Tag Archives: tribalism

Five Realities of Tribal Politics

Chattering classes throughout the world are talking about identity politics and with good reason. It is propelling the so-called populist movements, and the response to those movements, which are shaking the foundations of almost every society today. Whether a polity is democratic, authoritarian, or anarchic, it is awash with clamorous appeals to relatively narrow allegiances based on race, religion, class, social position, gender, ideology, party — and typically some combination of them.

In the United States, college campuses, where our future voters and leaders are seeded, are the breeding grounds for these sectarian dispositions. There, young people newly emancipated from their families’ supervision are free to define themselves afresh. There, they are pressured by peers and professors alike, as well as social media, to endorse the orthodoxy of the tribe.

The notion that there are but two sides on important questions – right versus wrong, tolerant versus bigoted, progressive versus conservative — is an unfortunate feature of this war of words. The real world, when they finally enter it, will discipline their minds in ways that their campus lives have not, but the residue of ideologies already implanted there may continue to shape them as voters and fellow citizens. So, here’s this professor’s effort to clarify the nature of identitarian rhetoric.

I offer five propositions that may confound partisans on all sides.

First, all politics is identity politics even though the identities that are emphasized constitute but a small part of who we really are. This is neither a new phenomenon – bitter, seemingly unbridgeable divisions have often occurred in American history — nor the exclusive or even predominant preserve of the left or the right. In any democracy, electoral politics means, among other things, dividing people up rather than uniting them, which is much harder. Getting elected entails “rubbing raw the sores of discontent” and “mobilizing bias” (as two analysts have put it).

All human societies are tribal. As Amy Chua argues in a new book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, we all seek warmth and solidarity from those who we think are like us in some important respects. But beyond a certain point, tribalism can be pathological. Half of Republicans and a third of Democrats say they would be upset if their child married a member of the other party, and these antipathies are steadily deepening. This growing polarization of the parties parallels clustering of partisans in states, localities, and even neighborhoods, and it is occurring within parties as well.

Second, the appeal to the traditional transcendent unifying norms are debatable – notably “American values” and “the American Dream” –are debatable; they no longer do the unifying work that they once did. This, even though almost all Americans, including the poor, enjoy a rising standard of living. In truth, these appeals beg fundamental questions of morality and complex policy on which Americans significantly differ, so it is not surprising that we cannot agree about value-laden and empirically contested issues like immigration, the government’s role in healthcare, the integrity of law enforcement, abortion, gun control, and many more.

Third, even the terms and categories that we use to think about and discuss identity issues are over-simplified — in some areas grotesquely so. Occupying center stage is the subject of race. Although science long ago showed it to be a meaningless, misleading concept, both sides deploy it aggressively and simplistically to conceal inconvenient truths. The right contends that race is only a battleground because activist groups like Black Lives Matter, campus protesters, and other “outside agitators” exploit it. Leftist groups divide society into whites, blacks, and other people of color even though a significant share of Americans carry other ancestries, and intermarriage among these groups has greatly increased. Campus activists deem whites to be categorically “privileged,” yet the vast majority of poor people are white or non-black, and over half of “Hispanics,” many of them poor, self-identify as white. Only about a third of black students at Harvard had four grandparents descended from slaves; the great majority were West Indian and African immigrants or their children. The good news is that far more young people socialize and marry inter-racially unlike their more restricted grandparents, who in any event are dying out.

Fourth, identity-talk makes no serious effort to engage with the teachings of social science. Yet, empirical facts, careful distinctions, and hard-eyed assessment of policy consequences could complicate the easy moralizing and aggressive guilt-mongering in which identitarians of all stripes wallow. For example, sociologist Orlando Patterson has shown that the life experiences of black men and black women are so different that to treat them as a single “community” is vastly, even tragically misguided. By the same token, “immigrants” are not a single category but rather a congeries of people with sharply different social, cultural, economic, and legal statuses – and hence identities. To speak of immigrants generically, as we all tend to do, obscures their differences and misleads our judgments about them.

Finally, identity-talk is almost always more certain of its own premises — and more ignorant or indifferent to those on the other side of the lines it draws — than it should be. Smugness in the face of contradiction is endemic. Cosmopolitan liberals, for example, feel beleaguered by what they take to be an oppressive conservative hinterland now controlling Washington and the country. (Here, the classic New Yorker cover lampooning this view comes to mind). Yet as others have observed, liberalism has actually won the culture war, which in the long run is far more consequential for how we think, live, and vote. Conservatives have their own grievances, intensified by their own blind spots. Their bitter attack on Obamacare (which borrowed from Republican ideas) despite their inability to propose a viable alternative while controlling the machinery of government is but one example; another is the ease with which evangelical Christians continue to support a president who flagrantly violates their most fundamental moral commitments.

Yes, we are tribal, and yes, our tribes are blinded by ignorance and self-righteousness. Perhaps this has always been true. But our politicians were simply better at both unifying the voters that they had just tactically divided, and the institutions fragmented by our Constitution. In the end, we must reduce the hold that our tribes have over us, and we must elect those who share this goal.

Identity Politics v. the New ‘Me Generation’

 “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.

Yes, the Weird Campus Culture Pollutes the Whole Nation Now

Several correspondents send me links to “must read” articles every few days. High up on the list since February 9, has been Andrew Sullivan’s New York Magazine article, “We All Live on Campus Now.” Like most “must reads,” Sullivan’s article is a blazing reassertion of what most people already know. Its claim, as Pope defined “true wit” in his Essay on Criticism, is to present “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d.”

