Masks of Fear 5: Tribal Masks

John Bailey
11 min readNov 3, 2020


“Tribalism is a product of fear, and fear is the dominant emotion of any person, culture or society that rejects man’s power of survival: reason.” — Ayn Rand

Tribalism is the state of being organized by, or advocating for, tribes. Human evolution has primarily occurred in such groups, and humans naturally maintain a social network. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt says that our minds have even evolved “for tribal warfare and us/them thinking.” And, certain factors can “turn on ancient tribal circuits, preparing people for battle.” We are hardwired to be tribal.

According to a study by Robin Dunbar at the University of Liverpool, social group size is limited because we can only mentally track around 150 individuals as fully developed, complex people. Once that limit is surpassed, we resort to mental short-hand like hierarchical schemes, stereotypes, and other simplistic thinking — some of the stuff of tribal boundaries.

Fear Makes People More Tribal

When people feel fear, they close ranks with their tribe, becoming insular, defensive, and punitive. They tend to organize their thinking into us-versus-them categories. Observing the effects of this, author Andrew Sullivan wrote “One of the great attractions of tribalism is that you don’t actually have to think very much. All you need to know on any given subject is which side you’re on.” In 1893, Gustave Le Bon, commented on the same subject: “From the moment that they form part of a crowd the learned man and the ignoramus are equally incapable of observation.”

But Le Bon was wrong. It’s actually worse than that. Not only does tribalism makes people stupid, the smarter they were to begin with, the stupider it makes them. Not just relative to where they began, but literally stupider than people less intelligent than themselves. This is because, as social psychologists have shown, people resolve factual ambiguities in ways supportive of their defining values. They do this both to escape dissonance (more on this later), and to protect their connection to their in-group. This is self-defensive cognition rather than true facts-following rationality.

Tribalism Makes People More Stupid

Dan Kahan, the professor of law at Yale, says that our proficiency in critical reasoning can have a perverse effect effect on our interpretation of data. Essentially, the better we understand data collection and analysis the better-equipped we are to commit self-delusion by ferreting-out and presenting support for the position of our tribal in-group. He explains in this short talk:

It’s important to understand that credible science is non-partisan, and that understanding science requires work. It’s most important to understand that tribalism impairs the ability to do that work, and that the smarter you are the more your tribal membership costs you in knowledge and truth.

About these effects, Le Bon wrote that crowds have “the double character of being very simple and very exaggerated”, and that “a throng knows neither doubt nor uncertainty”. He observed the radicalizing effect of belonging, writing “an individual in a crowd resembles [a] primitive being”, that can be “ready to sacrifice themselves for the ideal with which they have been inspired”.

Tribalism Makes People More Aggressive

“The basic commandment of all such groups, which takes precedence over any other rules, is: loyalty to the group — not to ideas, but to people” — Ayn Rand

As tribalism increases across a society, we become increasingly defined not by our friends but our tribal enemies. Because their beliefs and cognitive processing are also skewed by their social alliances, interacting with them means having to exert mental effort, and that can make outsiders seem threatening, giving rise to posturing, or even violence. One signals tribal loyalty through hostility toward the right targets, with the right intensity, and sufficient commitment.

Amy Chua observed: “At different times in the past both the American Left and the American Right have stood for group-transcending values. Neither does today.” These forces lead to support for authoritarian laws and heavy-handed enforcement of them.

In an authoritarian state or organization information has an entirely different function than in a democratic society: In the democratic organization, any statement is part of discourse. Challenge and dissent are understood as core features of an ongoing process towards progress. In the authoritarian state or organization, all expression is about signaling loyalty. Whether it is fact-based or not is irrelevant. Agreement expresses loyalty, while fact-checking, challenging, or dissenting is disloyalty.

Members of tribes use symbols to signal their beliefs and loyalties. At present, a mask is often seen as the uniform of the “lefty libtard democrat social justice sheeple” who seek to oppress everyone else with forced inclusiveness, mandatory consideration, and compulsory safety measures like masks and perhaps even vaccinations and mark-of-the-beast microchips.

