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Modern tribes

I sometimes think it must be nice to belong to a tribe, a group, a class or a subculture.  To have your people, your gang and to enjoy that shared sense of identity and solidarity that goes with such affiliations.

But I’ve never really known that pleasure. I’m always out of step with social trends and out of sync with the zeitgeist. In the 1960s I was too young to be a proper hippie and in the 1970s I was too old to be a punk. Though born a Jew I’m not really Jew-ish. I’m too much of a bohemian to be really middle-class and too middle-class to be a real bohemian.

And when it comes to belonging to a political tribe, I don’t quite fit in anywhere. My left-wing friends think I’m too right-wing – and my right-wing friends think I’m too much of a leftie. I’m definitely too un-woke for the woke and not anti-woke enough for the anti-woke.

So what am I? I guess I belong to the tribe of the tribe-less, people who don’t quite fit in anywhere. We have a life, but not a label; a point of view but not a position to promote or defend. I say this not to show off that I’m an individual thinker in an age of tribal conformity. No! On the contrary, I’m an eclectic mess; a reluctant relativist who, when faced by the great social questions of our age shrugs his shoulders and says: Duh, I-dunno!

I can appreciate the appeal of tribalism for it answers two of the most important questions of life: Who am I? And where do I belong? The Jew says I’m a Jew; the libertarian says I’m a libertarian, the social justice warrior says I’m an SJW and so on. So what do I say? I say: Umm… I’m just Me.

I belong to the tribe of the tribe-less, people who don’t quite fit in anywhere

But Me doesn’t have much social or cultural value anymore. In our age of identity politics being just Me doesn’t get you invited to conferences, public debates or get you book deals with publishers and columns in newspapers. You have to write and speak for your tribe if you want to attract attention. And besides, Me has been exposed as the fig leaf that hides “white privilege”, “sexism”, “racism” and all the other toxic isms of the age – or so I’m told.

We cultured cosmopolitans once safely assumed that tribalism was a thing of the past. The particular, the parochial, patriotism and the nation state – they were all on their way out. Boundaries of mind and geography were breaking down. In the postmodern era we were culturally and socially eclectic, preferring a bit of this and a bit of that to homogenous thinking and tastes of the tribe.

But then something changed. Along came Brexit and we Remainers discovered we were just another tribe too, and in some ways as parochial and full of prejudice as the Little-England tribes we’d always looked down on.

In the bitter aftermath of Brexit and battles over trans rights, I noticed something new happening; friends stopped being friends. And not because of betrayal or boredom, but because of different opinions. Suddenly, one of your lifelong friends was one of them: they belonged to a different tribe.

So now people socialise with people who think like their tribe does. I have left-wing friends who can’t understand why I have right-wing friends like the founder of the Free Speech Union, Toby Young. When I tell them about once having tea with Dominic Cummings and finding him funny and charming, they look horrified.

It wasn’t always so. In the 1970s left-wingers like Christopher Hitchens and the poet James Fenton could happily enjoy lunch with a couple of right-wing reactionaries like the historian Robert Conquest and author Kingsley Amis. It used to be that your politics and opinions didn’t really matter – you were either witty, charming, sexy – in short, good company – or you weren’t.

What I dislike most about tribalism is the tribal mind. At dinner parties the tribal-minded dominate conversation with their polemical provocations and relentless certainties. It’s as if they alone have a monopoly on truth and virtue.

Meanwhile, we non-tribal people look perplexed and wonder what to say. We like to think of ourselves as the quiet voices of reason, considered opinion and nuanced reflection. In such circumstances it’s tempting to stand silently above the battle of ideas. Yates’s “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity” always comes to mind; but alas, we know we’re not the best.

Consequently, nobody likes the tribeless. Both the woke and the un-woke assume our thinking is too timid and devoid of real substance. They share the conviction that our silence is a form of acquiescence to the great social evils of our time. And I confess that sometimes I think they’re right. During the hours of 3am self-flagellation I shout at myself: For heaven’s sake take a stand! Man up! Grow a pair!

But when I listen to the verbal punch-ups between opposing tribes I hear the cacophonous clash of opposing certainties – and I think: maybe it’s not so bad just being a tribeless Me after all.

Cosmo Landesman is a freelance journalist and author of “Jack and Me: How Not To Live After Loss” (Eyewear Press)

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Columns, May 2023, Viewpoint

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