We may not owe our descent into tribalism to “Survivor,” but the once-outlandish “reality” show that pits tribe against tribe and puts individuals’ loyalty constantly to the test seems disturbingly close to our current state of affairs. While humans have always been intent on aligning themselves with and against one another, these days our tribal loyalties have come to dominate virtually every position we take.
Carey Smith | Founding Contrarian
What is it that makes people so determined to take sides? It can only be that it’s easier than thinking for ourselves, because humans are nothing if not lazy.
But the inherent dangers of taking sides are obvious. Most recently we’ve seen that reinforced with the investigation into the origins of COVID-19. Anyone who was paying attention could smell a rat in last year’s “consensus” that the virus could not have originated in a Wuhan lab, and that anyone who believed it did was a conspiracy theorist. A letter published in the medical journal The Lancet early last year made that clear categorically, yet now we all know — even though the news was reported last fall — that the rat was the person who drafted that letter, the CEO of the EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit that funds research at the Wuhan lab. Did he really think that the “origins” of his convictions would never be exposed?
Of course the guy went to great pains to cover his tracks by enlisting other members of the “scientific community” to sign on to the letter, but at least a few sharper tacks thought: Not so fast. They examined the evidence for themselves and came to a different conclusion: That the virus’ behavior indicated it almost certainly came from the lab. Alina Chan, a molecular biologist who works at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, was one who persisted, determined to try to solve the puzzle, despite the fact that she risked committing career suicide. It was a time, according to one article, when “either you insisted that any questions about lab involvement were absurd, or you were a tool of the Trump administration.”
Either you’re with us or you’re against us, and if you’re against us, that means you’re stupid. There’s nothing new about this line of thinking: “Which Side Are You On, Boys” was a song written in 1931 but its title is timeless. People always want to think they’re smarter than the next guy, or at least better educated. Dr. Seuss tackled this human characteristic with the Sneetches, creatures who hoped to show themselves superior by slapping stars on their stomachs. It’s a damaging trait, especially when it interferes with getting to the truth.
And yet it fascinates me how so many people are willing to choose to believe a lie rather than question it, as Dr. Chan did, because their “tribe” supports the lie, and they want to belong. It seems everybody wants the approval of the tribal council. We see this play out regularly in the business world, most recently with the whole Basecamp brouhaha that led to a significant number of employees accepting buyouts.
Part of Basecamp’s problem, as I see it, is that everyone there works remotely. There’s no face-to-face, in-person contact. When I owned the fan company, we always went out of our way to bring people together, especially people from different departments and backgrounds. It made the workplace more cohesive, because when people get to know one another, it becomes harder to stereotype anyone. We all worked together, and yes, I liked to think of us as a tribe. But it was a tribe dedicated to ensuring that everybody got ahead. All for one and one for all.
And we hardly ever made anyone leave the island.