Monday, December 31, 2012

"Tribalism" and the End of the Year Blahs ...

... to be followed, I suspect, by New Year blahs in short order.  I don't entirely know why I've slowed down in this last week of the year, though it's partly because of the heavy snow we got on the day after Christmas, and refreshed on Saturday and today.  No matter; it will pass.

I see that of the three big projects I listed in my agenda for this year, I didn't get to even one.  That's not terrible, because two of them had been on the back burner for several years anyway.  Maybe this year.

But one thing I can do, and that's to post a small supplement to my post on my unease with the word "tribalism," as used by left and progressive bloggers.  After I wrote it, I came across a book called Mistaking Africa: Curiosities and Inventions of the American Mind by Curtis Keim, published by Westview Press in 1999.  It's a reasonably short and accessible account of the ways Americans, white and to a lesser extent black, invent an Africa they want to believe in, rather than the Africa that is there. There's an entire chapter devoted to the word and concept of "tribe," and it confirms my sense that "tribal" and "tribalism," as used by white progressives, have racist overtones.

Keim writes that words like "nation," "people," and "tribe"
began to diverge in meaning in the late eighteenth century.  Europeans, who increasingly thought of themselves as more advanced than other peoples, needed words to distinguish themselves from others.  The word people retained its general usage, but nations came to thought of as larger groupings with more complex social structures and technologies.  The word tribes was reserved for groups that were smaller and, supposedly, simpler and less evolved.  Our modern ideas about primitives and the Dark Continent emerged in the same era.  By the mid-nineteenth century, the word tribe had assumed a negative meaning that implied political organizations that were primordial, backward, irrational, and static.  A person didn't join a tribe; one was born into it.  People in civilized societies could actively select from among different, creative courses of action, but tribal people followed tribal customs without thinking.  It was indeed fortunate for tribes that they had such customs to guide their actions, because members were so limited intellectually.  Of course, "tribalism" was expected of such people.  In other words, to be tribal was to be genetically incapable of more advanced thought or political organizations.

In the twentieth century, the meaning of the word tribe, as it applied to Africa, developed in two directions.  The first, favored by white politicians and colonial administrators, was a variation of the nineteenth-century definition of tribes as having closed boundaries and unchanging customs.  This was administratively useful because it allowed colonialists to make sense of an create order out of the bewildering variety of African political organizations ...

The second direction in the development of the word tribe was favored by anthropologists.  In the 1920s, anthropologists began to live with Africans and to take their day-to-day lives more seriously.  Their experiences revealed that the nineteen-century definition of tribe was deeply flawed.  They found that tribal peoples were neither unthinking nor less evolved than Westerners.  And they learned that tribes were constantly changing and adapting, just as were their own societies.  Anthropologists have sometimes been called servants of colonialism, because they provided the information and categories necessary to organize African people.  Although this negative label has some validity, it is also true that anthropologists were among the first to recognize that African complexity was creative rather than irrational and chaotic [99-101].
This history explains why the use of "tribal" as a putdown bothers me: it draws on nineteenth-century racist notions of "natives" as less "evolved," less intelligent and rational, and unable to think for themselves, but also as a different kind ("race") of person.  It also implies that non-tribalists are more evolved, smarter, and bold independent thinkers, though the leftish writers who use "tribal" this way would be properly contemptuous of the Europeans who thought they were a better breed than the dusky-hued people they tried to subjugate.  (And these same leftish writers are anticolonialist and anti-imperialist to a man.)  But this only shrinks the circle of evolved, intelligent, independent thinkers; it doesn't abolish the circle altogether.  There's still a "tribe" of Real Smart People in there, smug in their disdain for the lesser tribes.

(There's another side to this: I've noticed some intelligent American Indian writers and scholars who seem to accept the notion of tribes as timeless, ahistorical, uniform, and unchanging in their customs because the Elders know best.  None of them, I think, would actually want to live in such a society, but it's a comforting fantasy.)

I admit that I've been susceptible to this same tendency, especially as a lonely young bookworm and sissy.  It was very comforting to think of myself as part of an elite corps of Homo Superior, just waiting for our moment to emerge from the shadows and manifest our glory  It's a tendency I've worked to get free of, though I don't think it's possible for a human being to be completely free of it.  We're a social species, and there will always be Usses and Thems in our lives.  The question is how we treat the Thems.

I also admit that the use of "tribal" by these writers probably hurts no one.  It disturbs me mainly because it looks to me like a faultline in their politics and their thinking.  It disturbed me, but entertained me even more, when one of the writers in question and his Posse defended his use of "tribal" in the same way overt racists defend their practice: by accusing me of petty Political Correctness and Thought-Police tendencies, plus of course they couldn't have said anything racist, it's all in my imagination.  The writer's other line of defense was almost as funny: he cited the writer from whom he'd picked up this sense of "tribalism" as Authority.  (It's on the Internet, so it must be true!)  I consider this to be further evidence of how such groupthink erodes one's ability to think.

There are other words that could be used instead of "tribalism."  "Groupthink," for example.   Or more specific ones, like "party loyalty."  There are surely others  But it's so much easier to have a handy catchphrase, not too vulgar, for flogging one's ideological enemies.