‘Scorn for Tribalism Is an American Tradition’

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

Let’s take another whack at whether the right word to describe the tribal divisions now on display in Congress is in fact tribalism, or whether some other term would do better. The first entry in this series was here, with follow-ups here and here. This next set of entries makes the fourth in the series:

Tribalism is ok. From a reader with advanced degrees in linguistics, who grew up in the United States but has lived and worked for decades in Africa and in Europe:

Tribalism sounds just fine to me, having been in Africa and hearing “tribe” all the time. They always ask each other, and even us “Europeans,” what tribe we belong to, as if asking where are you from or what’s your job. I think tribe means “affinity group” for me now, and it certainly would pertain to political parties. Sort of like a club or group.

The lady who wrote about being offended should just come to realize that there is more than one sense to the word now.  It has acquired another broader meaning.  

Wolf-pack. From another reader who was raised in the United States but has lived in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East for many decades:

I vote for “Wolf-Pack.” Having a dog over the years and seeing how sensitive our dog is to always look to our lead and stay near us and do go where we are going, she is clearly a wolf following the Alpha Wolves.

"Tribes" is not only a word associated with Native Americans. I think of "Tribes" more in the African sense.

How about parallels to rabid sports fans, especially soccer crowds?

There is some literature on the obnoxious sports fans ... football hooligans and the like. For example, there is an article on "dysfunctional fans"—surprising to see just how many characteristics overlap with the most hateful elements of the extreme political partisan.

Here’s a very long argument in favor of a new term, Pareto-ism, drawn from the namesake of the economic concept of Pareto efficiency. (In essence: a Pareto-efficient or Pareto-optimal situation is one where you can’t make any participant better off, without making someone else worse off.) Over to the reader:

I would suggest the word “Paretoism.”

I know that to those with an American Indian heritage, the word "tribal" has a very specific, technical and positive meaning. I also know the other perfectly legitimate meaning of the word that has a negative meaning to it, along with a distinct whiff of cultural superiority.

It would be nice if one could find a perfectly unambiguous word for which ever meaning one wanted. But science points to the fact that that is usually not possible.

Wittgenstein, of course, tried to prove that individual words had atomic absolute meanings. Immediately after claiming to prove that, however, he realized that they don't.  A few years ago a team at MIT looked at the matter from a technical measurable sense. The summary is that the most efficient and powerful language possible is one in which all of the words are ambiguous, and the meaning is only in the context.

Briefly, instead of having a separate word for every possible present and future meaning, you use combinations of words to define any given meaning.  (The same thing is done with letters to make words.) That is basically what Wittgenstein came to understand, but the new point being that that is not just some inherent defect of language, but a hallmark of an efficient and powerful language.  As the study said:

"Basically, if you have any human language in your input or output, you are stuck with needing context to disambiguate.”

If everybody simply understood that all meaning is only in the context, then things would be a lot simpler. One could use the word "tribalism" in different contexts, and everyone would be happy with their different meanings….

If you want a word that has no historical or cultural baggage so that you can use it to represent your own meaning, then, like Shakespeare himself, you should invent a new word. For what is going on now I would propose the new word "Paretoism", after Vilfredo Pareto, the originator of the "80/20" "Pareto Principle": the empirical observation that 80% of the effect is the typically the result of just 20% of the causes.

He claimed, among other things, that the world is always run by the "20%", and that the membership of the ruling 20% rotates through time. To the extent that that is true, and to the extent that one knows it, then the logical conclusion for someone seeking political power is to be in the next 20%.

The task is then not to take your preexisting group into power, but to kick and scratch and punch and get on the new 20% bandwagon that is headed there. In this endeavor, excluding the other 80% isn't a fault, but it is the aim in this strategy...

Improbably but for real, another note on Wittgenstein:

I disagree that the words tribe/tribal/tribalism, as homophones, are somehow to be discouraged because alternative meanings of the words may carry a negative connotation in referring to a specific population.

This is a familiar impulse to select one meaning for a word and then to homogenize all uses of that word to align to your selected interpretation, but it simply isn't meaningful (see: Anthony Federico's "chink in the armor,"; David Howard's use of the word "niggardly).

