Saturday, May 21, 2011

Partisan Thinking, Tribalism, and Freedom

When people watch politics, it is very easy and very human to become attached to one side or the other. When this happens, there is a temptation and tendency to hold arguments and people on the "other side" to higher standards and conversely, a temptation and a tendency to hold arguments and people on "your side" to lower standards. This is a very tribal outlook, but it is also a fundamental human tendency. Indeed, the tribalism itself is evident in the tendency to look for "defectors" in one's tribe that need to be punished. Defectors are those who claim tribal affiliation, but hold one or more unorthodox beliefs. Unfortunately, this is not a very good way at arriving at the truth. Indeed, with tribal partisanship, it is not unusual for positions on what the "right policy" is to evolve for no other reason than tribal self-interest as opposed to more legitimate reasons such as the discovery of additional data or deeper thinking.

I am not saying that in modern politics that both sides are equally right. The solution to the very real problem of partisan tribalism isn't a superficial equivalency that all parties in all situations are equally right. Indeed, that sort of superficial thinking would be every bit as flawed intellectually and nearly as problematic practically as the problem of partisan tribalism itself.

There are no easy answers here. Tribal thinking, to some degree, is simply effective. Under both democracy and other forms of government, a group that can hold itself together will have a tendency to have some advantages over groups that cannot. But therein lies the problem. If tribalism is effective in this sense, the more important question and issue is, effective to what end? The problem with tribalism is that it so distorts the underlying thought process that the goals that one's tribe becomes "effective" at accomplishing are not necessarily good. Also, and most perniciously, tribalism limits an individual's ability to think independently and in a truly free manner.

We say we live in a free country. But the truth is, many of our minds are not free due to partisan tribalism. In our country, many of the people who talk about individual freedom are not truly free themselves.

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