After another week of debate about ‘culture wars’ and ‘cancel culture’, I decided to write something about it this morning. Then I realised I already had.
I wrote most of the post below back in January, but never quite finished it. It’s very much a provocation without too much evidence behind it. But reading through it today, it certainly felt like an accurate representation of what I have continued to witness this year in politics and culture.
By the way, I note that the term ‘hypertribalism’ has been used by a few different people from conspiracy-theorist forum posts to Catholic ministers. But I use it here in a slightly different sense.
High frequency change has disrupted the foundations of our identity. These foundations include familial political affiliations, sporting allegiances, religious affiliations, and shared economic and cultural experiences. These things have been persistent between generations and across age cohorts in the same communities for decades. But now they are being disrupted by the explosion of choice, the more global communities created by always-on digital communication, and the globalised supply chain for media, products and politics.
These shared foundations of identity were what connected us to a sense of place, and what bonded us into coherent movements. Into tribes. In the digital age, our sense of place is undermined, and old tribes are fractured. We share less with our geographic and historical peers than we did in the past, whether those peers are family members, school friends, or colleagues.
What has replaced these old tribes is a new hypertribalism.
I would characterise hypertribalism as having three traits:
- As tribes get smaller, the adherence to core tenets gets stronger. Any diversion from those tenets sees rapid expulsion
- ‘Opposing’ tribes and their members are demonised for even slight divergence from the tribes’ core tenets
- Transient leaders, structures, and sometimes principles
You could argue that these are all traits of tribes throughout history. But I use the term hypertribalism to highlight the fact that each one of these core traits is amped up in this current age. The extreme reach and accessibility of global communications platforms being the primary catalyst for this change.
Adherence to core tenets
“One Trot faction, sitting in a hall,
One Trot faction, sitting in a hall,
And if one Trot faction, should have a nasty squall,
There’ll be two Trot factions, sitting in a hall.”
This rhyme is related in Christopher Brookmyre’s (excellent) Country of the Blind, but I remember it first from my time in student politics in the late 90s. Trot, for the uninitiated, is short for Trotskyist/Trotskyite, an adherent of Leon Trotsky’s branch of Marxism. The story the rhyme tells is that of the endless rifts in the political left, particularly in the emotion-drenched realms of student politics, over issues of principle.
Today those rifts are more evident than ever, on both ends of the political spectrum. On the left, it is not just Corbynites vs Blairites, but fractional groups aligning around different priorities, whether it is the achievement of power, the rolling back of austerity, or the rejection (or pursuit) of one of the many possible forms of Brexit. On the right, the rise and subsequent implosion of UKIP and then the Brexit Party has torn apart the broad church of conservatism, leaving a loose and deeply unhappy coalition of europhile moderates, disenfranchised working classes, hedge fund managers, and frankly, racists.
Though Boris Johnson successfully attracted enough of this coalition to his cause (namely, his own power) in the recent general election, this base feels highly unstable and very open to disruption, either by a resurgent and more appealing Labour or just as likely by a new force on the right. As Moises Naim said a few years ago, power is now harder to win, harder to use, and easier to lose.
While each faction defines itself by hard adherence to some key tenets, and rejects anyone who does not share that adherence, the fracturing of each group into smaller groups will continue. This is a phenomenon particularly amplified by social media, where it is hard to express nuanced views and anything except full-blooded commitment to the cause is often met with opprobrium. Given the driver for the existence of tribes – as much about our need to belong as any real connection to a cause – people are incentivised to keep their views blunt in order to secure social approval.
Demonisation of others
Tribes have always defined themselves in opposition to others. They are as much about what they are not, as about what they are. As tribes fracture and become smaller, and to the outsider, their differences appear perhaps smaller, so each tribe has to express its differences more strongly. Particularly by highlighting the apparent failings of the other. Five minutes on Twitter and you will see incredible levels of hate directed between groups who might be expected to be natural allies, were there not a single issue of principle separating them.
This phenomenon can be incredibly damaging to those who become the target of a particular group. Particularly when they were part of that group but have been ousted from it for some apparent breach of its rules. But it reaches its most disturbing peak in the use of language like ‘traitors’ and ‘enemies of the people’ by national media.
Unstable leadership and structures
What the various interests coalesced around the Brexit agenda have shown over the last few years is that a complete lack of structure and stability is no longer an obstacle to achieving your ends. Whether it is the ‘strong and stable’ party of power, or the endlessly reforming and leader-shifting UKIP/Brexit Party, if your narrative connects with the public it can continue in spite of the machinery failing.
This power of a story to exist beyond its teller feels like it too has been augmented in this age of low friction communication. Stories – and conspiracy theories for that matter – can rapidly take on a life of their own.
Of course, this instability is apparent in organisations with a less successful story as well. Anyone remember TIG?
This is as far as I got with the post (in fact the last sentence is a new addition just to round out that last point). But I think it gets the key points across. And it raises some important questions. Is this a new or growing phenomenon? Or is this just another case of a digital age observer seeing age-old patterns of behaviour through an new medium? I am more convinced now than I was in January that this is not necessarily something new, but something that has been incredibly amplified by the communications capabilities unique to this digital age.
I have written before – here in 2017 and here in 2018 – about my concerns for the way that technology can fragment society. This post is really just documenting that effect and its emergent effects in a little more detail. But these facets, or symptoms of the phenomenon seem important if we believe it is something that needs tackling.
I certainly think there is an argument for tackling the bullying elements of this phenomenon. And the way that it allows, or even encourages, the spread and use of – even deep belief in – false information. These things do serious harm both at the individual and the societal scale.
But I also see this commons as a positive and powerful thing. A place where ideas can be shared, debated, demolished or enhanced. This is a society working out its differences primarily through language not violence.
How do we keep these positives while addressing the negatives has been a big debate for the last few years. Where does responsibility lie? With the social networks? Police? Or society? Personally, I don’t think we can or should ask corporations to police our speech. But they can give society the tools to do so, whether that’s fact checking, abuse blocking, or providing information to law enforcement – subject to appropriate judicial oversight.
The rest, I think, remains up to us. The improvement of this commons is only likely to come from the commons itself.