Wednesday, September 19, 2012

It's "National Don't Talk Like a Tribalist" Day

I've been wanting to write about this for some time, but wasn't sure I had properly sorted out my ideas.  This morning, though, the blogger VastLeft tweeted and posted on Facebook that today is "talk like a tribalist day! #everyday", and I realized I was just going to have to become the change I wanted to see in the world ... Seriously, I know from experience that I usually don't sort out my ideas on a subject until I write about it, so here goes.

I first noticed the words "tribal" and "tribalism" turning up as pejorative buzzwords in Glenn Greenwald's writing.  At first blush I thought the words were racist, since they imply that mindless solidarity is somehow a trait of 'primitive' foreigners; at second glance I still think they're racist.  Since modern Enlightenment white people tend to exhibit the same attitudes and behavior, it's factually incorrect to use a word that implies that they are signs of primitiveness.  By the same logic, breathing, eating, copulating, raising children, singing, dancing, and telling stories are primitive and "tribal," since tribal peoples do all these things and more.  It's also irrational, since it's really only a smear, like calling something "low-class."

More recently I noticed that VastLeft was using "tribal" more often; he's as apt to accuse Democrats as Republicans of tribalism as Greenwald is, but that's because they don't belong to either tribe.  So I was gratified at first when a commenter on Facebook wrote,
I know! Those Republicans are so tribalist. I'm glad that we liberals are so not tribalist, unlike those ugly stupid Republicans who wear tacky clothes!!!
To which I replied that we non-tribalists must stick together.  But as much fun as that was, it was too easy.  I might have been wrong to assume that the commenter meant to point out that using "tribalism" this way is a form of "tribalism" itself. VastLeft does, after all, attack liberals who are tribalist about the Right.  He is, however, ready to Other creationists, Bible-thumpers, and religious believers generally, on the tacit assumption that just being an atheist and rejecting religions is enough to make one a member of the Good Tribe of Enlightenment rationalists, critical thinkers, open-minded freethinkers, "Brights."  One of the reasons I've never put one of those red atheist A's on this blog is that it is, in this pejorative sense, a tribalist symbol.  I also stopped wearing lambdas and other gay-community symbols like the pink triangle a couple of decades ago, don't fly a rainbow flag or wear "freedom rings," though I didn't really think through my lack or loss of interest in them at the time.  I'm not saying these are bad things and no one should display them, understand, only that they don't interest me.  And yet I'm quite firm in identifying myself, labeling myself, as gay, as atheist, and so on -- as descriptive labels, not as badges of us/them.

Human beings are a social species.  We can't survive without the community and support of other human beings.  Community -- or tribalism, used as a descriptor rather than as a pejorative -- is a necessity for us.  Like any other natural phenomenon, it has its pitfalls: cliquishness, stereotyping, unthinking loyalty, xenophobia, ethnocentrism.  (I always think of Paul Goodman's remark, "I'm all for community because it is a human thing, only I always seem to be left out.")  And I'm enthusiastic about people joining together, working together, belong to communities of various kinds.  One reason I'm insistent about multiple identities is that I believe that remembering we all belong to more than one tribe can help avoid the kind of thinking and behavior that Greenwald and VastLeft want to stigmatize as "tribalism."

According to this blogger, the writer Sam Harris "thinks that even calling yourself 'atheist' is labeling yourself for theist's convenience and argues why have a name for what you DON'T believe in? You probably don't believe in astrology or ghosts either so do you need a special name for NOT believing in those things too?"  This doesn't keep Harris from Othering religous believers and other groups he thinks of as irrational, of course.  The reason to "have a name for what you DON'T believe in" seems obvious enough to me in this case, just because so many people believe in gods.  But I'm not wedded to the word "atheist."  I'm just as happy to say that I don't believe in gods, and I meet enough people, weirdly enough, who don't know what "atheist" means that I often have to explain it anyway.

On the other hand, I have enough differences with other atheists that I think it's important for me to insist that I am an atheist despite this, not out of "tribalism" but to stress that we are not a tribe, that there is no atheist creed, no loyalty oaths, and atheists (including me) are not exempt from my disagreement or criticism.  Atheism, like any other label, is vast, it contains multitudes.  You can't solve the difficulties this entails by drawing a line in the sand; you have to learn to manage the complexities.  (Sometimes I think of this as the difference between Aristotelianism and Platonism: Platonism postulates identities and ideal types, while Aristoteleanism enumerates variety and family resemblances.)

In the same way, I think it illustrates my point, and may be valuable, if I vote for Obama and criticize him relentlessly, because so many people think that a vote for a candidate entails slavish, uncritical devotion to him or her forever after.  Likewise, the anthropologist and Hindu monk Agehandanda Bharati used to say that one can be a believer and a sound scholar if one "radically criticize[s] the doctrine with which one identifies, pointing out its weaknesses, its foibles, and the clay feet of its founders and sustainers, at every step."* Knowing that accepting an identity doesn't exempt you from the obligation of thinking critically about it is, I think, one remedy for what Greenwald and VastLeft call "tribalism."  Using "tribalism" as a derisive label is no remedy at all -- it's part of the problem.

In honor of VastLeft's "talk like a tribalist day," I'm going to rename this blog for a few days. Arggghhhhh.

*Agehananda Bharati, The Light at the Center: Context and Pretext of Modern Mysticism, Ross-Erikson, 1976, page 68.  In the same book Bharati says in passing. "A primitive society, by anthropological criteria, is a small, band-like society structured entirely on kinship lines, which does not deploy fulltime specialists for anything" (142).  Two things about this: 1) it's not derogatory or racist to use the word "primitive" in this way, just as there is a definition of "tribal" that isn't derogatory or racist, but either word can be used to put down what one doesn't like in one's own allegedly "advanced" culture, just as "childish" can be; 2) by Bharati's definition there are still "primitive" aspects of modern Western society, and these are not necessarily bad: friendship, kinship, taking care of others as amateurs rather than as specialists, without expecting cash payment for doing so.  In their use of "tribal" as a pejorative, however, Greenwald and VastLeft are doing something different, like Christians dismissing all non-Yahwists as "pagans."