Groucho Marxism and the Prison of Tribalism

To hell with labels, clubs, and ideologies.

“I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.” — Groucho Marx

I don’t know about you, but I despise being put in a position where I’m made to answer for or be represented by things I didn’t do, words I didn’t say, views I don’t hold, and behavior I don’t condone, simply because I belong to the same group, team, or side as someone. It’s one reason I’m not fond of having a tribe — political or otherwise. When you’re part of a tribe, the most embarrassing things the dumbest members do become an albatross hanging around your neck. Likewise, identify with a particular label or movement, and you are held personally responsible for all that transpires under its banner. For most of us, being accountable for our own words and actions is more than enough. But tethering your credibility — and dismissibility — to the next moronic thing some fool you’ve never met and have no control over will say or do in the name of your tribe? To put it as George Carlin once did, “I need this like I need an infected scrotum.” Groucho Marx’s sentiment expressed above, which I have playfully taken to calling Groucho Marxism, is one dear to my heart — and one we could all use a little more of. If there is a label I will own, it’s that one. Plus, it confuses the hell out of Zoomers.

Even to a dyed in the wool Groucho Marxist, labels and tribes are unavoidable to a degree. There are circumstances where you are faced with a choice or opportunity that requires a commitment of sorts. A presidential election in which there are only two viable candidates. A campaign or movement to enact a policy or reform you strongly support. The wholesale avoidance of political tribes or labels cannot be absolute for anyone with political goals or interests. Some things are important enough to take a stand and join a cause. Only total apathy or nihilism can sever those ties completely.

Even the most scrupulously non-partisan, un-groupish, “don’t label me!” type of person, if they swim in political waters long enough, will come away with the slime of labels and “sides” clinging to them. If you refuse to choose any of your own, others will be more than happy to assign them to you. Insisting you have no allegiances in an environment where everyone you encounter assumes one for you rather defeats the purpose. People have this nauseating need to know if you’re on their team — and the manner in which they interact with you depends entirely on the ascertainment of this vital information. Many people will treat those who eschew labels and tribes either as an enemy in a “You’re either with us or against us” sort of way, a bad faith actor trying to con people, or a deeply self-deceived clown oblivious to their own tribalism. Such assumptions are part and parcel of the fundamentally diseased mindset that tribe-junkyism produces.

So yes, these things cannot be fully avoided, but that doesn’t mean casually embracing them as most people do is a sound idea. Some of the baggage and constraints of other people’s imbecilities will eventually stick to you. That doesn’t make it a good idea to intentionally hitch yourself to a cargo freighter full of them and proudly tow it around.

Of course, political tribalists like to imagine that what they truly are is principled. They’ve managed to rebrand being chest-beating partisans who’ve surrendered their minds to a tribe and traded the pesky need to think for oneself for the blissful simplicity of groupthink into a kind of pseudo-virtue. But there is nothing more inimical to consistent, universalist principles than partisanship or tribalism. “My side right or wrong” is the equivalent of ripping your brain out and wiping your ass with it.

Making a conscious effort to form opinions and evaluate ideas on their merits alone — unconstrained by orthodoxies, dogmas, narratives, or group loyalties — is a clarifying, liberating, even thrilling act. When you start making the effort, it’s like sobering up from an inebriant you didn’t know you were on. The notion that there could ever be any one party, side, team, or ideology with a monopoly on truth or good ideas has always been laughable when plainly stated, but it’s what one must implicitly accept by playing this game. This is one of those things we know to be insane in the abstract, but cannot admit to ourselves in any specific case. Ask people “Are you perfect?” and almost everyone will say “No, of course not.” Then run through a number of specific views or choices, and notice how people won’t back down on a single one of them. We acknowledge the idea of our imperfection just as we acknowledge that our side cannot possibly be right about everything, if for no other reason than that we don’t want to be thought of as delusional narcissists, and yet we resist admitting any specifics. Tribalism doesn’t create this kind of cognitive dissonance, but it exacerbates it.

The inescapable fact is that your tribe is wrong about many things. Some part of you, however deeply buried or repressed, knows this. But the pressures imposed by membership in the tribe will incentivize you toward seeking acceptance, loyalty, and orthodoxy over intellectual honesty and independent thought every time. It will incentivize you to evaluate claims or ideas that run counter to the tribe with a more rigid skepticism and higher standard of evidence than is to be found in any branch of science, while uncritically accepting claims or ideas that conform to the tribe with the credulity of a drooling bumpkin. Again, this is not a psychological bug created by tribalism — it’s a preexisting one made worse by it.

Some may consider that sense of belonging conferred by the tribe to be so desirous as to be worth any cost. But all you have, at the end of the day, is your mind. To surrender that is, on some philosophical level, to surrender a piece of your personhood. You’ve gained your precious belonging, but like a wish from a mischievous word-twisting genie, it’s not in the spirit of what you were truly after. You might as well have wished to be an ant in a colony. All the belonging you could ever want. What’s lacking is a mind.

Tribes and labels have their limited uses, even if most of what they seem to produce are toxic excesses. Total independence is neither possible nor desirable, but striving toward independence is far preferable to being just another cog in a hive mind. The fact is that tribalism isn’t going anywhere. Anything that facilitates belonging and absolves people of the necessity of thinking will be ineradicable. But you see, that makes the effort we put into thinking for ourselves all the more valuable.


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