The "Tribe of One" Mentality Is Spiritually Destructive
A new ideology has emerged on the far left. This ideology slices and dices people according to their immutable characteristics, pushing us into smaller and smaller categories. It says that these immutable characteristics (especially skin color) define us absolutely, to the point of downplaying or dismissing entirely our shared humanity. It cuts us off from vast swathes of the human race, leading to loneliness and a sense of isolation. We call this the "tribe of one" ideology because that is its philosophical endpoint.
In its less extreme form, "tribe of one" ideology is the claim that people who do not look like us cannot understand our perspective. Ijeoma Oluo sums up this view in her New York Times bestseller So You Want to Talk About Race. "This is not just a gap in experience and viewpoint," she writes of the difference between white Americans and black Americans. "The Grand Canyon is a gap. This is a chasm you could drop entire solar systems into." It's true that different people often have different perspectives, and shared understanding can require bridging these gaps. But Oluo's claim goes much further. In her view, little if any of the human experience is shared between people who happen to look different.
In its most extreme form, "tribe of one" ideology is the claim that our unique combination of immutable characteristics sets us irreconcilably apart from the rest of humanity. We see this in certain corners of gender ideology. For example, among their list of 72 genders, MedicineNet lists "Egogender." What is egogender? "It is a personal type of gender identified by the individual alone. It is based on the person’s experience within the self." MedicineNet also lists "Cloudgender: The person’s gender cannot be comprehended or understood due to depersonalization and derealization disorder." This ideology tells people who already feel alone or isolated that any attempt to connect with others is hopeless, for their immutable characteristics (in this case, gender) make it impossible. A core part of an individual cannot be "comprehended," "identified," or "understood" by anyone else. They are, in this conception at least, a "tribe of one."
This mentality is spiritually destructive because it feeds into ego dominance. International spiritual teacher and bestselling author Eckhart Tolle says that the ego is, "a protective heavy shell…This protective shell works like armor to cut you off from other people and the outside world." This shell serves to isolate us from other people. "What I mean by shell is a sense of separation," Tolle says. "Here's me and there's the rest of the universe and other people. The ego likes to emphasize the 'otherness' of others." When we feed into this sense of separateness, we feed our egos and make them more dominant. Egoic dominance is associated with all kinds of problems, including reactivity and disregulated emotions. It leads to a preoccupation with "judgments, guilt and anxiety" as well as "continuous stress." It leads to loneliness and isolation, because–in an ego-dominated state–we feel cut off from our fellow humans and from our connection to the Divine.
We now have empirical evidence to suggest that the "tribe of one" ideology is a major contributor to loneliness and poor mental health. Several studies have shown a consistent pattern wherein conservatives report better mental health than liberals. For example, the 2022 American Family Survey found that 36 percent of conservatives age 18-55 are "completely satisfied" with their mental health. By contrast, that number for liberals age 18-55 is just 18 percent. Much of this gap seems to be driven by the far-left, where the “tribe of one” ideology is most pervasive Political scientists Zach Goldberg and Eric Kaufmann note that an astounding 38 percent of white "very liberal" respondents said that a doctor or other healthcare provider has told them that they have a mental health condition—far higher than for any other race or ideological group. Goldberg and Kaufmann's full analysis is reproduced below:
It's possible that there's something else going on here: perhaps very liberal respondents are simply more likely to see a doctor about their mental health than moderates or conservatives. In the same vein, perhaps liberals simply measure satisfaction with their mental health differently than conservatives, leading them to report lower levels of satisfaction even if their mental health is actually comparable. Nonetheless, there is reason to believe that the "tribe of one" mentality is driving at least part of the reported mental health gap between liberals and conservatives, and especially between the far-left (where this ideology is most common) and more moderate liberals.
Arthur Brooks, Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School, notes that a lot of our happiness comes down to how connected we feel to our fellow humans. “[Happiness] requires we invest in four things each day,” he says. Those four things are, "faith, family, friends and work in which we earn our success and serve others." Writing in the New York Times, researchers on family life Brad Wilcox, Hal Boyd and Wendy Wang concur. "Human connection lends meaning, direction and a sense of solidarity to our lives. In short, it helps make us happier." That lack of human connection, they posit, is a big part of the reported liberal-conservative happiness gap. When we tell ourselves that vast swaths of the country cannot empathize with us or understand us, we cut ourselves off—both figuratively and literally—from human connection. When we cut ourselves off from deep connection, we become more lonely and our mental health deteriorates. We are social animals, after all; and we were not made to feel an intense sense of separation from our fellow humans. We were not made to feel like a tribe of one.
If the "tribe of one" mentality causes spiritual and psychological problems, but we still want to celebrate our differences, what's the solution? Individualism. Individualism, properly understood, celebrates our uniqueness while connecting us to our shared humanity. It celebrates "the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes, the ones who see things differently." But it also emphasizes our similarities. The gap between the misfits and those who fit in perfectly is, at the end of the day, not so large.
This philosophy is embodied by people like Angel Eduardo, a Dominican-American who insists that a white Superman can still represent him because they share the same values. Eduardo doesn't pretend that white people and brown people in the United States have exactly the same experiences. But he emphasizes that things like shared values can form a bridge of understanding between these experiences. Rather than seeing people of different skin colors as separated by "a chasm you could drop entire solar systems into", this philosophy prioritizes our shared humanity across racial lines.
This philosophy is also embodied by folks like Pauli Murray, a queer, black civil rights activist who said in 1945, "I intend to destroy segregation by positive and embracing methods…When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them. When they speak out for the privileges of a puny group, I shall shout for the rights of all mankind." Murray could have seen her relatively rare combination of immutable characteristics (not many people were openly queer in 1945) as a reason to build walls between herself and others. Instead, she saw our shared humanity as a reason to demolish those walls.
We should all celebrate our differences. But when we let those differences wall us off from human connection with people of different skin colors or genders, we can end up in a dark place. A better solution is to embrace what makes us different without losing sight of what binds us together.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism or its employees.
In keeping with our mission to promote a common culture of fairness, understanding, and humanity, we are committed to including a diversity of voices and encouraging compassionate and good-faith discourse.
We are actively seeking other perspectives on this topic and others. If you’d like to join the conversation, please send drafts to email@example.com.