Likewise, the naked face is the uniform of the republican conservative Christian: “Pro-life” (only for the unborn), and who demands “respect for the flag”, but menaces anyone who dares to exercise the liberties it’s supposed to symbolize. People who un-ironically put a “thin blue line” bumper sticker on their truck — right next to the Gadsden flag sticker. This is the ultimate triumph of symbols over substance, reminding me that George Carlin said to “… leave symbols to the symbol-minded.”

In functional reality, viruses can’t see bumper stickers, and are apolitical enemies to all. In Le Bon’s observations on crowds, he even observed the way membership impaired cognitive processes about disease in his own time: “The epidemic of influenza, which caused the death but a few years ago of five thousand persons in Paris alone, made very little impression on the popular imagination. The reason was that this veritable hecatomb was not embodied in any visible image, but was only learnt from statistical information furnished weekly.”

Even before Le Bon’s time, the first two presidents of the United States each tried to warn us in their own ways about the toxicity and dulling effects of partisanship:

George Washington, in his farewell address, described the “spirit of party” as democracy’s “worst enemy.” He said it “agitates the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.”

John Adams wrote that the “greatest political evil” to be feared under a democratic constitution was the emergence of “two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other.”

Political Tribes Are Cults

People never seem to realize they’re joining a cult at the time they’re joining it. And, once in it, they certainly won’t recognize the fact — because no cult calls itself a cult. Have you noticed the platforms of political parties always contain massive hypocritical inconsistencies with regard to their claimed values systems and/or the facts of the measurable world?

This is by design, to impose cognitive dissonance that cannot be reconciled through classical moral frameworks or valid logic. The only path to relief of the psychological stress is to abandon reason and subjugate one’s morality and judgment to the tribe (to the rulers of it).

If an action is unwise, destructive, or immoral — being done by your tribe’s guy can’t make it wise, constructive, or virtuous. But, those under the spell of tribal membership will find a way to paint it that way. Tribe is all that matters because the tribalist is profoundly antimoral.

This is the structure of a cult, and one of the primary brain-washing methods they all use. Once people have joined, they are seldom able — or willing — to do what’s necessary to escape. Once personal moral agency is surrendered, it can only be recovered at the cost of tribal membership, of significant labor to unravel the snarled logic, and also a sense of shame for having abdicated one’s morality in the first place.

Escaping Coercive Relationships

Escaping one coercive relationship is like escaping any other: A person has to retrieve their individuality, starting by reconnecting to their morality.

Who are you, morally?

Do an experiment: jot down a few notes answering that question.

Can you answer without referencing your tribe?

Does what you’ve written contain party talking points?

If so, then as someone recently said: “It is what it is …

It Can’t Happen to Me (or Here)

Most people believe that sort of thing about accidents, disasters, diseases, etc — because there’s a human cognitive bias to the idea. It’s even got a name: “optimism bias”. We often also don’t believe something bad will happen to someone we care for — both because of the optimism bias and because of denial (covered in the previous post in this series).

But, what if it did?

What’s the worst guilt you’ve ever suffered?

How does a person live with having hurt someone they care for — and perhaps the shame of it having been easily prevented

Connecting With Core Morality

It’s easiest to do by taking a break from the stories of the tribe and writing your own for a few minutes: Game out your possible choices. The question of mask-wearing is like Pascal’s wager: What if you choose to stay home, socially distance, and wear a mask when you go out? What’s the worst that will happen?

Will you feel short of breath?

Will you feel anxious about admitting you’re not invincible?

Will members of your tribe mock you as “afraid”, or “a sheep”, or “weak”?

What if you choose to take risks to fit in with your tribe? You go out, stand close, and don’t wear a mask. What’s the worst that will happen?

Will you die?

You survive, but have organ damage and become an actual weakling for the rest of your life — unable to provide and protect your loved ones?