This is fundamentally different than using terminology which grew out of some lexicon used specifically towards a specific group (i.e. "war paint," "pow-wow," "vision quest"). My Wittgenstein is pretty rusty, but I think the "use is meaning" as you employed the term here is perfectly appropriate.

What's more, the term "tribalism" is a well established construct in sociology and psychology!  

There's a large body of research about how we behave towards in-group and out-group members.  This is, as I understood it, precisely what you were referencing - congressional republicans extend to in-group members these benefits and advantages that they would never extend to out-group members (Democrats). All this post-modern debate about 4th-order hypothetical effects of language usage just obscures what your original point was.

And from a critic of “PC tribalism”:

I had to chuckle reading your article “On the Many Connotations of Tribalism” as the retired teacher’s politically correct response shows a different tribalism. The PC tribe.

The Trump tribe and PC tribe despise each other. If you want to pull a Trump tribe member into a reasoned discussion, don’t bring along a PC tribe member, all you’ll get is fireworks.

For the Trump tribe, fake news, manufactured outrage, America apologizing, being wishy-washy and overall moral weakness comes from the PC tribe.  Most people want nothing to do with either tribe but if the politics make you choose between one or the other … which one do you choose? If you don’t discuss politics, which one do you watch the game with over a cold beer? I don’t think Democrats understand how they have this PC brand on their foreheads and how it affects their success.

Finally for today, “scorn for tribalism is an American tradition.” Over to the reader:

I too have spent some time amongst the Native American tribes and have long-time Native American friends…

In summary, Tribalism was a waypoint on the road to civilization and it works/worked well when a group was closely bound by a shared experience, a small footprint, and familial relations.  Tribes have a tendency to value and pay attention to things relevant to the tribe to the exclusion of the big picture outside their purview….  

So yes, in the modern ambition of multi-national diversity and E Pluribus Unum (I love and use that phrase often, as do my Jamaican friends!), we adopt Tribalism to our political convenience and great national risk.

We are not a tribal people anymore. We have assembled into complex communities and have adopted complex systems to weave our shared interests together. To the extent that we adopt Tribalism we are reaching back to an atavistic method of civilization that draws hard lines between us and seeks to divide us by design.

Example: When I look at middle eastern people I see Semitic people, virtually indistinguishable and clearly of a common ancestry. Yet those same people seem culturally and politically intent on holding their tribal identity in front of themselves and use it to distinguish their separateness and rationale for rejecting unity.

I believe it took the cauldron of tyranny and rebellion for us to break the bonds of Tribalism.  And they still exist in my Scots-Irish tradition.  I just choose to give them low emphasis, a vestige of a brutal time. By endlessly revisiting the insults and injuries of 600 years, our clan got itself pretty much wiped out in useless conflict. My Croat family showed much the same proclivity in the war with Serbia and has only recently found a new path with the EU...

America has been a success because as a people we have moved beyond our old world identities to become one people. We have traditions but we live in the here and now. We even change our Surnames if it makes us fit better. We have no real use for tribes beyond their quaint reference to a time when the Hatfields made war to the McCoys over the next ridge. And we have even found a way to make the whole spectacle into a tourist attraction.

We are a funny possibly shallow people, we Americans, but we grow and prosper by avoiding the obvious tribal mistakes we evolved from.

Scorn for Tribalism is an America tradition.  Wear it proudly.

Actually, just one more for now:

It's unfortunate that so many people get triggered by the word 'tribal', but I'm struggling to think of a better broad term for that incessant and destructive trait of our species.  

We divide ourselves into "us" versus "them" groups which can be aligned along almost any axis—politics, race, religion, language, nationality, sports and so on. "We" are virtuous, well-meaning, peaceful, and humane. We may have our flaws but they're perfectly understandable and we're making rapid progress toward fixing them. "They" are corrupt, contemptuous, lazy, and violent. Their flaws are many and proof of their poor character.

The problem with words like partisan, sectarian, or faction is that they are limited to just a narrow feature of human life, such as politics or religion.   But our tribalism underlies our divisions in all these areas.   It's a persistent and pernicious feature of Homo sapiens and it seems to be wired into us.  I wish we could find a way to tone it down.    

I’ll give the theme a rest for a day or two, from my new locale of Amsterdam, and then will distill some of the dozens of other suggestions that have arrived. Thanks to all for the thoughts and back-and-forth.