A Nation of Tribes, and Members of the Tribe

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
On Spiegelgracht, in Amsterdam, yesterday.

A few days ago I argued that sins-of-omission by Paul Ryan and his fellow Republicans in the House, and Mitch McConnell and his fellow Republicans in the Senate, amounted to de facto shirking of their “check and balance” duty relative to Donald Trump. Because members of the majority party in the legislative branch  wouldn’t call out or even notice Trump’s excesses—except, as with Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, when they had decided not to run again—they were putting unsustainable pressure on other parts of the formal and informal governing system. The courts, the press, Robert Mueller, and so on.

I called this blind “I could shoot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue” defense of Trump’s actions “tribalism”—and that is when the messages started pouring in. The previous installments are here and here and here.

Why am I quoting more samplings of accumulated mail on this theme? One reason is that this apparently minor linguistic point raises a lot of larger issues: The nature of today’s politics, the nature of group identity, the terms in which we discuss our differences, and so on. But another reason is simply to illustrate the depth and erudition that is still possible in public discussions of sensitive issues.

Noam Chomsky (!) used to argue that an hour of listening to sports-talk radio revealed the astounding sophistication that “ordinary” members of the public could bring to analysis of complex questions. My several bouts of serving on trial juries have had a similar effect. That’s an impression I’m also trying to convey with these selections. People from around the world have taken the time to write and argue their case, from a range of perspectives but with hardly any low-blows or venting. Obviously it’s a skewed sample that writes in to the Atlantic. But while the national discourse rings with simplified slogans, it’s worth noticing this other element in public thought.

Here we go. First, from a reader in Canada:

As you are no doubt aware, Canada is home to a large number of indigenous groups … or tribes.  While I’ve not heard from any of my friends about the use of the word Tribal, I imagine they would share the sentiments of your reader from the West.

I agree with you that the connotations of “tribal” conveys exactly what is being evidenced by the GOP in the House and Senate (not to mention the 34% … or whatever the number is now) But other suggestions that might meet some of the connotations (but, admittedly, not all) could be

·         They are exhibiting the “herd mentality” that is expected from a group that is suffering from an almost incomprehensible amount of cognitive dissonance (or they should be, if they have even the slightest vestige of a conscience)

·         They are falling prey to the “group think” that one thinks of when imagining shoppers succumbing to the latest fad or sale … or to the lemmings that blindly follow the leader off the cliff (of moral responsibility, etc.)

Also from Canada, about its aboriginal nations:

I'd like to offer a somewhat different perspective on the usage of "tribalism". We would never say "Stop using 'redskin' to mean violent and terrifying barbarians because this is upsetting to redskins", because the obviously correct remedy is to stop referring to people as redskins.

"Tribalism" is, of course, far less problematic than "redskin" because it has a legitimate, independent meaning, but the general idea is the same. The real issue is not that we are insulting aboriginal cultures by using the word "tribalism" to describe behaviour that we don't like, but rather that we are assuming that their is something inherently tribal about aboriginal people.

Here in Canada, this is part of the reason that we often refer to aboriginal people as belonging to nations rather than tribes. (e.g. the Cree nation, the Ojibwe nation, etc.) "Tribe" is still used occasionally, especially when speaking colloquially, but using "nation" acknowledges both the rich cultural traditions of aboriginal peoples and the sophistication of their political systems whose histories long predate contact with European explorers.

Which leads to Orwell and nationalism:

In his 1945 essay “Notes on Nationalism,” George Orwell examined a phenomenon much like the one you describe. He too could not find a precise word to define the thing. “As the nearest existing equivalent I have chosen the word ‘nationalism,’” he wrote, “but…it will be seen that I am not using it in quite the ordinary sense, if only because the emotion I am speaking about does not always attach itself to what is called a nation — that is, a single race or a geographical area.""

Or, the emotional connotations of clannishness:

One thing that 'tribalism' gets right is that it involves a heavy sense of identity.  How many Republicans voted for Trump over Clinton not because they thought he was better or more competent or even more closely aligned with their abstract interests but simply because he was the Republican nominee and they were Republicans?

Political science (at least in my reading which comes filtered through the news media) suggests that one outcome of political polarization (and other exacerbating factors) has been the incorporation of political party as a central part—an organizing principle—of people's identities.

'Clannishness' also conveys this—at least colloquially it seems like the same term except used to refer to a different people and therefore with different historical and cultural baggage. 'Factionalism' doesn't - interest groups are not necessarily identity groups.

Or identitarian?

