David Heinemeier Hansson

March 4, 2022

Weak principles, strong tribes

One of the most compelling metaphors of the battle between emotion and reason is that of the elephant and the rider. I first encountered it in Jonathan Haidt's book The Righteous Mind. It goes like this:

The mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning—the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes—the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior.

It's the same underlying premise to Julia Galaef's book The Scout Mindset. We launder our arguments and reasoning through the tribal wash. Which is made easier by the fact that many valiant principles are in opposition to each other, and that you can often conveniently lean on the ones that serve the moment and your tribe. Without even consciously being aware of this process of motivated reasoning.

But I think we're unconsciously very aware, actually. Which is why it often appears that the most infuriating, polarizing figures are those who do not succumb to this tribal-first reasoning. They mere being insert a splinter in the minds of those embracing the tribal stance – i.e. most people – that living closer to universal principles is possible.

In my book, one of the best examples of this is Glenn Greenwald. He used to be a hero of the left when he was haunting the Bush administration during the early Iraq War years. But slowly, then all at once, fell out of favor when he applied the same principles of inquiry to first the Obama administration, then later to Hillary and the loss to Trump.

The same principles that drew applause when they were directed against the right suddenly invoked the most indignant contempt when they were applied to the left. And it cut both ways! Those on the right who would have had no bones calling him a traitor during the Bush years now happily embraced his inquiries during the Obama years and today.

It didn't even matter to many that he broke several of the biggest stories of our time. Like the Snowden revelations and the Brazilian corruption scandals. The fact that he applied universal principles caused such severe cognitive-dissonance hangovers amongst former supporters that he now seemed worse than even the other side. He became a traitor to the team.

But what perhaps impresses me the most about Greenwald's continued quest for universal principles is his seemingly unlimited faith in the possibility of a world that could be governed by such high-minded ideals. Despite the recurring evidence to the contrary. Despite the torrent of insults and jeers that meets his repeated attempts at applying such principles.

The world needs unreasonably reasonable people. To give us hope that principles can serve a higher cause, not just be used to score partisan points. Even if I'm probably more convinced than ever that Haidt's metaphor simply is the base nature of humanity. That we're hard-wired to be of weak principles and strong tribal allegiance.

It's unlikely that we'll suddenly all become perfect scouts through intellectual role modeling, but minting more scouts with stronger allegiance to universal principles is still a noble cause.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.