Refined Tribalism Will Destroy Us

Fox News

Dental hygiene among Paleolithic people was, all things considered, pretty good. This came as a surprise to the first archaeologists who studied it. But it soon became clear that the issue was that our teeth had evolved for the kind of diet we had. With the rise of agriculture and especially more recently with processed foods and refined sugar, we reached a point that we were doing things to our teeth that they just weren’t designed for.

I think we are seeing this with our media diet. Fox News is a particularly good example because they have managed to refine their product better than anyone else. I’m very interested in the way that it is able to finetune the worst aspects of tribalism.

There are important and good aspects of our tribal nature. But a little tribalism goes a long way. And it’s hardly necessary for Americans to subdivide themselves — especially when many claim that they are the only “true Americans.”

Our Interests

For a long time, I’ve pushed back on the idea that many white Americans “vote against their interests.” My (and many others’) argument is that we shouldn’t define a person’s interest in selfish economic terms. By such terms, I vote against my own interests all the time.

I now see this as a limited argument, however. Far too many people are made to be confused about their interests. Yes, I fully admit that for insecure white men, the rising status of women and people of color can be seen as catastrophic.

But is it? In a more hopeful world, would their feelings of worth really be determined by Marvel only publishing comic books with white male superheroes — all other characters relegated to villains and bystanders?

I’m constantly shocked at the insecurity of those around me who are ostensively powerful but who require constant reassurance. I’ve noticed this about patriotic displays at sports events and the hysterical anger at the use of “Happy Holidays.” If you are secure in your patriotism, why the need for others to demonstrate it? If you know Jesus is the savior, why the need for Target clerks to reinforce it?

But outlets like Fox News have found that it isn’t profitable to tell these people they are doing fine (which is true). Instead, they stoke resentment and fear.

Trump Is Always Right

One of the most remarkable things during the Trump presidency is how nothing bad about him ever makes its way to his supporters except as an example of the “fake news” that is being unfairly reported by radical leftists at The Washington Post. And when talking to Trump supporters, you hear a never-ending stream of Fox News-approved talking points.

There is certainly some of this on the left. But it is limited by the fact that liberals and leftists still exists in the fact-based world. It’s really amazing that online conservatives like Jordan Peterson spend so much time complaining about the left’s “postmodernism” and “relativism,” yet it is the right in this country that has completely abandoned the concept of absolute reality.

And I don’t think this would be the case without Fox News and related media. Most people think that there is something like absolute reality. Even the Fox News viewers who act like cultists believe in it outside of politics. And why? Because that is the default belief. It is only the constant assault of propaganda that allows them to abandon it in politics.

Problems on the Left


Where this manifests most profoundly on the left is in internecine conflicts. What I have in mind is the Democratic primary. I’ve seen a lot of people who only get information about candidates they don’t support from supporters of the candidate they do.

I first noticed this with myself regarding Kamala Harris. I kept hearing the same three talking points about her. They weren’t good, but they always weren’t terrible. Eventually, I started to think that if these were the worst things about her, she probably wasn’t that bad. So I did some research and I learned that they were largely true. There was more nuance to issues. But while I still found them negatives, they weren’t disqualifying.

This comes most from Bernie Sanders supporters, but only because they are more organized. I sometimes think if Sanders got a hangnail, his supporters would get #BernieNailCare trending. The problem is with everyone.

On the other side, people are hysterical in their hatred of Sanders. I’m not keen on some things that Sanders has done. But again, are they disqualifying? No. I never thought so little of Hillary Clinton as when she wouldn’t commit to supporting Sanders if he were the nominee.

Narratives and Facts

And it’s all the same thing. The only information that gets through to Sanders haters are things that make him look bad. And I am tired of hearing people tell me they get the full picture but these bad things just really matter. That’s just having a particular narrative and dismissing everything that runs counter to it as “unimportant.”

I first saw this tendency among Clinton supporters against Sanders in 2016. Then I saw it from Sanders supporters against Clinton in 2016. Most recently, I’ve seen it from Sanders and Harris supporters against Warren.

How do I know this is happening? Because these people only ever talk about these opponents when they have something bad to share. I’m constantly surprised to hear of a little-reported Warren gaff in a Twitter thread. But don’t worry: they know all about Warren; it’s just that only the bad things matter.

It’s as though each campaign has its own negative press secretary for the other campaigns. And their supporters think this constant stream of negativity represents who the other candidates are. And why not? It supports their narrative.

Refined Tribalism

Humans are not designed to deal with modern media that is designed to solidify tribes. Just as our teeth are harmed by the refined sugar in our food, our society is harmed by the refined tribalism of Fox News and social media.

