We are living through a crisis of meaning and sensemaking. No longer is there a single consensus reality that binds us together. Increasingly people are turning to ideological tribal affiliations to fill the gap. These tribes compete among themselves to impose their own distinct set of values onto the world. As a result, reality is fracturing under the weight of an infinity of warring perspectives. While the crisis grows, our ability to make sense of the world is breaking down and the cultural landscape is becoming ever harder to navigate.
In this essay, I explain how we arrived here and present a set of mental models and behaviours the reader might consider adopting to better navigate the cultural landscape during this moment of crisis. I suggest an increased understanding and application of these concepts could decrease the tendency towards social polarisation. I also tentatively propose that a greater general awareness of these concepts might help raise the collective consciousness to a level more efficient at combating our most pressing existential problems.
In their white paper published in 2018, The Memetic Tribes Of Culture War 2.0, Peter Limberg and Conor Barnes of The Stoa introduced the concept of “memetic tribes“ to define the new ideological agents of the moment.
What is a memetic tribe? To answer this question, we need to combine two concepts. First, humans are innately tribal creatures with a natural tendency to want to be with other people who share their beliefs, values, customs, and behaviours. This cohesion reduces social friction and helps us feel we are a part of something bigger than our individual selves. Second, a “meme” is an element of a culture or system passed from one individual to another by non-genetic means, notably via imitation.
Limberg and Barnes put these two concepts together and define a memetic tribe as “a group of agents with a meme complex, or memeplex, that directly or indirectly seeks to impose its distinct map of reality – along with its moral imperatives – on others.”
Memetic tribes have a shared anatomy. However, each carries a different set of values, epistemologies, and worldviews. A set of beliefs often coupled with an unshakable and unexamined knowingness: a certainty in their own perspectives and an eagerness to attack and destroy opposing views through memetic warfare.
Memetic tribes arose as a response to the breakdown of the traditional left and right political divide that has taken place in the US and across the West in recent years. Today, the left and right spectrum no longer provides a sufficient map of the political territory. Often we can still analyse political conflicts in terms of disagreements between the left and right. Nevertheless, the clashes between memetic tribes on the same side of the traditional spectrum are just as inflammatory and consequential.
People are cloistering into memetic tribes and defining themselves against others most similar to them. Consider the following examples: the most recent splits in the Conservative Party, particularly over the EU. The war fought between the hard-left Momentum movement and the establishment liberal-left wing over the soul of the Labour Party. We can say much the same about the Republicans and Democrats in the US regarding the Trumpists and the democratic socialists. If you are unequivocally committed to class politics, I suspect today Social Justice Warriors probably frustrate you most. Or, if you identify as a gender-critical feminist, it is likely the Trans Lobby is your main combatants right now. These divisions are equally applicable on both sides of the Atlantic.
The political situations and active memetic tribes in the UK and US are not always directly comparable. This should be obvious. But many memetic tribes in the UK are analogous to those described by Limberg and Barnes in the US. As mentioned, there are establishment political parties on the left and right fighting with those on the fringes. We have our iterations of identity-based memetic tribes in the UK, including; Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, Extinction Rebellion, Antifa, Intellectual Dark Web, Neo-Marxists, Alt-Right, Manosphere, Incels, and QAnon etc. Each of those mentioned (and others) are to greater or lesser extents in both countries engaged in fighting the same culture war to gain narrative control over the sphere of human thought.
We can see in the chart below that Limberg and Barnes identify 34 memetic tribes, alongside the shared anatomy and the specific characteristics of each one. The list is not exhaustive. The paper is now three years old, and given the evolving nature of the culture war, some have no doubt dropped away while others have since entered the fray. An updated list might include environmentalist and animal rights movements, and, of course, the different conspiratorial and “conspirituality” groups which have arisen since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. That said, I’m not currently aware of a better general overview and categorisation of the active players on the political and cultural landscapes today.
For the reader adamant on finding an alternative, but no less illuminating take on the state of tribalism in the West today, I invite them to read David Goodhart’s book, The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics.
Limberg and Barnes inform us memetic tribes are “multitudinous, fractious, unscrupulously optimistic” and “divide the world into allies and enemies”. The end goal for each is to establish the dominance of its own story. They all share a common goal: “To win the culture war — or at least, to not lose it.”
In short, each memetic tribe is:
- “Unscrupulously optimistic”;
- See themselves as spokespeople for larger groups;
- See themselves as under threat in a culture war;
- Act as paranoid ideologues. This agitation helps their memes get spread.
