Thursday, February 9, 2017

Scattering the Tribes

I'm not sure if this is an improvement over Greenwald's normal use of "tribalism."  Probably it isn't, because he still is using the word to refer to something like "an unthinking, primal attachment to kin."*  It might be that he intends it sarcastically, to suggest to "über-nationalists" that they're not as evolved as they like to think they are, but if so, I suspect they'll miss the snark.  And though I like "über-nationalists," I suspect it gets its punch from the association with Germany and Nazis.  Greenwald also knows that xenophobia is not limited to Germany.  I've griped about this before, but it's still a problem.

What is a tribe, exactly?  Curtis Keim, whose fine book Mistaking Africa I've mentioned before, helpfully explains:
One anthropology textbook designed for college students has defined tribe as one of five major types of political organization: band, tribe, chiefdom, confederacy, and state.  A tribe, says the author, is "a political group that comprises several bands or lineage groups, each with similar language and lifestyle and each occupying a distinct territory ... Tribal groups contain from 100 to several thousand people."  Tribes consist of one or more subgroups that have integrating factors but are not centralized upon a single individual, as they are in a chiefdom [114].
Keim devotes a chapter to discussing what tribes are, and correcting the stereotypes many Americans have about them; anyone interested could do worse than to read Mistaking Africa.  Needless to say, Greenwald is not using "tribal" in anything like this technical sense; he can only mean to imply that people who exhibit unthinking loyalty to their nation or other community are acting like primitives, be those primitives African, Pacific Islander, pre-Columbian American, or Cro-Magnon.  He'd be properly contemptuous of anyone who used such stereotypes of actual tribal people, or who stereotyped non-white people generally in those terms, but he persists in using "tribal" as a pejorative that relies on racist stereotyping for whatever force it has.  This is another one of those cases where a trope backfires: using "tribal" to distinguish Us from Them, the civilized from the unevolved, is itself an example of "tribalism" as Greenwald uses the term.

And yet this time he concedes that tribalism, in the sense he uses the word, "is a natural human trait."  I think this is a bit disingenous.  I'd agree that dividing the world into Us and Them is probably natural to our species, but it also probably goes along with being a social species, as we are, so it's not limited to human beings.  Nor does this natural trait determine social organization: as Keim indicates, human beings "naturally" form a variety of social organizations, and our ability to form large complex ones indicates that we can transcend narrow parochialism, clannishness (another freighted word), clubbiness, when it suits us to do so.  Belonging to a social species doesn't automatically cause xenophobia; xenophilia, a fascination with the stranger or outsider, is equally part of our human heritage.  The boundaries of the group are only drawn sharply under certain circumstances.  Using "social" or "socialism" to refer to unthinking loyalty to one's own group doesn't carry negative connotations, though, so it can't be used in place of "tribal."

What substitute can I propose?  Well, "xenophobia" might work, but it lacks the vernacular punch of "tribal."  We need an adjectival form of Kurt Vonnegut's coinage "granfalloon," which is intended as a pejorative but has no historical baggage.  A granfalloon, as Vonnegut defined it, is "a proud and meaningless association of human beings," based on "some circumstance of little or no real significance."  Of course the question then arises of what circumstances are of real significance, and who gets to decide.  I find it intriguing that social scientists have found that people will invent commonalities for groups to which they've been randomly assigned.  (Also that people have used "granfalloon" in ways that have nothing to do with its original meaning, even seemingly as a positive term.)  This suggests to me that granfalloonery is, if not "natural" to human beings, at least a tendency that comes easily to us.  Is "human" a granfalloon, I wonder?

But whatever word we replace it with, and there are numerous possibilities, "tribal" needs to be retired as a putdown for those who take granfalloonery to what one perceives as harmful extremes.  I expect better from Glenn Greenwald, with whom I agree on most important matters.

* Curtis Keim, Mistaking Africa: Curiosities and Inventions of the American Mind (3rd edition, Westview, 2014), p. 113