What if you bring it home to them — and THEY die? Or, they don’t die — and you get to drive them dialysis every week for the rest of their (much shorter and less happy) lives?

How will the tribal members provide support and absolution for your decision to buckle under their threat of mocking and exclusion — at the expense of your family member?

What are the personal moral consequences of … being a follower of the tribe (of being exactly the kind of sheep they would have mocked you for)?

Disease Always Brings Grief

Even if we are personally unharmed, the disease is killing people. A study out of Princeton University has found that for each person killed by COVID there will be “8.91 surviving individuals having experienced the death of a grandparent, parent, sibling, spouse, or child. For example, under this scenario, for every 100,000 White and Black Americans who die due to COVID-19, around 891,000 surviving White and Black Americans will be left grieving the death of at least one grandparent, parent, sibling, spouse, or child.”

With best estimates (as of this writing) projecting around 300,000 Americans will have perished by December 1, that means over two and a half million Americans (2,673,000+) will be spending this Christmas grieving the loss of a close family member.

For them it will be Christmas without a grandma, father, brother, wife, or child. And, every additional death means an average of more than 8 people who will never again see, hear, or hold someone who was everything to them.

“The coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic has left, and will continue to leave, hundreds of thousands of bereft family members in its wake. These deaths are unlike others in recent history. Unprecedented conditions — massive numbers of casualties; forced separations during a patient’s final days; and denial of physical touch, final goodbyes, and traditional mourning rituals — pose threats to bereaved family members’ mental health, leaving them vulnerable to intense and enduring psychological distress.” — Wendy G. Lichtenthal, PhD FD, writing for the Annals of Internal Medicine

The number of people who will face long-term major depression, and suicide will be a second catastrophe, even after COVID itself is conquered. The people who contributed to the deaths of their loved ones, whether through carelessness or not, are going to have a hard road ahead of them …

Escaping Tribal Cults

Start by burning your team jersey. Just take it off. You look ridiculous. And, you can’t be free of a tribal group if you’re still wearing their uniform. Bumper stickers? Scrape them. Hats or T-shirts? Throw them.

Yes, it’s the only way. And, feeling like you can’t — or don’t want to — is a warning sign. It’s like the smoker who says they want to quit, but keeps that “last pack” stashed somewhere behind the coffee can on the top shelf. If you won’t trade a stupid-looking team jersey for real mental freedom then you’ve already traded your mental freedom for a stupid-looking jersey.

Once you’re jersey-free, who are you, morally?

Yes, I asked this before.

Who are you, morally WITHOUT the party talking points?

If you can admit you’re not fully sure, then you’re making huge progress: Spend some self-time and make some notes to explore it. And yes, being fully YOU is more work than being just another “one of them”.

If you want to REALLY be free — and help repair the broken political system, join the “crash the party” movement: Pick a political office you want to hold accountable and always register in the party of the person holding that office. (This lets you vote in every primary, so you get two chances to upgrade that office for every election.) And, you get to tell them you’re registered party member when you call to tell them to do their job.

If you can’t trade a worthless label to get more democratic voice, then you’ve already traded your democratic voice for a worthless label. If you want to be free, get on-line and re-register. Then, stay on their ass to do their job. This is a really cheap price for mental freedom — and restoration of some IQ’s…

Be a good family member and a good neighbor: Wear a mask; distance; stay home; and wash hands and surfaces. Stay healthy so you can help the people who are going to need it — both now and for years to come as the birthdays and anniversaries and Christmases roll by for those who will be lonely, who will grieve their lost ones, and who will need your support.

Saving Others from Tribal Cults

Reason is less useful than reaching out to their core identity and original morality.

Are the kind of person who drives drunk?

How would they feel if they ran over a dog — or a child?

Are they the kind of person who will call others “sheep” — but who themselves can’t possibly stand aside from their name-calling “friends”?

What kind of self-respect does someone like that really have?

The best support for someone ready to escape a tribal cult is someone who already has. Be there for them — when they’re finally ready.

Stay healthy, my Friends — and take care of those around you.