The Six Crises
Limberg and Barnes state six phenomena are involved in the genesis of a memetic tribe. These ingredients respectively engender six crises. Below, I summarise each in turn:
1. Secularisation and meaning crisis
- Religion used to provide meaning;
- Multiple memes compete to replace it as bringers of meaning;
- People struggle to make sense of the world in the absence of God or tribal affiliation.
The meaning crisis weakened our collective understanding of what ought to be.
2. Fragmentation and reality crisis
- Fragmentation creates many reality tunnels, not one consensus reality;
- Many small conflicting narratives;
- Conflicting parties are unable to agree or communicate.
The reality crisis fractured our collective understanding of what is.
3. Atomisation and belonging crisis
- Individuals feel separated, isolated, alienated, depressed;
- Roles are commoditised into transactions with strangers;
- People become objects to one another and persuasion is valued over truth.
The belonging crisis took away a genuine feeling of community.
4. Globalisation and proximity crisis
- The “Global village” created more disagreement;
- The internet pornifies our lives, leaving nothing to the imagination. Without distance and mystery, respect vanishes;
- People need privacy. Without it, we stay in performance mode. These performances become increasingly warlike.
The proximity crisis removed distance from conflicting views.
5. Stimulation and sobriety crisis
- Evolutionary trap: adaptive instincts turn maladaptive;
- Supernormal stimuli make us obsessed with empty things;
- Algorithmic echo chambers are designed to be addictive. There is an asymmetrical battle for our attention.
- We have become a society of addicts.
The sobriety crisis reduced our agency and turned us into addicts.
6. Weaponisation and warfare crisis
- People’s minds are being weaponised to advance agendas they may not even support or know about;
- “Outrage porn” makes people more likely to share memes;
- Russia used “chaos operations” to meddle in the US election by using memes, bots and armies of trolls to incite polarisation.
The warfare crisis transformed our minds into weapons for hidden wars in plain sight.
Limberg and Barnes emphasise none of these crises alone created the new memetic tribes, but the combination of all six made them unavoidable:
“The meaning and reality crises created a longing for a collective is and ought. The belonging and proximity crises put the existentially isolated in close memetic quarters with those they can love and hate. The sobriety and warfare crises turned us into memetic addicts, weaponised for the strategic aims of others…”
These six crises set the stage for a new culture war for which we were severely ill-prepared. The crises were dynamite distributed throughout the collective consciousness. All that was needed were some matches to light the fire. See the Brexit referendum, Donald Trump’s election, and the Covid pandemic as fine recent examples of such firestarters.
The blue pill and red pill dichotomy
Once someone identifies a memetic tribe that offers a seemingly easy solution to their existential crises they can become susceptible to the tribe’s influence and easily start spreading its ideology. In this section, we’ll look at how someone might fall into a tribalist mindset by considering the blue pill and red pill dichotomy.
The terms “red pill” and “blue pill” refer to a scene in the film The Matrix, in which the main character, Neo, is presented with the choice between learning a potentially unsettling or life-changing truth by swallowing the red pill or remaining in contented ignorance by opting instead to take the blue pill.
The blue pill represents continuing to subscribe to the unquestioned consensus reality we have been socialised into our entire lives. A continuity of the current state of affairs i.e. living life without knowing its real meaning or running away from the truth to continue living life in the ways we have always known.
By contrast, swallowing the red pill means becoming aware of information that awakens us to a new world and shows us the invisible lies and boundaries of what we thought we knew. The seductive quality of the red pill prevents further investigation and often underpins the ostensible certainty of tribal members in the correctness of their opinions.
Venkatesh Rao, author and contributor to the blog Ribbon Farm, explains how red pills tribalise us. When we take a particular red pill, we “gain membership into a community of those who have been awakened by the same red pill” and become an active agent in a tribe that knows who the enemy is and invoke outrage and derision on anyone who dares to disagree with their sacred truths.
Rao goes on to say “the problem with red pills is that you can get stuck in a false consciousness created through affiliation with fellow possessors of “secret” (but really just closed off from critical questioning) knowledge.” And “they also gain you membership into a community of those who have been awakened by the same red pill, and recognise each other through various shibboleths.”
Maybe the red pill we took was a small part of the truth? Or, perhaps, it was just half right? It might be it is more right than the blue pill, but not a complete truth in itself?
