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Owning Yourself

Entry 1996, on 2019-08-20 at 13:27:20 (Rating 3, Philosophy)

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself. This is a quote from German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, and it's one I particularly identify with.

The word "tribe", I think, is especially significant there, because modern politics seems to have devolved into a morass of tribalism which is difficult to resist. Many people don't seem to have put much thought into their core beliefs, but instead rely on which "team" they most identify with. And they seem to have picked the issues which most concern them, and their perspective on those issues, based on what their tribe deems important rather than any rational reasoning.

People join tribes for various reasons. Sometimes it is tradition. A certain family, group, nationality, or culture might have been consistently associated with a particular political party, organisation, or other group in the past and that just naturally extends into the future. At other times it is a result of a particular current circumstance. For example, a person might spend some time studying at a university and be captured by the particular views which tend to be most prevalent there. In fact, that seems to be an unusually strong factor today.

I know that belonging to a tribe is a difficult compulsion to resist. When you are in a group, and your attitudes and actions are being praised and reinforced by that group, there is a distinct feeling of belonging and comfort which results. But to me, there is also a sense that I have given something up, that I am being dishonest or intellectually lazy, that I am taking the easy rather than the authentic route. Or, as Nietzsche might say, I no longer own myself.

So, while I am naturally a progressive liberal, I have severely criticised the more extreme beliefs inherent in that view, and have seen a lot of merit in more conservative philosophical perspectives recently. But at the same time I have criticised people in the conservative tribe too, despite being tempted by the sense of inclusion I might get from being part of it. I always feel "dirty" when I agree with people in any group when under the surface I know that it's not really the way I feel.

Of course, this means my views are unpopular with every tribe, but Nietzsche did warn us about being "lonely often, and sometimes frightened" but he is also right in recognising the value of the "privilege of owning yourself".

For me, this phenomenon most often manifests itself in on-line discussions and debates, but it happens to me a lot in "real life" as well. For example, I refuse to "toe the company line" and often criticise the institutions I am most part of. But why wouldn't I? I would day it's everyone's duty to portray all situations realistically and honestly. Again, if I tried to communicate an official policy or stance I didn't believe in myself I would not feel authentic, and would be likely to end the statement with a facetious comment, like "meanwhile, in the real word, here's what's really happening".

Of course, tribes are a way people are controlled and manipulated, so it is often not surprising that there are numerous controls in place trying to "keep people in line". So, significant resistance to escaping from the tribal influence should be expected, both from the rulers and influencers of the tribe, but also more covertly but probably more effectively by other members who often consider it a duty to maintain a consistent path for all the members.

In fact, there seems to be a greater level of opprobrium from people within the group towards people who fail to act according to the established standards. Criticism from opposing groups exists, but that is just considered part of the game. It's sort of like the greater harm a a soldier suddenly turning against his own side can inflict. That person is probably more feared, and dealt with more harshly, than the enemy.

The other aspect of this need for inclusivity is hero worship. People like to have well established leaders and enemies, and they tend to look at those roles simplistically. It is superficially (because everything about this sort of attitude is superficial) comforting to listen to certain tribal leaders and accept everything they say as truthful or meaningful, while completely rejecting opposing views.

I have some people who I find interesting and who often represent my views quite well, but I try to avoid thinking of them as "heroes", and I certainly don't agree with anything anyone says, just like I don't completely disagree with anyone whose general philosophy is contrary to mine. So the people who I enjoy listening to: Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, Eric Weinstein, Joe Rogan, etc (notice the diversity of backgrounds and views there, although are they all members of the "Intellectual Dark Web"?) are interesting, but there are plenty of times I disagree with them.

Before I came to this revelatory attitude I was more tribal and I remember becoming quite annoyed and indignant when I came across views which didn't fit my preferred narrative. So, if anyone pointed out that the true situation was more complex than what I admitted, and that the side I saw as the bad actors did have considerable good on their side as well, I would have felt cornered. Now I say "there are good arguments on both sides, but I think on balance this side has more merit" (this might have arisen from a discussion about Palestine versus Israel, for example).

And if anyone had criticised one of my "heroes" I would have felt attacked and reacted accordingly, even if the person had a good point. Now I just say "yes, I do think a lot of what that person says is poorly supported by actual facts, but his underlying philosophy is interesting and I think there are components of that which are factual and worth considering" (I might say this about Peterson, for example).

When I see people act aggressively when I enter a simple debate with them I now think it has a lot to do with this. I make points which disagree with the attitude they have acquired through their tribe, and they know I'm right - or at least have an argument with some merit - and react to defend their tribe. It's actually a quite common and obvious phenomenon when you know what to look for.

Maybe the most egregious example of this voluntary intellectual slavery is in religion. It is like the ultimate form of surrendering your individuality to an ideal, and of engaging in unconditional hero worship. After all, worshipping a god is a far more obvious example of that than idolising any mere human. And the rituals and rules of a religion are the most stultifying to any expression of individuality. The fact that some religions actually celebrate the metaphor of their followers as being sheep is quite revealing.

Maybe that's why I find religion such a disquieting concept: the fact that it can be so comforting because it offers easy answers and the freedom from having to think too much is great for many people, but it also involves effectively selling your soul. To be fair, these factors vary a lot from one religion to another, so my criticism here shouldn't be seen as too universal.

But there are certain religious groups who really do take this to extremes. And that might be why those people, like the politically motivated activists I mentioned above, also become quite aggressive when their ideas are challenged.

But rather than despising them for being weak or naive, I sort of feel sorry for them. They might think they got to where they are through careful thought, but they are just slaves of the tribe, they have failed to pay the price for the privilege of owning themselves.

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