The Problem With Tribes

“I’m diabetic…[but] I don’t support it.” Patrice O’Neal – Elephant in the Room

One of my favourite questions is: “tell me about yourself”. It is one of the most intimate things you can ask someone.  How would you answer it? By leading with your job? Relationship status? Political leanings? Music you like? What about the food you eat? (only vegans do that – Ed) How one answers that question, particularly the order the information is shared, often reveals more about the person answering than they realise.

I ask, because the question forces people to identify their ‘tribes’, the groups that they invest their time in. For example, I’m a vegan (See – Ed).  I’d love to say that I became a vegan because I was an animal rights activist, but the truth is, as Shakespeare said, “man loves the meat in his youth that he can no longer stomach in his old age”. If I am totally honest, vegans used to annoy me, their proselytising ways too incendiary for my tastes. I was a vegan, but I didn’t support it.

When I was younger, I was a fan of Nas and R Kelly. I remember a fresh faced Chris Brown coming out and enjoying his music. I remember the first time I heard the comedy of Louis C.K. and being amazed at his ability to create comedy from mundane situations. The last couple of years have forced me to ask some new, painful questions.

What do you do when a group you align yourselves with fails you? What do you do when your heroes fall short? In short, what do you do when you realise your tribe is problematic?

Being part of a tribe is a lot of fun. More than fun, being part of a tribe can provide a sense of community and belonging that acts as a panacea to life’s problems. Consider the tweet below:

Tyler Joseph is the lead singer of Twenty One Pilots and the people I know that like their music, do so with fanatical zeal. What Joseph expresses about his music here, and Twitter user @hailey_exists response, is the Platonic ideal of what tribalism can be. The tribal leader did something positive, send out a message of encouragement, which profoundly affected one of the members and led to support and love. That is the positive side of tribalism.

This is the negative side:

An example of the type of feedback I got for my piece on Beyoncé



Some of my Instagram followers after I wrote about Beyoncé

As someone that writes about current affairs and pop culture, I spend a lot of time on social media, and people loudly signpost their tribes and will attack when they feel threatened. Take Beyoncé’s fans, the Beyhive. They are not a tribe that you want to upset. Apocryphally, they have ruined the careers of many that have criticised their “Queen Bey”. Whilst not all of her fans are, well, fanatical, the responses to my writing were a light example of the dark side of tribalism.

The death of XXXtentacion led to an outpouring of grief from his tribe. It also led to this:

x gf attack.png

For those of you that don’t know, XXXtentaction was a rapper who was murdered earlier this month. His followers have been loyal to him despite his violence towards women and a man that he suspected was gay. His fans tribalism led to them attacking his ex-girlfriend on social media, for ‘snitching’ on the rapper for abusing her. This is the dark side of tribalism, where fans will eternally forgive a tribal leader in spite of – or maybe because of – their controversy.

What would lead a person to log on to social media and attack a woman for talking about being abused? Or to justify the separating of parents and children for a misdemeanour? To quote Agent K from Men In Black, it’s because ‘A person is smart. People are dumb’. The beauty of a tribe is it gives a person a sense of community: the downside is that it can foster a pack mentality and an excuse for aberrant behaviour. We live in a time where people are venerated for their words, even if they don’t match their actions. We also live in a time where it feels impossible to get everyone to agree that 2+2  equals 4. Perhaps we should spend less time pointing out the problems with other tribes and sort out our own. Tell you what, I’ll sort out my tribe. Feel free to use my open letter below as a template.

Dear vegans:

We don’t eat food made from animal products. Some of us don’t because we’re animal activists; others because we’re trying to lose weight and others because our bodies reject meat and dairy. All of these are fine things. What is not fine is being insufferably smug and acting as if we are the highest form of evolved beings on the planet. We’re not. We need to stop telling people what to eat. No one likes being told what to do and it feels like we have cornered the market on proselytising when it comes to what’s on people’s plates. Spend all the extra energy we claim to have on talking less and listening more. Or come up with tasty, quick and cheap meals that people can eat that doesn’t require them to go to 16 different shops. Oh and stop talking about things like kombucha and cacao nibs as if they will cure every ill. Because one thing they are completely ineffective in treating is smugness.

Yours in love

One of the tribe



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