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The tug of the tribe

5 min

The valuable skill of separating a person from what they create. And getting the vortex of tribalism to work for you.

Identity is eating everything.

The new norm is that your work, your creations, your output, define who you are. And more than ever, how others perceive your character influences their judgment of what you put into the world.

You curate your online persona. You broadcast your beliefs. You’re the jovial Facebook Mom, the healer with the sideline in photography, the marathon-running doctor, the cubicle worker with the beach view. You don’t just do things anymore. You do them while whispering I’m the kind of person who does things like this, to anyone paying attention.

Meanwhile, you blast anyone with a platform as bigoted or vulgar when you find their output offensive. You worship as heroes those whose work you admire. Or you’re turned off by what they create, because of negative revelations about their private lives. Based only on what people choose to share, you judge their morals. Swiftly and brutally.

It’s easy to get sucked into this vortex of mental shortcuts. The tug of the tribe is strong.

But if you can compartmentalise things — if you can disconnect your view of a person from that of their output — you'll gain a valuable skill. And you can get the vortex to work for you.

The brilliant egomaniac

Nassim Taleb (Source: Business Insider)

I’ve read all Nassim Taleb’s books. I love his acidic prose and his ground-shifting insights on probability. I’ve often recommended and gifted his work.

But on Twitter, Taleb comes across as an insufferable, petty egomaniac! In discussions and interviews, he interrupts and doesn’t listen.1 And he seems to take pleasure in setting his group of followers — many of whom call him, for some reason, “maestro” — to hound people whose views he dislikes.

Of course I don’t really know Taleb. I only have his curated persona to go on. But still, the gulf between my sense of that persona and the value I see in his work is… awkward for me. I want a nice package where Taleb is both an intellectual wizard and a solid guy. A shortcut to the essence of the person; a poster I can put on my wall. I’m feeling the tug of the tribe.

Resisting it isn’t easy. But it’s worth doing. Because Taleb has authored some great work. Why should I let my incomplete picture of who the man is, colour my appreciation of what he's made? I don’t have to be mates with him. Why do I care how he is as a person?

The ‘alt-right’ lefty

Ricky Gervais (Source: SocialNews)

Ricky Gervais is, for me, a comedic genius. “The Office” is LOL-hilarious and a spot-on observation of British workplace behaviour. I’ve probably seen it 20 times.2 And his celebrity roasts as the host of the Oscars and Golden Globes were pure poetry.

Gervais’s new stand-up comedy special on Netflix, “Supernature”, also has moments of brilliance.3 But it has become controversial, because it contains jokes about transpeople. Across social media, many want him cancelled for being a conservative, transphobic hate machine. “TERF!” “Hatemonger!” “Alt-right!” they shout.

Keep an open mind and separate the person from the work, though, and another picture emerges. I’m not a free-speech absolutist who thinks anyone should be allowed to incite violence. But "Supernature" was stand-up comedy, not a personal soapbox rant. Gervais performed it under his own name, but it might as well have been that of one of his characters. It was a piece of art, of work.

Also, Gervais is left-wing. He regularly donates to a variety of progressive causes. And he backed Jeremy Corbyn for UK Prime Minister in 2017.

Gervais explains the apparent disconnect between being a progressive, and ripping into progressives in his stand-up comedy sets.

This doesn’t mean the accusations against him can’t be true. But it does make it unlikely. You might find Gervais’ output unfunny. You might even find it bigoted. But if you want to call the man a transphobe or alt-right, well, the data just isn’t there.

Putting the pull to work for you

Unconsciously, people are always on the hunt for tribes to join.4 They’re asking themselves: Which group is more me? Do people like me do things like this? It’s like University Fresher’s Week, every week.

So if you want to build support for your cause, put that dynamic to work.

This is much easier to do if you can disconnect a person from their creations. Because if you can recognise the pull of a tribe, if you can develop immunity to it yourself, you'll know what to look for. And how to conjure it up. A few tips:

Supporting your cause, joining your group, needs to go beyond offering its followers the obvious. It should represent their desires.

Tone is everything. Your vibe attracts your tribe. Ask yourself: Can your target audience see themselves in what you’re putting out — either how they are, or even better, how they’d like to be? Would sharing that meme you created make them look smarter, more plugged-in, higher-status?

And because of the 'people-work' merge in perception that I mentioned above, the more personal you can make your pitch, the better. Put forward members of your campaign who embody the desires, the vibe you are trying to project.


With those whose work you admire, don’t get obsessed about whether they’re a good person. Almost everyone is a decent human. And you'll only have enough data points to judge once you’ve met them anyway.

Instead, care primarily about their output, and what you can learn from it. Split the creator off from their creation. It’s human to want to be in a tribe, and to put others on pedestals. That doesn't mean it's strategic. Resist it.

The better you get at this, the more clearly you’ll think. More signal, less noise.

And the better you'll get these tribal dynamics to work for you, to build support for your cause.

Update 01/02/24: Related, this fantastic piece by culture writer Laura Kipnis. It explores a question I’ve often asked myself: when an artist has behaved badly, why cant we continue to appreciate their work?


1: A habit I hate in myself, and true to the spirit of psychological projection, even more so in others.

2: When I worked in London, one of my clients was the software maker Novell. Like the fictional Wernham-Hogg in The Office, they were based in a business park in Slough (although in a much nicer complex). Trust me, that series is so apt it hurts.

3: I didn’t feel offended by “Supernature”. But some of it did make me squirm a little. It missed the light touch of his previous work. Yes, I judge it by its ability to make me laugh. Which is the goal of comedy, right?

4: Membership of a tribe is like a shortcut, too. Once followers are in, they no longer need to constantly check whether the tribe is for them. Also, leaving the tribe has a cost. So they’ll usually be forgiving: say, about its leader’s flaws, or the odd position of the tribe that they don’t agree with.


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