Tribalism and the Mid-term Elections

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Delray Beach, Florida.- Milo Yiannopoulos, the social critic and provocateur, gets into trouble with both the far right and the far left for mixing his intelligent insights and critiques of social and political movements with lowbrow humor.

He’s gotten into trouble; for example, by criticizing women celebrities for the way they look.

His vertical range of discourse is one thing I like about him. I like that he’s willing to be vulgar when he believes it can work. But I don’t believe his vulgarity enhances his public image. Nor do I think it’s impressive. When he goes low, I find myself wanting to coach him. Why not take a lesson from Bill Buckley? You can be witty and devastating at the same time if you challenge your higher brain.

I feel the same way about smart people who are rabid sports fans. I can appreciate the range of their experience and can accept their addiction, but I can’t say that I see it as a positive. I see it rather as a forgivable flaw.

Here’s what I want to say. (And this will offend probably 70% of the people that read this.) Being a sports fan is not something to feel proud of. It is an indulgence in one of the lowest aspects of emotional intelligence. It is an indulgence in tribalism and mindless bigotry. It is, like pornography, something best done in the privacy of one’s home.

The tribal mentality is one that rejects reason. It is groupthink that defines goodness by the team. It is the sort of thinking that supports the worst instincts of human social behavior. It is what evolution is meant to deselect. It is the lowest use of one’s brain.

Now I know whereof I speak. For a period of several years, I was a rabid fan of the Miami Heat. During that frenzied time there was nothing the Heat could do that I would think of criticizing. Every bucket they scored was a nod from God himself. Every foul they made was justified.

And every game they won gave me the sort of thrill I had experienced only through drugs. Every game they lost put me in a long state of despair.

I was mindless, fanatical, and irrationally attached to a billion-dollar franchise that cared nothing about me except for my lifetime value to them in dollars.

I have the fortune to be acquainted with many, many highly intelligent people. Among them, I would include most of the members of my family and most of my best friends. A minority of them, like me, is uncomfortable with tribal allegiance. But the rest of them root mindlessly for their teams without giving their behavior a second thought.

If this tribal mentality were confined to sports, it would be one sort of problem. But I find that the same mental illness affects them when it comes to politics. They have a team – Democrats or Republicans or one of the totally ineffectual splinter groups – and they support them unthinkingly to the bitter end.

This was glaringly evident during the mid-term elections. I talked to several of them, all very bright, and they told me that they voted strictly along party lines. They didn’t think they had to bother to actually understand their candidate’s platform. If he was wearing the right colors, that was enough for them.

I wake up every morning to a culture that is more divided than it has ever been in my living memory, with the possible exception of the late 1960s, during the Vietnam War. And what I think about it is this: Tribalism is scary. I had imagined we would be done with this sort of groupthink mentality. But that hasn’t happened. And one day, if things continue as they are, I will have to abandon the better parts of my brain and choose a side.