“The single most important intellectual trend of our time is the popular rediscovery of human tribalism,” Jonathan Rauch wrote earlier this month in an influential op-ed in The Washington Post. Now the conversation on tribalism rolls on. In her new book, Political Tribes: Group Thinking and The Fate of Nations, Amy Chua of Yale Law School turns tribalism into an omnipresent transcendental force that purports to explain conflicts that are both domestic and global.
Writing in a decidedly deterministic vein, Chua contends that:
“Humans are tribal. We need to belong to groups. We crave bonds and attachments, which is why we love clubs, teams, fraternities, family.”
From this standpoint, virtually every association and group mutates into a variant of tribalism. Yet, there are groups, and there are groups and the motives that inspire people to join a tennis club should not be interpreted as a variant of those that lead people to become members of a social justice movement or the Ku Klux Klan. Nor is it particularly useful — as Chua does — to portray the ethnic conflict in Iraq with the explosion of identity politics inspired tensions on American campuses.
Chua’s account highlights the divisive and destructive consequences of the explosion of suspicion and mistrust between alt-right and alt-left and growing variety of identity groups in the US, and as it happens, most of the Anglo-American world. Yet, though outwardly the politicization of ethnicity and identity appears to bear all the hallmarks of a tribal struggle, its most distinctive features have little to do with the human “need to belong to groups.”
I identify as…
There is much more to contemporary identity politics today than the valorization of a group or a tribe. Arguably the emphasis on belonging to a distinct group is the least distinctive feature of identity politics today. Since the 19th century, identitarian movements boasted of the special and distinct cultural characteristic of their group identity. They continue to do so today.
However, identity politics in the current era has seen a fundamental shift in focus from the group to the individual. When a student protestor declares, I identify as…., the message is clearly a statement about that individual person. Typically, student protestors draw attention to their fragile identity and flaunt their sensitivity to feeling offended. They frequently adopt a therapeutic language, and most important of all, they constantly talk about themselves and their feelings. Often what seems to matter is not what you argue, but who you are. Take an article in the Columbia Spectator, the newspaper published by students at Columbia University. The article begins with the statement: “Let me begin by stating some crucial facts: I am queer, multiracial woman of color. I am survivor of sexual assault and suffer from multiple mental illnesses. I am a low-income, first-generation student.”
The ‘crucial facts’ pertaining to her identity serve to endow the writer of this article with moral authority. In this “it’s all about me” call for her identity to be respected; her actual arguments are secondary to her status as a multiple victim. Moreover, the possession of a multiple victim-identity is far more important to her, than an affiliation to a single tribe.
The misguided slogan of the 1970s, “the personal is political,” has given way to the infantilized rhetoric of “it’s all about me.” The words “I” and “me” have become a central feature of the vocabulary of narcissistic protests that characterize the current era. Protestors chanting “Not in My name” or flaunting their #Metoo badge are making a statement about themselves.
There is something disturbingly immature about individual protestors signaling their virtues through posting selfies of themselves holding up a placard stating, “I am angry, and I demand respect.” The emphasis is not on drawing attention to misdeeds directed at the tribe but on hurt experienced by the individual. The refrain, “I am offended” is not the statement of a tribalist but of an atomized and self-absorbed individual.
In recent years, protest frequently serves as a medium for the affirmation of identity. As Italian sociologist Alberto Mellucci observed, “participation in collective action is seen to have no value for the individual unless it provides a direct response to personal needs.”
What we see on campuses today, is far more the politics of ‘it’s all about me’ than that of old-school tribalism. Of course, the current obsession with self-identity is frequently expressed through a group form. The statement, I identify as…… is followed by a predicate that relates to a particular group. Nevertheless, what really matters to the person making a statement is the “I.” This focus on the personal is echoed by both the alt-right and the alt-left. The hysterical exchanges between the two sides serve as testimony to the polarising potential of the personal is political.
One of the least noticed but most significant features of the current phase of identity politics is its tendency towards fragmentation and individuation. There is a growing tendency towards the proliferation of identity groups and also towards separatism. For example, on February 23, 2018, Stonewall, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights advocacy group announced that it had withdrawn from the established London Pride parade. Instead, it will support UK Black Pride because it feels that London Pride is not sufficiently “inclusive.” Outwardly, such disputes between different identity warriors have a tribalistic flavor. But what drives such conflicts is the ethos of “it’s all about me” or what Freud referred to as the narcissism of small differences.
In her book, Chua draws attention to the proliferation of identities. She notes the long list of more than 50 gender designations of Facebook and the Balkanisation of gender identities. Arguably, the dynamic driving the Balkanisation of gender identities is the individualistic impulse of owning your own brand. What drives this process is not the desire to share a sense of solidarity or belonging to a group but the craving to be different from others. Chua’s emphasis of the group and the tribe overlooks the prevailing counter-tendencies towards the consolidation of community — tribal or otherwise.
Given the culturally, racially and ethnically polarized atmosphere in America, it is understandable that observers have sought to interpret these developments through the frame of tribalism. Writing in this vein, Rauch echoes Chua when he argues that the popular rediscovery of tribalism is “the single most important intellectual trend of our time.”
Though, Rauch rightly draws attention to the “ever-narrowing group identities,” he does not reflect on the question of what drives this process of fragmentation. Hyper-atomization of campuses, as reflected through demands for all-black or all-gay dormitories and for other forms of self-ghettoization highlight the prevailing sensibility of “we can’t live with one another.”
The real problem facing western societies is not so much the flourishing of tribal identities by the corrosive power of atomization that expresses itself in the form of an identity group. The ever-narrowing group identities referred to here should be understood as a process that I describe as the “diminishing scale of loyalties.” As loyalty acquires a diminished focus, forms of solidarity that transcend the individual self lose their appeal. That is the predicament facing 21st-century society.