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Virtual Tribalism Encourages Slave Mentality

At the heart of all tribal affiliation is a deep-seated need to vouchsafe one’s survival. It’s straightforward: you leverage the power of the group; safety in numbers.

The advent of large civilizations and millions of individuals ostensibly tied to the same ideology obscured the pragmatics of tribal affiliation. Still, prior to the industrial revolution, global coordination of resources was impossible. There remained a pragmatic rationale for groups to hoard resources in order to vouchsafe their survival.

We’re now living in a post-industrial landscape with coordinated global communications and vast surpluses of resources. Practically speaking, we can leverage our technology toward an equitable, cosmopolitan world that doesn’t discriminate between different tribal and ethnic groups.

But the exact opposite is happening. We engage in a virtual tribalism which downplays the pragmatic nature of forming human connections and prioritizes the sentimental, idealistic glue, the underlying mythos of group identity.

So why are identity politics so prevalent? Why are we are taught to have strong emotional and tribal affiliations with millions of others we may never actually meet? Our politics are riddled with paranoia about gender, race, and religion.

We can find a clue in the one identity we’re forbidden from fetishizing: whiteness.

Sure, there are extremists who explicitly promote their demented white pride, professing a genetic-spiritual connection to the successes of western civilization. And the increasing minority populations in America has always motivated white anxiety.

But this is still far from the norm. In fact, most white people can barely even fathom their own ethnic and social history and feel uncomfortable promoting it. As a WASPy, Connecticut-bred pal once said to me: “I feel like I have no culture.”

He should see that as a sign he’s one of the lucky ones. An identity that has established dominance, insulated from both state and social violence, has nothing to gain from a sentimental attachment to identity. Their mythology reflects the values of the ruling class, and, as such, is indistinguishable from the institutional and state ideology which gives them power.

Since group identity is so intimately tied to survival, it’s often bolstered and weaponized when a group comes under attack, feels like they may be under attack, or even just feels like they could be attacked at some vague point in the future. This is why it seems so ludicrous and taboo to promote white pride. Whitness is perhaps the most vague, abstract tribal affiliation ever — its existence and definition is necessarily tied to domination over disempowered groups.

My friend’s Jewish grandmother would implore her grandson to identify as a Jew because “if they come for us again, Israel will save us.” And even though whiteness IS the ethnicity for enslavers and colonizers, white pride and anxiety will be deployed as a reason for poor whites to conjure an enemy that ISN’T a corporate oligarch.

In a post-industrial landscape, tribalism encourages a slave mentality, negatively defined as a response to oppression. It often serves the interests of the oppressors as it obscures structural inequalities and the gravy train of resources being funneled to the top of the corporate ladder.

The way out of this enslaved mentality isn’t to pretend that tribal groupings don’t exist and it’s all about “merit” or “hard work” or other bullshit tied to capitlism and the American Dream. There’s no global human immune from the allure of tribal thinking and there probably never will be. We need to encourage more cosmopolitan and egalitarian thinking WITHIN these groups, to recognize the value in their identity and history, while refusing to weaponize that same identity and history in the service of the overall system.