I was going to suggest both factional and partisan politics, but I just saw your more recent article discussing the shortcomings of those terms. A few other suggestions:

  • Groupish, in-group, or kin-group politics: I quite like the term "groupish" as an antonym to "selfish" - I first saw it in Jonathan Haidt's "The Righteous Mind" but I'm not sure if he coined it. It feels a little more value-neutral to me than tribalism, but it suffers from the fact that it sounds a little made-up and childish.
  • Identitarian: This is a term that has been used more frequently on the right to describe identity-oriented liberal politics, but I do think it is a useful way of thinking about a certain political style closely associated with tribalism. On the downside it has an unpleasant jargony feel to it.

For what it's worth, I quite like factional, sectarian, and partisan as alternate terms, but I understand your objections.

Or the Japanese concepts of uchi and soto, us and them:

Harking back to your days in Tokyo, I wonder if the Japanese words “uchi” (内) and “soto” (外) might be a good fit. As you may remember, “uchi” doesn’t just mean “inside”—it refers to the collective “us” versus “them,” whether that’s your family, your company, your village, your country. . . or your party. “Soto” isn’t just outside—it’s “them,” whose needs, desires, issues are secondary to ours. It’s okay to sacrifice the common good if it’s necessary to support the “uchi.” And that would lead to placing party over country, as Republicans are doing now (and Democrats have done in the past).

Of course, teaching people both the denotation and the connotation of these words is probably harder than simply using “tribalism.”

Or the Japanese concepts of baseball fanatic-fans:

For the "tribal" thread on the Atlantic at the moment, I'd like to suggest a Japanese term that captures the sports-fanaticism with which you will probably be familiar from your time there [yes]: consider ōendan (応援団). Nothing says "over the top" like the cheering squad for the Hiroshima Carp at a game.

Or the sect?

I wonder if the word "sect" might work in place of the word "tribe". In his book From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, Shaye Cohen describes a sect like this:

"A sect is a small, organized group that separates itself from a larger religious body and asserts that it alone embodies the ideals of the larger group because it alone understands Gods will." (Page 120)

I grant that the Republican Party hasn't exactly separated itself, given its entrenchment throughout our government. However, given the ways in which the Republican Party only looks out for itself, and that it is unwilling to compromise on any beliefs and believes that other groups are entirely wrong about theirs, the term seems to fit. The religious nature of the term also seems particularly apt these days.

Back for a moment to tribes:

I am ignoring the issue of modern hypersensitivity.

In my generation in New York City, the question “Is he a member of the tribe?” meant simply, is he Jewish?

And similarly:

Did any Jewish people write in (twelve tribes of israel)? Any Italians protest that tribe derives from tribus, naming the three tribes of Rome? Any Baconians write to make sure you know, as you certainly do, where that title [of Andrew Bard Schmookler’s book, Idols of the Tribe] comes from, and to assure you that Bacon did not have Native Americans in mind, but was using a word with, by then a 300-year history?

I teach in a university English department, so I’m used to such linguistic policing and purifying, and all the ignorance of language and history that comes with it. I still like to think that education, in this case, in word history, is a proper response.

I’m probably kidding myself.

And more on the origin of tribe:

I've actually been debating for the last week writing a piece about the word "tribe" inspired -- if that's the right term -- by my recent visit to my undergrad alma mater, where I discovered this article in the Brown Daily Herald.

Here you have Native American students insisting that Anglo use of the word "tribe" represents inappropriate "cultural appropriation," which is a major issue at Brown.

I "get" finding offensive some references to Native Americans (or, for that matter, any ethnic group)—not just the Redskins, but the horrible Cleveland Indians mascot, etc.  I "get" finding the Atlanta Braves' Chief Nokahoma and his guttural chants to be not only offensive but also (very poor) cultural appropriation.

But "tribe"?  First of all, it's an English word, not a Native American word, dating from the 13th century—long before Anglos even knew Native Americans existed—and is believed to derive from the Latin word tres, to refer to the three "tribes" into which the Roman people were originally divided.  The concept has a long history in the political science literature, having nothing to do with Native Americans.

In case you hadn't heard, the ancient Israelites were divided into 12 tribes (and most of us Jews still refer to each other as MOTs, or Members of the Tribe...).

Tribes are an overwhelming component of African and Middle Eastern politics—although there is a legitimate debate as to whether many African peoples referred to by whites as "tribes" are better classified as ethnic groups, a term I keep to in discussing Africa because the use of "tribe" to describe African peoples is seen as pejorative where similar European groupings (like, say, Catalans) are not similarly referenced.

