Mid-February saw both an unseasonably sunny Prague and half a thousand students and scholars gathered for the first Ayn Rand conference ever held in Europe. While I’ve never been particularly invested in Rand’s work or philosophy (I only managed to get about halfway through The Fountainhead), the theme of the conference intrigued me: individualism in the age of tribalism.
Objectivist or not, this is a discussion that is undoubtedly significant in today’s climate. It’s a topic I’ve written on before, and countless other commentators and analysts are constantly raising the issue of free speech, censorship, and political polarisation. The challenge of promoting individual thought and action in an age quickly becoming defined by groupthink is quickly becoming the great question of our generation.
Of all the lectures and panels I attended at the conference, however, there was a single argument that stuck with me throughout. In his talk on tribalism in Europe, Prof. Nikos Sotirakopoulos effectively summarised the keystone of all tribalist thought in a single mantra, which he claimed to be popular amongst football hooligans:
“For those who understand, no explanation is necessary. For those who don’t, no explanation is possible.”
This really struck a chord with me. While simple, this mantra captures the very essence of the irrationality of tribalism.
Indeed, to return to the point raised by Dr. Sotirakopoulos, how else could one explain the behaviour of hooligans? How can we rationally explain why so many ultras and hardcore fans are willing to fight (sometimes to the death) over the colour of a jersey?
Some may attribute this to a simple mob-mentality, brought about in the heat of the moment of football game. This may be a fairly accurate observation in some cases, but doesn’t explain why some hooligans, such as the infamous Russian ‘Ultras’, are willing to attend crude ‘training camps’ to prepare for fights with fans of rival teams.
The kind of passionate, ride-and-die mentality that underpins this die-hard hooliganism, ultimately, is without rhyme or reason. So, too, are other forms of tribalism. Rationally, how can we understand why people are willing to kill and be killed in the name of a country? Or hate another for the colour of their skin? Or any of the countless other examples of the terrible things people do when we lose touch with our individuality?
I’ve written before about how the individual can easily be manipulated by authority and the mob-mentality, replacing their own personal morality and direction with those of the tribe. This, of course, holds as true now as it did when I wrote it six months ago. One thing I missed out, however, is what can begin this whole process of tribalisation: the theft of reason.
As humans, we are all capable of free will and free thought. We can choose the paths we want to follow, the opinions we want to promote, and, yes, the tribes we want to be associated with. We are free to join whatever societies, clubs, movements, or ideologies we feel align with our beliefs and goals. It is only when the goals and ideologies of these movement fully replace our own, and we begin to lose our grip on what we, as individuals, want from life, that voluntary association becomes tribalism.
This is where that mantra becomes so true. Once we sacrifice our capacity for reason and individual free thought, there ceases to be any real logic behind our actions. We can’t offer an explanation for our beliefs or actions, nor do we expect one ourselves.
The first step to all the ugly forms of tribalism, be it racism, sexism, homophobia, or hooliganism, begin with the rejection of our ability to think for ourselves. For individualism to survive in an age of tribalism, all that’s needed is for us to cling onto our capacity for reason.
We have more access to information than ever before. Let’s not waste that by blindly believing other people.