Rao’s view on what it means to swallow the red pill brings to mind the ancient fable, The Blind Men and the Elephant, which tells the story of six blind sojourners who encounter different parts of an elephant. Each man puts his hand on one part of the elephant: the tusk, the ear, the tail, trunk, etc. Each of them is convinced that the part he is touching defines the entire elephant. The moral of the story is we all tend to claim absolute truth based on our limited, subjective experience as we ignore other people’s perceptions and end up shouting over each other.
In recent years, and somewhat ironically, the term “red pill” has gained widespread use online among conspiracy theorists and other advocates of minority views to defend their radical beliefs and indoctrination of new adherents.
An obvious way to tell when we are talking to someone who has been “red-pilled” is if we hear them say things like “I’ve got it all figured out”, “I know what is really going on”, or refer to an often unspecified “they” who we are told are consciously “trying to divide us”. The amount of statements and memes like this I’ve seen on social media has risen exponentially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Looking back, my own experiences of being “red-pilled” are clear to me. During my time as a university student back in the early noughties, I swallowed the red pill of Marxism. For several years that followed, I looked at and analysed the world through a deterministic Marxist lens. Too many hours were lost in debates both online and offline, while I extolled the virtues and absolute correctness of the philosophical teachings of Karl Marx and the revolutionary ideas of Vladimir Lenin.
The second tribalist red pill I swallowed was many years later, as I was developing a critical awareness of the overreach of gender-focused feminism. I (over)indulged the ideas of Men’s Rights Activists when engaging in that particular debate, not recognising the divisive and one-sided nature of my arguments and was in effect reflecting at my opponents the same behaviours I was criticising.
Enter the grey pill
Rao has introduced a third pill into the blue pill and red pill dichotomy called the “grey pill’”, which dilutes the apparent certainties of the red pill and puts one in a state of nuanced uncertainty. To take the grey pill is to relearn the value of questioning and doubt once we’ve been seduced by supposed answers and certainties, leaving comforting “secret” societies for continued growth.
A note of caution: the grey pill might free us to become more creative thinkers, but it can also disrupt our regular functioning operating system. In essence, being grey-pilled can provoke a full-blown existential crisis. If we question everything, we question the fundamentals of why we do anything.
However, a pay-off awaits those who manage to survive their existential crisis. Because, as Rao puts it, those who do survive, “regain an appetite for life, and experience an almost imperceptibly slow, but steadily compounding, takeoff into an intellectually alive life” as it “gets recentered around generative curiosity and openness to experience, as you resist the temptation of limiting patterns of affiliation.”
There is no pre-judgment of information as trivial or profound, true or false in such a state. Instead, we learn and grow from every encounter with novelty. Rather than looking for one “big” life-changing dose of profound knowledge we hope will be the last, we learn to craft our own path, out of changes big and small. We embrace the idea that the idea is not to “win” by red pill but to continue playing by grey pill.
Getting grey-pilled can be summarised as a three-step process:
- We begin with our unquestioned assumptions about a certain aspect of life.
- Then we are introduced to a new way of thinking, which questions those assumptions and we begin to see the world and ourselves in a new light.
- The last step is if we for any reason start to question this new way of thinking we begin to realise the situation is much more nuanced than we originally thought.
Approaching existential problems with Spiral Dynamics
People want to take action when they see something wrong in the world. However, the solutions we see are limited by our level of personal development.
Spiral Dynamics is a model and language we can adopt to describe the development level of a person, or society, or, as per the subject of this essay, that of a specific memetic tribe. Spiral Dynamics can help us understand different value systems (what the subject in question cares about and what motivates them) as they move through distinct evolutionary development levels.
The model is an abstraction like any other. As the concepts mentioned above are, too. But we can use them to gain a better understanding of a complex reality. The map, as they say, is not the territory.
I’ve included a basic version of Ken Wilber’s adaptation of the Spiral Dynamics model for his Integral Theory. This image describes each level and its related value system and demonstrates how development happens through each one in sequence.
The value system of each level fulfils its function in the right environment. A healthy person will not operate solely from one level. As we reach each new level, we should transcend and include all the levels that came before it.
A short (and vastly reduced) list of benefits to using the Spiral Dynamics model might include the following:
- Understanding how people and the environment change through distinct levels;
- Analysing the interaction between people and their environments;
- Better appreciating what drives the motivation of someone and their behaviour;
- Understanding how we can relate to people at different levels, and;
- Understanding whether the development we are seeking or providing is right for what we or others, are trying to accomplish.