"Tribe," however, is a form of social organization lying somewhere, historically and complexity-wise, between "bands" and "states."  In that sense, many Native American peoples—for instance, the Iroquois, with their sophisticated state structure and constitution—cannot be said truly to be "tribes."

Conversely, the Hopi don't really regard themselves as one people, at least for purposes of social organization and government, but rather as distinct villages (which all have different ceremonial calendars, dialects, and governance structures); the Hopi "tribe" is actually a federal government construct—one might then say that some Native American groups are not tribes but are less organized social constructs.

In any event, neither the word nor the concept of "tribe" or "tribal" originated with or pertains exclusively to Native Americans.  Perhaps its use pejoratively is an indirect pejorative aimed at Native Americans (although it could be just as easily dismissive of all peoples around the word who didn't develop state structures and are thus viewed unthinkingly by us white folks as less advanced).  But the one thing you can't say is that the word, insulting or not, represents a "cultural appropriation" from Native Americans—or anyone else except, to a degree, the Latins (who are always described as an Italian tribe...).

“You have my permission”:

"Tribal" is, by a country mile, better than the alternatives offered by your correspondent. I can think of no more apt word, though there may well be some. In any event, it serves your intended purpose very well and no-one could properly think that a negative connotation would attach by its use to anyone outside of those referred to in your article.

You have my permission to continue using it!

No, you don’t: from a reader who warns against the use of “tribalism”:

Wittgenstein already yet!  If we are going in for heavy thinkers - heavier
than Madison and Montesquieu?!—then I commend to you a collection of essays,"Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics" (2009) (from a symposium held at Bard College on the centenary of her birth).

Arendt thought long and hard about the problem of differentiated communities  within the American mosaic, and how they could be reconciled with a democratic system and ethos.  She came at it from a distinctive but very useful perspective:  that of an American Jew, active in political thought and action.

Her fundamental point is that we/she should  not have to give up our
"tribal" identity to be full participants in American democracy.  She
reserved the right to feel fully her distinctive Jewishness, without that in any way disqualifying her from the right of full participation in American democracy.  She had seen first-hand a grim alternative, having emigrated from Germany in 1933.

Much the same approach could be said of the feelings of black Americans, who are recently (and again) asserting their right to blackness and indeed a very hard-earned right to a sense of historical grievance with the ethos and the system, without assenting to being labeled outsiders or alien because of that stance.  Your colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates well illustrates this in his trenchant series of tweets in response to General Kelly's unreconstructed "Southernism."

Bottom line I urge you to turn away from the use of "tribalism" for the rhetorical purpose you are pursuing.

And to wrap up this installment, two messages on the role of “tribes” in a diverse society. First, a nation of tribes:

I still think tribalism is the best term.

And aren't we really a nation of tribes?  And aren't some of our tribes more powerful than others?  And some more benign than others?  And don't many of the tribes align with others of similar interests to form 'nations?'   At least that was the term we Europeans labeled the indigenous of this country when they aligned.  

I subscribe to the notion that Climate Change is going to 'undo' Western Civilization.  (Hopefully, thee and me will be pushing up daisies before that happens.)  The fragility of the distribution system in this country will see a collapse in the norm (i.e., power and food will be scarce).  Survival will rely on tribal association, just as it exists in prisons today.

And, finally for today:

Of all the words which have been suggested, “tribal” is the only one which seems to me to capture the profoundly regressive nature of the present situation.

During the middle years of the last century some Harvard sociologists were at the forefront of attempts to identify the ways in which modern and pre-modern societies are fundamentally different. For example, in modern societies social identities which have been “achieved” tend to be valued more highly than “ascribed” identities, while “universal” norms which are seen as applicable to everyone are generally considered more important and relevant than the norms which only apply to the members of “particular” groups.

To those sociologists, this “package” of distinctively modern values and norms has to a significant degree been responsible for the competitive advantage which, other things being equal, highly modernized societies have enjoyed relative to more “backward” societies.

Owing partly to the “presentist” bias of [Talcott] Parsons and his colleagues, along with the powerful historical forces which were unleashed by the Vietnam War and the 60s generally, attempts to separate the modern sheep from the pre-modern goats fell badly out of fashion.

While that proved to be a good thing in many ways, some very healthy babies wound up being thrown out with the dirty bathwater, including the basic idea that highly modernized societies in which ‘tribal” values and impulses are forced to play subordinate roles have some important advantages over societies in which constant internal strife between factions (to use the term preferred by some other correspondents) drains away energies which could otherwise be put to better, more productive uses.

There are about 50 more messages in the pipeline. I’ll plan to do another highly selective highlight-sampling in a day or two. Thanks all around.