept it, but wait for better reasons to come forward.

Aristotle said, “It is a mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” More often than not, this describes the position of a free thinker. The free thinker is in no hurry to judge claims (and isn’t interested in judging people). A free thinker listens to the proof from both sides about the claim, and reserves judgment until the proof is clear.

I came to the conclusion that I am not built for a tribe and I respect all humans. I am not seeking consensus, I am seeking truth.

9 thoughts on “Tribalism: Definition, Examples, and What Makes Someone a Free Thinker”

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