Being a Free Thinker
Anti-Tribalism: The Case for Critical Thinking
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Being a free, critical, and independent thinker is in my blood. Always has been. As a kid I was always different. I gave things more thought than the average bear. In my teens I pushed wildly back against my parents in the form of punk rock, which included alcoholism and violence. (It was fun but, looking back, scary. I’m lucky to be alive.) But even at the young age of 18, I remember being at a punk show in Ventura—an hour north of LA, where I grew up—and, in the middle of the sonic fury that was some band playing, all of us chaotic and thrilling to the manic, thrumming beat, looking around me in a 360 degree circle, and then at myself, and having this distinct thought: We all look exactly the same.
I realized: Punk rock was a costume, no different, really from a yuppie or tech-bro. The ideology and politics might be vastly different, but in the end it was the same basic phenomenon: Insecure people, banding together to form some sort of identifiable unit with which they belonged.
From that moment forward—around the year 2001—I think the internal mechanism within me started to shift. I shifted, slowly, subtly, semi-consciously, from angry punk rock rebel (or so I imagined myself) to burgeoning writer. This new identity, which I didn’t truly start latching onto until my early twenties, began, over time, to seem more and more authentic, more and more me. It made sense. My mother was a writer, having written a column for a national magazine for a while, and having both essays, stories and several books published. My uncle on my mom’s side, too, was a novelist. Two cousins were writers.
But the alcohol had its way with me. I couldn’t write anything when drunk. I remember living in North Oakland circa 2009, early 2010, thinking, Ok, I’m going to be like Bukowski or Kerouac. [Insert laugh-line here.] I’m going to drink this six-pack and then write the best short story of my life. But there was one massive, unsurmountable, Sisyphean problem here: I was an alcoholic; I take one sip and I’m as they say in AA circles, “off to the races.” The issue was that I couldn’t just drink a “six-pack.” I took a drink and I drank until blackout. I’d sometimes write something, maybe a paragraph or two, perhaps a page. But, hungover the next morning, reading what I’d written, I’d understand instantly that it was trash.
It wasn’t until I quit the bottle on September 24th, 2010, that I began, immediately and intensely, with all the fire inside which I’d denied for my whole life, to take writing seriously. And frankly: It was only then that I began to take life in general seriously. Everything before that precise date was a time-capsule full of rage, fear, hate; all the bottled-up emotions I’d carried inside since the moment I fell out of my mother’s womb on New Year’s Eve, 1982.
So there I was, 27 years old, sober for the first time, and frantically writing everything down that rushed through my brain. And it was a lot. A whole autobiographical novel about high school spooled out of me like a river racing down a steep mountain, crashing around and over rocks and boulders like nothing. Days passed where I wrote 3,000, 5,000, 7,000 words or more. It just flowed. I simply could not stop writing. As John Mayer said on his album: Inside wanted out.
Things moved from there. For eight months, when first sober, I’d moved to Portland, Oregon. A close friend from Ventura had moved up there in 2008 and I figured I needed out of Oakland. But less than a year later I was back, subsisting in a little illegal converted-garage shoebox studio on Alcatraz Avenue in North Oakland. It was perfect. Here, I wrote like a fiend and got my first story traditionally published in a little UK magazine. I was 29 years old. They paid me. I was thrilled. It was 2012.
In high school I’d had a best friend named Michael, like me. Everyone called us Mike, ergo we were deemed “Mike Squared.” He was tall and thin and blond and blue-eyed, the polar opposite to my short and thick and dark-haired and brown-eyed. We made a good, nutty team. Punk rock. Literature. Fast cars. Fun. Forties. Havoc.
But after high school, my friend group dwindled. I got deeper and deeper into my solipsistic, narcissistic alcoholism. I hurt myself and other people routinely, usually emotionally or verbally but sometimes even physically. By the time I got to sobriety, at 27, I had a few fellow drunks for friends, people who were as broken and spiritually wracked as me. Deeply flawed, wounded humans. We all needed help.
