There are 10 kinds of people in the world: Those who understand the binary system and those who don’t.

I guess the observation that I find that funny puts me in the tribe of ‘Geek.’

 . . . and one more thing – Since Jan 2024 I have started putting my essays on Substack and with audio too! Please follow me there and give it likes and shares. Pretty please all that good stuff.


I was listening last night to Alex O’Connor interviewing Jason Brennan about the problems with democracy. It struck me that most of what he was talking about was not about democracy at all, but tribalism.

We worship the idea of democracy and tend to discuss it from a circular idealised argument rather than trying to examine whether or not it actually delivers better results in an imperfect world.  I lived for several years in each in three nations which didn’t even pretend to be democracies  – Kazakhstan, the UAE, and Oman. All of these nations were for me completely happy and satisfactory places to live, and in all three places I found the natives to be generally more affable with me as an incomer than in many of the democracies where I have lived and visited. 

OK then, I admit it – Kazakhstan did make the pretence of having democracy; the electorate had queued in minus 50 degrees to return Nazarbaev with a majority of 97.5% even though there was no opposition. On the subject of Nazarbaev, who at last seems to have been displaced, Kazakhstan went from keeping the biggest stockpile of USSR nuclear weapons to 100% nuclear weapon free within four years of independence on the whim of this autocrat who embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars of state funds. Meanwhile the democratic West was spending hundreds of times that sum every year in building nuclear armaments and polluting their own ecology with the waste products of doing so. Who am I to judge the rights and wrongs of the leaders of the world? I would only observe that these non-democracies were all places where any native I spoke to had complete, often outspoken, faith in their leaders. That also isn’t something you get in democracies. Maybe it was just because those places don’t have a free press? My jury is still out on that general subject.

Brennan gave the example of the US under Donald Trump. He mentioned that people tend to elect populists, and populists turn out to become very much their own men, but they often still manage to retain the loyalty of their electorate. So prior to 2016, the typical American Republican was more pro-free trade and anti-Russia than the typical Democrat. Trump appealed to the popular ideal of the strong leader who promised to make America great again. And he reversed both those concepts, Russia and North Korea were now good potential partners (against China) so long as Trump was at the helm to treat them tough, and free trade with foreigners was a silly idea for wusses.  

Now the point Brennan was making was that researchers have actually asked  Republican voters why they reversed their personal policy. They don’t say what you might expect ‘Yes I was convinced by Mr Trump’s really good arguments sufficienty to change my mind.’ What they actually do is they deny that they have changed their mind. Then they follow that by whatever doublespeak makes sense of the statement.

So from that, we have the idea that democratic politics doesn’t really work in the way that we presume it does. We assume that people vote rationally, or perhaps even tactically, to promote their ideals. On the contrary, Brennan postulates that most people don’t have any ideals. He says that they vote with their tribe because that gives them social approval. I don’t think he used the word tribe in the podcast, but he did make several compelling arguments to demonstrate his thesis.

Anyway, I want to pick up that idea of tribe. I’m getting the idea that humans are deeply tribal. If that’s stating the obvious, I mean like really really deeply. I’m also getting the idea that this is the reason why I have never felt as if I belonged anywhere. Or maybe it’s the other way around.

People may say ‘I am a rational thinker and I vote for this party because they align with my values’  but the way they vote is ‘I am loyal to my tribe and I so I believe what they believe.’ Brennan reminded us that a football team supporter who argues for a player’s place in the team despite a bad mistake may be applauded by his friends for his great loyalty. In an equivalent case a voter may get more social benefit by backing bad policies rather than good ones.

A few weeks earlier, Alex had mentioned football in his talk with Ben Thomas who goes by the name of Sisyphus 55. I wrote about that discussion at the time, but a digression during that podcast is more relevant to this one. Alex described a thought experiment that I found compelling. Here is my paraphrase: People (ok male people mostly) tend to be deeply loyal to a sports team. In the UK that means football (aka soccer.) A modern football team will typically have been named after a British town. It can buy and sell players most of whom at any one moment will not live in that town. It can also hire and fire its Spanish, Norwegian, German, Argentinian, Portuguese or Chilean manager and hire a new one. So let’s take that to the extreme and imagine the following: At half time in one particular match the blue team sells all its players to the red team and vice versa, and they immediately swap shirts and sides. Now – who would the crowds support for the second half of the match? 

I loved this question, partly because it blew my mind, and partly out of mischief, because it seemed to be pretty irrelevant to the rest of the episode, but Alex, bless him, carried on more or less in soliloquy. He reflected rhetorically whether fans were loyal to the colour of the shirt, the manager, the name of the team or the group of players, And just at the moment when I was thinking, ‘yes that’s messed up, it’s completely impossible to calculate,’ (Just pause a moment – what do you think?) Out of nowhere, Alex had the insight to realise that the most likely realistic answer is none of those things.  People in a football crowd are loyal to the crowd. The identity of ‘Liverpool’ for supporter Joe is actually Joe’s dad and his brother and the boys at the pub. Just listen when they scream abuse at one of the players or the manager of their own team. Joe and his mates aren’t angry because that person made one bad call in an otherwise successful career (who doesn’t?) but because at that moment he had failed to justify the faith of Joe and his tribe.