We often grow vertically to the next level through significant challenges or adversity, particularly when our current worldview does not provide us with the solution required to address the situation or solve the problem at hand. An awareness of the level we have reached and that other people are operating from makes us more resourceful and able to see challenges as opportunities to grow. Such an understanding increases our ability to make sense of and impact a wider world that opens up before us.
We can say a person can be categorised into a level of development based on their values, worldview and culture. Together these elements tend to relate to the value system of one level more so than the others and whether at a first or second-tier level of consciousness.
First-tier consciousness (Green, Orange and below)
First-tier consciousness is related to seeing the world through a lens of scarcity and considering that our worldview is the only valid view.
Second-tier consciousness (Teal and above)
Second-tier consciousness is related to seeing the world through a lens of abundance and being aware that our worldview is not the only valid one. Therefore, being able to recognise and respect the value system of others.
At Teal there is a shift away from fear and scarcity to trust and abundance. This decreases our need to win or be proven correct when engaging with someone who holds a different opinion.
This shift is related to the adoption of a growth mindset. We learn that adversity, difference, and alternative opinions do not necessarily need to be the causes of conflict but opportunities to grow and develop. This helps us better deal with our interactions with others, particularly those representing different memetic tribes.
From such interactions we also gain the ability to learn about ourselves and the world in general. Living more meaningful lives and being clear on how we positively contribute to the overall health of society and the planet becomes our driving force.
When making decisions from a Teal perspective, we seek different sources of knowledge. In Orange, we can get lost in our rational and analytical abilities. In Green, we can focus too much on how we feel and avoid any rationality. In Teal, we aim to get a balanced sense of understanding, using both rationality and intuition.
It’s important to understand one level is not better than another. It doesn’t necessarily follow that things improve as we move up through the levels. For example, organisations like multinational corporations in the Orange level have caused more destruction to our planet than any type of organisation that preceded it in the lower levels.
Each level is suited to particular contexts. If we find ourselves in a war zone, functioning from the Red level would be most effective, while in a peaceful and stable environment, Green or Teal would be ideal.
As per the chart above, the tribes that operate at Orange will be formed on modernist values, such as an appreciation of rationality and science, capitalism and materialism, risk-taking and self-reliance. Those at Green hold post-modern values and, as such, demonstrate a greater appreciation for pluralism and equality, relativism and sensitivity, civil rights and environmentalism. According to Wilber and his Integral Theory, it is the incomprehension of values and seemingly unresolvable conflicts between those operating at the Orange and Green levels that are causing the worst excesses of the culture war.
No one operating solely from a tier-one level, whether Orange or Green, can address the most pressing existential problems of our time at the leading edge of consciousness and culture. That responsibility falls to sovereign individuals who can navigate between tribes, operate at different levels, include and transcend the viewpoints of Orange and Green, and indeed any level that precedes them. Certain problems require movement between levels. This also enables us to relate to others authentically.
If we lose sovereignty, we can drop down in the level we operate from and lose sight of and connection to other levels. This can be problematic if we require an operating position from another level to address a given threat. For this reason, unquestioned loyalty to a memetic tribe is dangerous. They can ratchet up our fear and invoke outrage, diminishing our sovereignty and encourage us to engage in the culture war by spreading their memes.
What are the biggest perceived problems of our time?
The latest edition of the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report, the first published since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, paints an extremely negative picture of the threats posed to humanity by the multitude of existential crises facing us.
The immediate human and economic cost of COVID-19 is severe. It threatens to scale back years of progress on reducing poverty and inequality and to further weaken social cohesion and global cooperation. Job losses, a widening digital divide, disrupted social interactions, and abrupt shifts in markets could lead to dire consequences and lost opportunities for large parts of the global population. The ramifications — in the form of social unrest, political fragmentation and geopolitical tensions — will shape the effectiveness of our responses to the other key threats of the next decade: cyberattacks, weapons of mass destruction and, most notably, climate change.
Memetic tribes are attempting to address these existential crises, which together one might call the “meta-crisis”, while engaging in the culture war. The risks are exacerbated by our collective inability to understand the nature of the problem and identify the best solutions. As such, the culture war is itself an existential risk and should be considered as urgent as those referenced in the Global Risks Report. In fact, the culture war may be the primary existential crisis to solve?
We need second-tier solutions
Too many people are operating at different developmental levels. Single-level solutions to global existential problems won’t work. However, if we consciously do the work necessary to integrate all levels, it can help us. If we keep operating at the first tier, we’ll:
- Keep attempting the same “solutions” that don’t work;
- Accelerate the existential problems on the planet;
- Never solve or overcome The Six Crises;
- Be blind to better solutions that are available to us.
