Back to … the Marshall McLuhan Future

Glynn Marshes writes:

A couple days ago, University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds, a.k.a. the blogger Instapundit, penned a column for USA Today titled “Politicians benefit from American tribal warfare.”

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.

The essay’s enough for me, even if it weren’t for the fact that apparently we’ve somehow found ourselves back in the 1970s.

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 …

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15 Responses to Back to … the Marshall McLuhan Future

  1. esraymond says:

    Scott Alexander isn’t a conventional liberal. He has pretty strong libertarian tendencies and in many ways identifies more with libertarians than with the sort of “liberal” who would more honestly be called milk-and-water socialists.


  2. I see a lot of signs that people are turning away from the rancor of the last few years, at least many are. Maybe it was an effect of the new tech letting us see what we all *really* think but didn’t say in polite society before, I don’t know.


  3. slumlord. says:

    I’ve gotta admit that I’ve seen more rancor rather than less and the development of the internet/social media has profoundly changed our entire political process. The internet has short circuited the megaphonics of the Cathedral and audience participation has now become a free-for-all instead of editor moderated discussion through the megaphone.

    Unity comes at the expense of diversity and Kumbaya-ism has never worked anywhere. These are the wails of multicults who can see that the narrative is being seriously challenged through a medium they cannot control. Tut-tutting about the “tribalism” that has emerged is just another way of saying we object to people not following the party line and having different ideas of how things should be done.

    What gets me is how the concept of tribalism and warfare gets continually conflated. Why can’t we be both tribal and peaceful? Instead there is the continual assumption that the only way to social peace is homogenisation which destroys all individuality.


    • Glynn Marshes says:

      Hi Slum. I don’t disagree with you a bit — def more rancor. But my admittedly optimistic notion is that give it another couple decades and maybe it will calm down a bit.


  4. roundeye says:

    I would suggest that the relative lack of tribalism in the West is an artifact of the 1500 year experiment in outbreeding – Westerners marry their cousins a lot less than other parts of the world. Romans started it, Roman Catholic Church continued it. But that is pure conjecture.


  5. joeyjoejoe says:

    Blah blah blah. Reynolds’ failure is to not address the core problem: one of the two sides of tribalizers in each instance is objectively wrong. He doesn’t want to say so, because that would make him a ‘tribalizer’ and thus no different from the others. Thus, he pretends to have a ‘detached’ viewpoint which, he thinks, lifts him above the tribalizing arguments.

    But it doesn’t, and it isn’t good. What it does instead is legitimize the objectively wrong arguments. (‘a pox on both their houses’ legitimizes and equalizes both houses. But if one house is objectively wrong, the other house is delegitimized by being equalized to the other).

    There are two ‘tribal’ viewpoints in the UVA rape hoax case. Arguing ‘a pox on both their houses’ does not lift one above the argument: it legitimizes the side that is objectively not correct-it legitimizes the defense of rape hoax (‘one side defends the use of a rape hoax for political purposes, the other side only wants to punish the guilty. They’re both equally wrong!’).

    There are two ‘tribal’ viewpoints in Ferguson. One is objectively wrong. Pretending they are equally divisive does nothing to create a better society. It does the opposite.

    Reynolds’ argument is an argument for relativism: lying about rape is just as viable as desiring/defending the truth, defending oneself is just as viable as attacking people (two ‘tribal’ views).

    To paraphrase: ‘civilisation will fall when good men do nothing.’ The ‘pox on all their houses’ is an argument for doing nothing. Reynolds’ attempt at Olympian detachment is an excuse to suspend judgement.



    • Glynn Marshes says:

      Thanks for commenting, Joey.

      I can’t speak for Reynolds, but based on his blog posts, his views on both UVA and Ferguson appear to be inconsistent with yours, i.e. in both cases he believes that one of the tribes is objectively wrong.

      The problem is that the conversation isn’t being conducted on a rational level at all. What good is it that one tribe is objectively “wrong” when the outcome of our conversations is based purely on emotions, myths, and fabrications?


      • slumlord. says:

        Happy New Year to all!

        The problem is that the conversation isn’t being conducted on a rational level at all.

        And when has a mob ever had a “rational” conversation? There is this underlying assumption present through Reynold’s argument that rationality is the way that people solve their differences. Unfortunately, there is a whole lot of empirical evidence which shows that this is simply not the case, especially when when highly emotionally charged topics are at hand. Reynolds is moaning for a state of affairs that simply does not exist.

        Still the problem here is not prole stupidity or its proclivity to rashness and brutality. That has always existed and sane society’s have recognised it.

        The real problem is that we have large groups of “educated” people who quite openly reject rationality and empiricism in practice whilst loudly proclaiming their attachment to it. Rational discussion is is possible amongst people committed to the truth and rationality. The problem in the modern West is how do you have a rational debate with people who clearly have abandoned any attachment to these two concepts. Seriously.
        Steve Sailer’s recent post about the NYT’s coverage of the Ferguson riots are a case in point.

        The staff of the NYT aren’t drawn from the lower social strata of society, rather they are all drawn from the middle and upper middle classes, the people who are meant to be able to engage in rational debate. Yet the evidence clearly shows that they have no commitment to the truth and the problem is that the West’s “educhasun” system has been pumping out large numbers of this type of person. This isn’t about the NYT having a left-wing view of things rather an outright failure to acknowledge facts. How do you have a rational debate with such a person or organisation.? I’m open to advice.

        What you realise after a while is that these people aren’t about “discussion” at all, rather its about asserting their view onto you. In the end it becomes a test of wills.

        BTW, I much rather a tribe that gets angry and violent when the truth is challenged to one that gives it up for the sake of consensus. It’s a pact with the Devil.


  6. Fenster says:

    Ah, McLuhan. His whole fallacy is wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: New Year’s Mini-Linkfest | Patriactionary

  8. Fenster says:

    Could be it just takes time to acclimate, as you suggest. I am an evolutionist–i.e., I tend to think we bumble along till something works, or breaks, as the case may be, all the while convinced where we are going is a result of following some idealized map in our heads. The map of course is just another invention masquerading as something external or higher.

    You develop a more powerful weapon and you tend to overuse it, just as long as it take to realize the blowback problem. Then you adjust and call it foresight. Could be we are bumbling through how to use new tools.


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