Glynn Marshes writes:
Tribalism, Reynolds writes, “is the default state of humanity.” We tend to “defend our own tribe even when we think it’s wrong, and to attack other tribes even when they’re right, just because they’re other.”
It’s natural, sure, but also dangerous — particularly when we abandon the impulse to suppress it. Whereas a “healthy society would stigmatize, marginalize and shun the tribalizers,”
Societies that give in to the temptations of tribalism … wind up spending a lot of their energy on internal strife, and are prone to disintegrate into spectacular factionalism and infighting, often to the point of self-destruction.
Reynolds’ column is part of a wider online conversation.
The American Interest riffs on Reynolds’ thoughts with a slightly stronger emphasis on the post-Ferguson “police wars.”
That piece, in turn, links to a Walter Russell Mead essay on that same site, “Next Up in America: The Liberal Retreat,” which explores the fallout from the last election. Leftists, Mead writes, are tumbling to the fact that their most cherished ideas haven’t caught on after all. On the contrary, whether it’s gun rights, voter ID, presumption of accused rapists’ innocence, or torture of enemy combatants,
from a left Democratic point of view, the country is overrun with zombies and vampires: policy ideas that Democrats thought had been killed but still restlessly roam the earth.
Reynolds’ greater point (which I agree with) is that politicians benefit by fomenting divisiveness. It becomes a Satanic pact: politicians play on humanity’s darkest psychological tendencies because doing so enables them to accrue attention — which today more than ever equals power. Their actions are deeply destructive, but ya know, you can’t fix the devil his omelet without breaking a few souls …
Left unmentioned is the role of technology in all this.
I confess I’m divided, no pun intended. Online “conversations” about politics or cultural issues definitely have a tendency to turn ugly, fast. But is that really worse than, say, the 1790s, when Loyalists were run out of the States and their assets seized by rapacious Whigs? Or the 17th Century European witch trials? Or … pick your fave example of mob-led bloodshed?
Flame wars sure beat sticks and stones.
On the other hand, there’s Marshall McLuhan, the “Canadian philosopher of communication theory and a public intellectual” who died in 1980.
In this excellent online essay on a University of Texas website, “Tribalization of the Global Village: Marshall McLuhan, Orientalism, and Technocultural Panic,” an anonymous writer examines the framework McLuhan proposed for understanding the effect of media technology on society.
Time to reconsider McLuhan.
Because first of all, McLuhan proposed that the invention of print media birthed a new consciousness: the rationality that we (educated Westerners) so take for granted. Printing technology fostered “a detached abstracting perspective of an eye and the ‘I’ of the individualist/perspectival tradition.” And that, in turn, “relegated the auditory, participatory, and ‘tribal’ ear to the realm of a powerful unconscious.”
Where it gets interesting is the next bit: McLuhan believed modern technology pushes us back into a “non-literate” and “re-tribalized” culture characterized by a “tribal and oral pattern with its seamless web of kinship and interdependence.”
According to McLuhan, the emergence of electric media re-awakens a forgotten “haptic” (nonverbal) interplay between senses—a process he calls “touch.” An aggressively visual culture (trained on “Gutenberg” and empiricism) will be unconsciously susceptible to the tactile (“field theory”) and the auditory (myth). McLuhan warns, “The implosive (compressional) character of the electric technology plays the disk or film of Western man backward, into the heart of tribal darkness, or into what Joseph Conrad called ‘the Africa within.’ . . . By imposing unvisualizable relationships that are the result of instant speed, electric technology dethrones the visual sense and restores us to the dominion of synesthesia, and the close interinvolvement of other senses” (UM 120–21). For McLuhan, electric media is the “tribal drum” of the collective unconscious.
And this was before the Internet.
Happy New Year.
In Reynolds’ column, he also links to Eric Raymond’s blog, Armed and Dangerous.
Titled “The temptation to choose sides,” the linked post is another piece about the “police wars.”
“I don’t have a fix for this problem,” Raymond writes. [Oh, crap. — ed.] “But someone needs to be pointing out that both of the pseudo-tribes that have sorted themselves around this dispute are behaving badly.”
Yep. And I’ll take that one step further: every one of us needs to start viewing our politics with the McLuhan eye.
We have to consciously extricate ourselves from the blinkered perspective of our respective tribes.
This may be happening. We have a president who styled himself as a Uniter, when in fact he’s a 70s style radical agitator at heart (thereby rendering the word “uniter” meaningless with Orwellian efficiency. Thanks, guy.) OTOH the foolin’ folks train ride seems to be pulling into the station. A majority of Americans say that race relations are worse now than when Obama took office, for example — about as stunning a political development as anything I’ve seen in my lifetime, and that includes the post-911 rush toward World War II-style patriotic hawishness.
There are also signs that people are wearying of contemporary re-tribalization. You may be aware, for example, of this September essay by a liberal who blogs under the pseudonym Scott Alexander, “I Can Tolerate Everything Except The Outgroup.”
Warning, it’s long — my post here is a note on an index card in comparison.
But it’s also a lovely example of the McLuhan eye in action. Alexander has realized that online finger-pointing and self-righteous political posturing is not only hugely destructive, but also something more slippery yet. It’s psychological shadow-boxing.
My sense is that he’s far from alone.
You see, the Tea Party racist doesn’t exist — but neither does the nefarious pinko academic who feasts on the brains of our youth. Oh sure, you can find people who happily fulfill either role — and it can be argued that the psychic energy we pour into our tribal fractionalism is feeding them, literally enlivening them — but they’re also, and more significantly, freaking cartoons.
Genuine bespittled racists are as rare as genuine commie propagandists.
What really separates us, in fact, has nothing to do with how we embody the other tribe’s idea of Evil. It’s much more benign: we weight values differently. If self-reliance is the character trait I’m most proud of, I likely become a libertarian. If it’s compassion, I tend to liberalism. If it’s duty or tradition or order, I become a conservative. And so on.
And so I’m cautiously optimistic. Maybe we’re seeing the beginning of the end of this tribalism nonsense. Modern technology is, after all, blink-of-an-eye new. We tend to forget that. And McLuhan perhaps failed to consider what kind of societal chaos the printing press triggered. It may not be a coincidence, for example, that Fernando and Isabella launched The Inquisition, a particularly vicious example of tribalism in action, in 1478 — a mere 39 years after Gutenberg introduced movable type printing. (See this review by Dr Harald Braun of the 2005 book by Clive Griffin, “Journeymen-Printers, Heresy, and the Inquisition in Sixteenth-Century Spain” for more along this line.)
but in the end, the Inquisition failed. Literacy prevailed.
Maybe the fact that we’re actually discussing tribalism as a Thing is a good sign.
Maybe it means that we’re finally waking up from our modern technology trance …