Approaching the gap
The gap between first-tier and second-tier consciousness is often a period of intense nihilism and existential crisis, which can feel like freefall. We know we have entered the gap when:
- Our previous world models can no longer solve problems;
- Our tribe no longer has all the answers;
- We become untethered from how we previously defined ourselves.
Making the jump
What is required to make the jump into second-tier consciousness? We must take the grey pill! Concrete ways we can do this include:
- Practising intellectual humility;
- Learning to question and doubt all answers;
- Becoming comfortable in not knowing;
- Assuming we have something to learn or build upon at each level.
- Integrating our shadows.
Suggestions and self-reflections
For this section, I will circle back to Limberg and Barnes and consider some of their suggestions about how we might navigate the memetic landscape, and provide some self-reflection.
1. Admit to our biases
We might start by being honest about our biases and tribal affiliations. Admit the epistemic frameworks and value structures from which we operate, thus abandoning the pretence to neutrality and opening the door to a more honest engagement. A first step could be for memetic creators, from journalists to bloggers, to commit to making clear their foundational presumptions.
As a blogger, here are mine: I am a member of the Social Democratic Party. Therefore, my politics might be classed as communitarian (Orange) with a progressive economic focus (Green) — a post-liberal position, one might say.
As evidenced by the models I’ve used in this article, my memetic tribal biases lean in favour of the more dovish and observerist tribes, such as the post-rationalists, Integral Theorists, and meta-modernists. My biases also turn me away from the post-modernist tribes such as the Social Justice Warriors, one is most likely to encounter at the Green level of the Spiral Dynamics model.
2. Learn to debate for the sake of sensemaking, not winning
In Sensemaking Debates, participants debate for understanding and exploration, not to “win” according to the metrics of who was most successful at imparting their opinions or installing an ideology. Debating with the sole aim of improving our sensemaking would be infinitely more constructive, and might actually be more fun. It would allow the purported values of debate to actually flourish. David Brin’s idea of “Disputation Arenas”, William MacAskill’s “Anti-Debates” and Bryan Caplan’s “Ideological Turing Test” are three debate modalities we could adopt to help create more generative conversations.
3. Develop “human skills” that help us relate to other people
Human skills can be defined as the ability to connect with what is “human” about another person. By focussing on developing our own abilities to communicate effectively, understand body language, increase our capacity for empathy, improve our self-awareness with the adoption of a growth mindset, we strengthen our authentic connections with other humans. A civilisation-wide increase of human skills might even assist in cultivating a new higher level of collective consciousness. If one becomes skilled at relating to others for its own sake, across tribal affiliation, it may allow people to bypass tribalistic affinities and allow for a “Protean Tribalism” to emerge. A Protean Tribe would be fluid and context-based, in contrast to the increasingly rigid identities we derive from our tribal memberships today.
4. Pledge not to produce or engage in “outrage porn”
Anyone who uses social media will be familiar with “outrage porn” whether they understand the term itself, have shared it themselves or have at least seen it. Outrage porn might be a meme, a news article, TV segment, text, or other forms of media designed to invoke outrage. This is especially true for political-related topics. Viewers of outrage porn often become addicted and spend many hours a day seeking new outrage highs. Outrage porn checks all the boxes of compelling content — it is high valence, it drives comments, it assuages the ego, projects guilt onto a scapegoat and looks jolly good on our Facebook Feeds. I profess I’m as guilty as the next person for having produced outrage porn in the past. Most notably during my aforementioned red pill periods and, of late, due to my confessed allergy to Green tribes.
The world is going through six crises: meaning, reality fragmentation, belonging, globalisation, overstimulation and cultural warfare. There is no longer a single consensus reality, and our ability to make sense of the world is fractured. A multitude of memetic tribes are engaged in a culture war with each other, each trying to fill the meaning gap, and operating at different levels of psychological development. Single-level solutions to existential problems no longer work. Solving these problems requires second-tier solutions.
A blue pill is subscribing to the unquestioned consensus reality we have been socialised into. A red pill is some information that awakens us to a new world beyond the boundaries of what we thought we knew. A grey pill is the process of questioning and doubting all the answers and certainties which makes us evolve. “Grey-pilling” is an important tool in making the jump from first-tier to second-tier consciousness.
We can more productively navigate the present memetic tribal landscape by admitting our biases and tribal affiliations, learning how to debate to make sense and not to win, develop “human skills” to better relate to others, and stop sharing “outrage porn”.