Tribalism has Destroyed the Movement for Big Ideas and Truth
Being truly committed to free and independent thinking is difficult, but necessary
Today’s essay is inspired by the recent article All About Dave by Ross Anderson, published in Quillette on 15 December 2022. The article traces the career of online commentator Dave Rubin, who once identified himself as a classical liberal fighting against the ‘regressive Left’, but seems to identify more as a conservative nowadays. The article goes through the ways that Rubin has disappointed many of us, in the way he has changed in the past few years. However, I think the phenomenon is broader than one commentator. This is why I think it’s important that we look at the broader picture here.
Let’s start with the ‘Rubin Report Rules’, announced by Rubin himself back in 2015. They included stuff like ‘I won’t be a partisan hack’, ‘I will consistently stand for liberal values’, ‘We’re gonna talk about big ideas here’, and most importantly, ‘I will not always live up to these rules but I will try’. Fast forward to today, and I don’t think Rubin has lived up to these rules, or is still trying his best to do so. Anderson agrees with me here. He seems to think that the main problem here is audience capture. ‘The Rubin Report Rules never stood a chance… All that matters is the never-ending quest for maximum engagement. His formerly professed values were just baggage so he threw them overboard,’ is the way Anderson described it in the article. While I think that there might be some truth to this, I also think there are bigger forces at play here, that are more important.
Think about it this way: even if Rubin’s shift is due to audience capture, it logically has to be reflecting a collective shift in his audience. The other thing is, Rubin is far from the only person who stood for classical liberal values and free speech five years ago, who has turned out this way. Indeed, it seems that among the freedom fighters from five years ago, those of us who are still sticking to our principles are now in the minority. About five to seven years ago, there was a lot of energy around the idea that we should seriously explore and debate big ideas, that nothing should be taboo, and more good faith debate can only lead us closer to the truth. It really felt like a classical liberal revival was in the air, with irrational postmodernist forces being the only thing that could stand in our way. The aforementioned ‘Rubin Report Rules’ really made sense in this climate. Indeed, many ‘free speech’ commentators lived by similar ‘rules’, whether they spelt it out or not.
Yet, by 2020, this energy seems to have receded, and after the 2020 US Elections, I haven’t even seen a hint of this optimism anywhere in (relatively) mainstream media. Nowadays, everywhere you look, there is negativity, us-vs-them sentiments, moral panics, and more negativity. The thing is, when one embraces negativity and fear, classical liberal values no longer make that much sense. They could even be seen as showing weakness towards the enemy. In a way, the shift in Dave Rubin’s work is representative of the broader shift that has occurred throughout the Western world. The summer of optimism for big ideas has given way to a harsh and bitter winter.
So why has this happened? I think, unfortunately, the answer is that too many people have fallen for something that I consider to be the root of most of the evil in this world: something we can broadly call tribalism. Anderson said in the article, ‘Rubin is in no meaningful sense a conservative’, and I agree with him. Unfortunately, Rubin is far from alone. From what I see, many ‘conservatives’ out there are not conservative in any meaningful sense, and many progressives out there are not ‘progressive’ either, except as an identity label. Tribalism has destroyed meaning, and created fear of the unfamiliar in its place. As a result, too many people adhere to dogma that they probably know is wrong (or at least questionable) in their hearts, just to demonstrate loyalty to their tribe. For these people, nothing matters, except being part of their tribe. I think this is very dangerous. I mean, major errors have been made, minorities have been persecuted, wars have been started, and people have been killed, all because of this kind of tribalism.
So where do we, who believe in the value of free exploration, good faith debate, and commitment to truth, go now? Firstly, we need to defend our reputation. Given our opposition to postmodern critical theory (on liberal, not reactionary grounds), we have been strongly associated with the anti-woke movement. In recent years, parts of the anti-woke movement have entered a de-facto coalition with elements of the reactionary Right that clearly have racist, anti-LGBT and/or anti-democratic agendas. This has led to postmodernists claiming that they were correct that ‘we’ were right-wingers masquerading as freedom fighters all along. The fact is that, there is no ‘we’ here. There’s those of us who are dedicated to free and independent thinking, there are those who have chosen to join one tribe or another, and the two paths are mutually exclusive. We need to clear things up, and defend the reputation of the true believers. To do this, we need to clearly dissociate from, and call out, those who are bigoted and/or authoritarian. Basically, we need to take the opposite approach to what people like Dave Rubin have been doing.
And then, we need to truly embrace free and independent thinking. We need to build a coalition not on the basis of agreement, but on the basis of being able to agree to disagree, and defending each other’s ability to disagree. Because being able to disagree is the only way we can really start to explore where the truth is, and eventually get closer to it. Agreement that comes from tribalist peer pressure leads to error, irrationality, and war. It is therefore the kind of agreement that we would rather not have. Instead, we should be patient enough for the eventual agreement that comes as a result of the thorough understanding of the truth, and agree to disagree for the time being. To agree to disagree for now means to accept the imperfection of our understanding of the world, but it is still way better than to pretend that we know everything on the basis of tribalist peer pressure, and steer our ship straight towards disaster.
Originally published at https://taraella.substack.com on December 26, 2022.
TaraElla is a singer-songwriter and author, who recently published her autobiography The TaraElla Story, in which she described the events that inspired her writing.
She is also the author of The Trans Case Against Queer Theory.