And in this way, conservatives have the advantage. While the Democrats are fracturing, increasingly looking at a billionaire from New York to save us, the Republicans are as committed to Trump as ever.

But as long as [fill in your most hated Democratic opponent] doesn’t win, it’s all fine. Amiright?!

Twitter Image by David Ferreira; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. Fox News by Johnny Silvercloud. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

6 thoughts on “Refined Tribalism Will Destroy Us

  1. It’s too bad that Harris is out of the race, and I hope the eventual nominee considers her for VP. As opposed to somebody like (who the hell is) Tim Kaine. I liked Harris initially, and then fell to the “Kamala is a cop” critique. But my enthusiasm has recovered. I have always been a big Warren partisan. She seems to really get the issues and is so good at explaining them. The phrase “narcissism of small differences” could well have been invented for the Jacobin (among others) hit pieces slagging her in favor of Sanders. Love Bernie, but he’s too old to be President. Primary season, and this one in particular, is a banquet of bizarre statements from writers I ordinarily agree with. And, about Warren, does anybody besides Republican racists care about the DNA test thing? I keep hearing, when the press remembers she is in the race, that it will be a huge liability. But only, to my thinking, for people who would never vote for a Democrat anyway.

    • @ Lawrence — It’s interesting that many were slagging off Harris for being a former prosecutor (which, to a degree, is warranted, although one might counter-argue that somebody who knows our junky criminal law system from the inside might be most aware of its flaws). It’s never brought up about Klobuchar. Not that I’ve read. And she was in charge of the assault case against huge baseball star Kirby Puckett! That’s not a low-profile thing. You’d think that might come up, either casting her as a typical cop or a defender of attacked women, but it doesn’t.

      Part of that is just media falling for lazy narratives. Harris is black, so if she ran a prosecutor’s office, she’s a hypocrite. (Same thing they’ve done with Warren having been an Ivy League law professor, or Sanders writing a book that sold well. Look, they’re criticizing the rich, but they’re not poor!) Their favorite Klobuchar narrative was that she yelled at staff, because it’s not Midwestern nice! That gunk is easy to write and gets clicks — a 10,000 word piece on Bloomberg’s “stop and frisk” NYC policy is much tougher to write or read.

  2. “One of the most remarkable things during the Trump presidency is how nothing bad about him ever makes its way to his supporters except as an example of the “fake news” that is being unfairly reported by radical leftists at The Washington Post. And when talking to Trump supporters, you hear a never-ending stream of Fox News-approved talking points.”

    Just yesterday or the day before, I had someone tell me that you won’t hear this on any of the big media because they’re all biased, but “I’ve talked to Colonel Vindman’s superiors and coworkers and they all hate him for being super-partisan.” Literally saying you can’t believe whatever you’re reading, but you should trust someone on Facebook who tells you he knows the truth because of anonymous conversations. Conspiracy theories are an epistemological nightmare- how the hell do you talk about reality when anything that goes against their beliefs is dismissed as part of the conspiracy?

    • @ Jurgan — I remember, years ago, Dr. Noam expressing bewilderment that he got approached by a lot of conspiracy theorists. To me it seemed completely understandable — Chomsky’s whole point is that the media doesn’t highlight the whole truth. Now, the stuff he’s angry about the media underreporting isn’t any deep dark secret, it’s mostly US foreign policy buried on page A17 of the NYT. But once you accept the concept (which is demonstrably true), it becomes easier to think the media is underreporting everything.

      It’s a bit like how Officer Friendly would come to your grade school (at least one did to mine), and tell the kids that marijuana makes you a crazed drug fiend chewing your own arm off to escape handcuffs. The kids get older, and learn that the only thing stoners are in danger of chewing off is an entire bag of Doritos. Once you learn the lies about weed are complete horsepucky, you wonder if what you were told about other drugs is BS. And some isn’t, some of those drugs (including the legal ones, of course) can be quite dangerous.

      As you say, an epistemological nightmare. It’s a lot easier to go from “the Iraq war was all lies” to “the moon landing was faked” than many people realize.

      • There used to be left-wing conspiracy theorists who still held power accountable. (It helped that much of what they believed was correct.) Most conspiracy theories today are all about giving the powerful a pass. It’s funny that such weird logic is what brings down societies.

    • That’s a good point. You can never convince a conspiracy theorist because there is always enough entropy that you can justify keeping your opinion. What I think Fox News and hate radio did was create a conspiracy theory about how everyone who doesn’t agree with their fascist politics is really just trying to destroy America. Now it’s hopeless.

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