When I went to a new school at the age of nine, I was asked by classmates who I supported. I didn’t understand the question, but it was soon made clear to me that the subject was football and the correct answer would either be Liverpool or United. I chose Liverpool (at first because I liked the Beatles, and then for consistency) even though I had never been to Liverpool or to a football match anywhere or even watched one on TV for more than three minutes. The deception was easy because I didn’t have to engage in any of the remainder of the conversation which would already be crowded out by those who cared very deeply. But the more I think about it, It wasn’t that I was left out of the conversation because I wasn’t passionate about football, it was rather that I didn’t learn about football because I wasn’t interested in making the investment of working on a new hobby in order to make friends.

There is a book called I’m OK, you’re OK written in 1967 by one Thomas A Harris. It’s about Transactional Analysis. This is a branch of Psychotherapy developed by one Eric Berne in the 1960s and I had heard about Berne’s Parent Adult Child model a couple of decades back. But Harris explores this from a slightly different angle. His thesis is that we are all messed up by a common history we all share from infanthood. This is what happens to all of us: the self-same people who nurture us and cuddle us, also punish us and force us by physical or moral power to behave in ways that seem different from the way we would otherwise have behaved.  He develops the argument that the natural status of an infant is therefore believing that our parents, and probably everyone else, knows what they are doing and are ‘OK’ while we are ‘Not OK.’ Our life narrative is then influenced (almost determined) by how we come to terms with that asymmetrical beginning, as time passes. 

I believe I had quite an unusual upbringing in that neither of my parents transmitted to me the feeling of belonging to any group. I won’t go into why I think this is, other than to observe what is relevant here. Both of them were dedicated believers in many ideas that are unfashionable now, but neither of them succeeded in steering me towards any tribe at all. That was partly because their own tribalism was so deep seated and self-evident that I guess they didn’t realise that it needed selling to me, and partly because I found that their observations on these subjects were so badly argued that I was led to opposite conclusions. I am grateful for that part of my education, because as a result, I have spent a lot of my life making sense of the senseless. I enjoy exercising scepticism – the often uncomfortable experience of seeing both sides of most arguments. I also realise on the downside that this has excluded me from all sorts of tribal activity that might have helped me in other ways.

Whereas I might have emerged from my ‘Not OK’ infant status, believing that the answer lay in trying to make logical sense of imponderables, I get the impression that most people avoid the same moments of discomfort by joining tribes. For me the process was quite lonely and it took a long while. Kids do tend to believe a lot of what they are told and whereas I was able to shed white supremacy and fundamental Christianity almost immediately as a child, I was still struggling to clarify the conflict in my head between say, patriotism and racialism several decades later.

So the consideration of tribe really is fascinating for me. Religious Tribes, Racial Tribes, Cultural Tribes, National Tribes, Social Class or Caste Tribes, Political Tribes, Gender and Sexual Orientation Tribes. Of course the US and the UK were both thrown into political tribalism in 2016. We all thought that our view of Brexit or Trump were the only morally defensible ones (yes me too) and we were all astonished how gullible the people in the opposing tribe were, and how they (but not we) had been hoodwinked by the brainless but nonetheless bad forces of the social media algorithms sitting in their pockets. Then Ukraine. Then Gaza. 

Orwell describes in 1984 how the state needs an enemy, but I think it’s deeper than that. Our tribes at every level need enemies. Sometimes our need for enemies and allies at different levels in our nested or intertwining tribes produce logical conflict. At times like that we have no alternative but to go down the pub and put the world to rights with our closest tribesmen.

As an architect at the age of forty, I was the fortunate beneficiary of a piece of tribalism that I wasn’t even party to. Our national leader, Mrs Thatcher was on a mission to cut out the dead wood from the UK’s dusty local authority offices – so she reorganised them and encouraged them to bring in bright entrepreneurial spirit from the private sector to show them how business was done. I had coincidentally just left my own professional partnership (for personal not business reasons) and was welcomed with open arms as the fresh Principal Architect of a new ‘unitary’ local authority where I was put on a bit of a pedestal and praised for my initiative and drive, even though I recall I had precious little idea of what I was doing. Thatcher was a great tribalist, and hence a great divider. She was also a real mover and shaker. Some of what she gave us we might thank her for if our memories were not so short and other stuff seems to have been misdirected. At the time though, you were either for her or against her. It didn’t take social media algorithms to divide the tribes of a nation in the time of the Iron Lady.

I look back at history (I’m not a fan of history) and see a tale of growing economies, growing security and technology. All of this, arm in arm with the glowing global prosperity which it created, elevated tribalism to the great and romantic beauty of warfare. At the pinnacle of that art form (Let’s hope the 20th century was the pinnacle of it) any one of us may have been goaded by a white feather, or invited under the beauty of a flag flying at sunset to give our lives for our friends. The other tribe in those days were almost non-human brutes who displayed their cowardice by carrying out often suicidal acts to promote their brand of evil. It was so clear and beautiful then in that great age. Everything is so messy now.

As I mentioned recently, I am hard-wired to look for evolutionary answers to everything, and this one isn’t difficult at least at the start. It’s always been a harsh world out there and allies are useful. Though I wonder at what moment in history it was when deaths from opposing human tribes outnumbered deaths caused by those other things which the tribe of any individual protected them from apart from other tribes.  You might think that at that moment (and I bet was a very long time ago) evolution would have softened our love of tribalism, but it doesn’t seem to have done. I wonder why that is?

Which open question leads me nicely to my closing statement.

There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who can’t fill in the blanks from incomplete information,

Nick James      Posted in:



February 2024, Brittany, France.

Header Image:

Bob Brewer on Unsplash