What Sullivan expresses so well is the diminution of the concept of the individual next to the Colossus of Identity Group. He gets there by puncturing the fantasy that the victim culture on campus begins to disappear as you make your way down main street and over to the business district.

We did already know this, didn’t we? When Google fired James Damore in 2017 for writing a memo in which he commented on psychological differences between men and women, we had a clue. When Mozilla fired its CEO Brendan Eich in 2014 for having once donated $1,000 to Proposition 8, we had an inkling. When Harvard ousted president Larry Summers way back in 2006 for making carefully hedged observations about the distribution across the sexes of Himalayan-level mathematical aptitude, we had a whisper.

Plainly we have all known for a very long time that the quips and cranks, and wanton wiles of political correctness had become the jollity of everyday life in America. Yesterday I interviewed a candidate for a position as an editor of my journal, and when I mentioned that we stick with “he” as the third-person generic pronoun, a look of barely veiled horror shrank across her face. By the time we got to my opposition to racial preferences, this poor mortal was ready to flee for her life.

Why? Because all right-thinking people know the new rules. The diversity of victimization is the only diversity that now matters in America. A few days back a reporter called me for comment on whether the new Hollywood blockbuster, The Black Panther, could rightly be faulted for not giving adequate attention to the doubling and tripling of victim statuses called “intersectionality.” Apparently, the filmmakers had cut some Lesbian love scenes that black activist and scriptwriter Ta-Nehisi Coates had added to the fantasy pic. Intersectionality is where all the injustices, phobias, and –isms come together in the great banquet of identity group suffering, something like the palace of the devils, Pandemonium, in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

The attentive reader cannot have failed to notice my various allusions to dead white male poets and living white male overachievers. They are here as my support group. My own cultural identity, which I’ve long understood to be that of an American who has an interest in history, literature, and ideas, has been yanked away by the edict of our Cultural Czars. In its stead, I find I find that I am to understand myself by the coordinates of race, sex, and privilege. (I refuse the word “gender.” It concedes the falsehood that sexual differences are entirely “socially constructed.”)

I don’t care for this new reductionism, and I find it hard to believe that many other people care for it either, except those who derive their livelihoods by striding the webs of identity group affiliation. To be sure, resentment and anger provide a certain source of gratification.

Sullivan observes how “the imperatives of an identity-based ‘social justice’ movement” are dragging America away from “liberal democracy.”  Sullivan should know, as he played his own part in attaching some of the chains to the tow truck. He may regret the zeal with which the next generation of activists continue the work of dismantling the foundations of family and civilized order. As for the “individual,” it is surprising how such a Gibraltar of a concept could crumble into postmodern dust in the space of a generation.

The readiness of students to discard academic freedom for “safe spaces” is a readiness to shrug off their individuality in favor of the supposed comforts of group identity. That this has been carried into popular culture and politics is undeniable. That we can watch it invade the precincts of business and commerce is astonishing. It is as though all the defensive forces have thrown down their weapons and fled.

“The whole concept of an individual who exists apart from group identity is slipping from the discourse,” writes Sullivan, and he is on the money. When he turns to President Trump as the arch-avatar of these sorry developments, however, I am not so sure. Trump, of course, is frequently chastised as having called forth the legions of white identity reactionaries, and his style is often crude, but it is also hard to think of him as anything but an unreformed individual. His bluster is the rodomontade of a self-made man. He mocks the conventions of identity politics, which can be mistaken as indulging those conventions.

But I wouldn’t insist on the point. Sullivan does excellent work surveying the cratered terrain where radical feminists, cultural Marxists, and social justice warriors of all sorts have lobbed their mortar shells and nearly obliterated all traces of civilized culture. Learning how to treat people as individuals again will take a long recuperation. As a misogynist writer once put it, this is our own Farewell to Arms.

Photo: The 5 Factions of DIVERGENT Thought Leaders – Leading Thought (Flickr)

The Rising Danger of Left-Right Tribalism

Ignore the unfortunate headline (“America Wasn’t Built for Humans”). This is a   brilliant essay by Andrew Sullivan from the September 19 issue of New York Magazine, sure to irritate both the right and left, on the dangerous tribalism Americans have fallen into.

An excerpt:

Not all resistance to mass immigration or multiculturalism is mere racism or bigotry; and not every complaint about racism and sexism is baseless. Many older white Americans are not so much full of hate as full of fear. Equally, many minorities and women face genuine blocks to their advancement because of subtle and unsubtle bias, and it is not mere victim-mongering. We also don’t have to deny African-American agency in order to account for the historic patterns of injustice that still haunt an entire community. We need to recall that most immigrants are simply seeking a better life, but also that a country that cannot control its borders is not a country at all. We’re rightly concerned that religious faith can easily lead to intolerance, but we needn’t conclude that having faith is a pathology. We need not renounce our cosmopolitanism to reengage and respect those in rural America, and we don’t have to abandon our patriotism to see that the urban mix is also integral to what it means to be an American today. The actual solutions to our problems are to be found in the current no-man’s-land that lies between the two tribes. Reentering it with empiricism and moderation to find different compromises for different issues is the only way out of our increasingly dangerous impasse.