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Four Perspectives on Individualism vs. Tribalism

Increasingly, our culture pushes us to see ourselves as passive members of one group or another. But Ayn Rand rejected the tribal mindset that uses superficial characteristics like ancestry, skin color and gender to divide us into interest groups. In Rand’s view, we are not interchangeable members of various collectives with conflicting interests — we are sovereign, independent individuals whose rational interests align.

In a new video course called Individualism in an Age of Tribalism, available on ARI Campus and the Ayn Rand University app, experts on Ayn Rand’s philosophy discuss her unique perspective on individualism as the antidote to tribalist collectivism.

In the first lecture, philosopher Gregory Salmieri discusses what it means to think for oneself, contrasting independent thought with tribalists’ acceptance of their group’s ideas without investigation. Describing how the social pressures of tribalism can short-circuit the mental effort that thinking requires of us, he urges us to follow the evidence and stay focused on reality. Near the end of his talk, he offers several pieces of specific advice for those who want to resist the pull of tribalism and think independently.

In the second lecture, philosopher Tara Smith calls tribalism “the love child of collectivism and anti-intellectualism” and stresses the danger of allowing it to influence law. Citing examples from the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government, Smith argues that tribalism has caused a decline in respect for the authority of law and has damaged the rule of law.

To build and maintain one’s sense of personal identity, Ghate explains, it’s important to realize that “the real you is the thing inside you that thinks and values and makes decisions.”
In the third lecture, philosopher Onkar Ghate points out that tribalism is not only a cultural phenomenon, as manifested by ethnic groups vying for political power, but also a problem to be aware of in one’s own thinking and one’s own soul, even when one isn’t interested in joining such a power-seeking group. To build and maintain one’s sense of personal identity, he explains, it’s important to realize that “the real you is the thing inside you that thinks and values and makes decisions.” According to Ghate, an individualist develops a first-handed, active, questioning mind and scrutinizes all ideas. For example, neither religion nor conventional morality is an accidental characteristic like race or gender, because they are chosen ideas that contribute to one’s character. But when one simply accepts these ideas uncritically from parents or community, one is still succumbing to tribalism. Ghate urges us to mentally step outside any group we may belong to and ask: Are their ideas true?

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In the final session, Smith and Ghate are joined by Ayn Rand Institute chairman Yaron Brook for a panel discussion of tribalism and the family. The discussion begins by acknowledging how tribalism can easily take root in youth, when a child’s world is dominated by parents with far greater knowledge and power. But instead of assuming that parents are always right, an individualist develops the conviction that his life is his own to live, not his parents’ to control, and that he must make decisions for himself. The panel urges children to appreciate how much their parents have contributed to their lives and also cautions parents and grown children to realize how difficult it is for them to have adult relationships as peers.

Individualism in an Age of Tribalism is available online free, here.

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Tom Bowden

Tom Bowden, JD and former civil litigator, is a research fellow and publishing manager at the Ayn Rand Institute. He is also a coeditor of Illuminating Ayn Rand (2022) and a contributing editor of New Ideal.

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