In my later twenties and early thirties I had some friends on and off, and a small, close, intimate circle of AA buddies. I had girlfriends, of course. But I became more and more like my family, my parents, particularly my father. My mom referred to my dad as being “self-sustaining” which was another way of saying he was a loner. I related to this. Still do. I am what’s called an extroverted-introvert: I like being around people for a while—I can even sometimes be the life of the party—but then I need to recharge my emotional batteries and be away from humans for at least a few days, ideally more like a week or more. People scare the shit out of me: They’re unpredictable, moody, often meretricious, sometimes angry and judgmental, critical, confused, and usually lack self-awareness, insensitive, etc.
Now, the ironic thing is, of course, as someone who IS self-aware: I know that I myself demonstrate many of these very same traits. I know! Ludicrous, right?! Ah, the messy complex reality of being a bag of contradictions. We’re all so hopelessly, horrifically human. Yes. I know. I am a hypocrite. But I acknowledge this. That, my friends, is the difference. Plus I don’t foist myself or my time/energy on anyone. I am fine with being alone. I prefer it, for the most part. Not 100% of the time. And I have learned that a small group of genuine, caring friends—people you can call at 3am on a Wednesday, if need be—are crucial. And I have that, which I am forever grateful. Yet, still. Generally speaking: I am my own person; my own man. I live my life my way, on my terms. Always have.
The problem is: Most people aren’t like this. Most people do belong to big friend groups, and do belong to political and other tribes. This is what makes it hard for most people to disagree today. We’re all siloed off into our little groups and tribes and these groups and tribes seem to generally do our thinking for us. I am, of course, generalizing here. But broadly it seems to ring true. Think of a friend group, especially if it mostly takes place online or via text thread, etc. Imagine seriously criticizing something the group said/agreed with en masse. Imagine proposing a political or social view which conflicted or even contradicted something the group agreed on.
How do you think the group would react?
This is the unconscious/unspoken pressure that keeps a lid on individual thinking.
But see, for me, I don’t have that problem. Because I’m a loner. Someone who loves, even craves, solitude. One of my favorite activities is backpacking in the mountains for days at a time, no cell service, miles and miles into the backcountry, alone. Nothing is more spiritual or more grounding for me than that. But look, humans are by nature social creatures. We want to agree with the group because it feels safer, and in many ways it is. Agreeing with your tribe protects you from expulsion. Certainly there are deep, core evolutionary drives which want us to stay protected and connected to our tribe.
Since I personally don’t have this problem, though, and since the people who are my friends expect me to disagree with them often (I know: I’m a lot of work), I can get away with telling the truth. I say the truth, not “my” truth because I’m not referring, usually, to personal anecdotes which I try to expand to scale to represent overarching societal reality (as the far left does), but rather concepts which are backed up by hard data, statistics, polls by Pew, Gallup, Politico, etc. We have an epidemic today of people using personal anecdote—or even personal anecdote from others—to make larger claims about society as a whole. Race and gender are obvious examples here. The personal anecdotes often clash with what we know about the actual data.
My point is: People love contemporary thinkers such as Sam Harris, Coleman Hughes, Glenn Loury, John McWhorter, and older ones like David Foster Wallace, Elif Batumin, Ottessa Moshfegh, and even older ones such as Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, etc etc etc, precisely for one major reason (other than the fact they these are all brilliant writers): They think/thought independently.
Nowadays you simply can’t trust mainstream media. I know that sounds like a “right wing talking point,” but it’s not; I am not a Republican, nor a Conservative, nor do I read anything from the Right. Up until a year ago my main sources of news were The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Harper’s Magazine. Every election I’ve ever voted in, starting when I could in 2001, whether city, state or federal, has been cast for a Democrat. Every single one.
My reactions to politics and ideology stem from one source: My own critical mind.
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