Tribalism isn’t about feelings, it’s about the zero-sum outlook

Tribalism isn’t about feelings, it’s about the zero-sum outlook January 7, 2013

Change can be unpleasant.

Unless you’re down and out. If you’re down and out, then change is probably good news. When you’re down and out, then any change is likely to be progress.

But if you’re neither down nor out, then progress may be unwelcome. You’re on top. You’re in. Why mess with that?

The last 60 years has seen a lot of change. The trajectory of that change has been good news for many people who used to be intractably down and  out. For them, the trajectory of this change is clearly progress. But such progress has been unsettling for many people who used to enjoy an exclusive birthright to being up and in.

What I’m trying to talk about here is privilege, hegemony, implicit hierarchy. And about the lingering resentment and anxiety over every slight erosion of them.

This shows up a lot in pronouns — particularly in the ambiguous use of undifferentiated first-person plural pronouns. “We need to take our country back.” But what do you mean “We,” kemosabe?

Those pronouns are funny things. They seem to be inclusive and comprehensive. On its face, “we” means us — all of us. But we don’t always use “we” in that way. Who is the “we” in “we need to take our country back”? Who is the “our”?

It’s inclusive, but not comprehensive. Or, in other words, it’s tribal — inclusive of those within the tribe, but exclusive of those without it.

The tribal boundaries are implicit and unstated, but they are known. These boundaries are ethnic and religious and sexual, yet they do not necessarily entail any ethnic or religious or sexual animus.

There may be such animus, but it’s not necessary. No actual dislike or contempt needs to be felt. Personal sentiment and emotional antipathy are wholly optional when it comes to defending the interests of the tribe.

This can lead to some confusion and muddy things up. We can end up arguing about racism, misogyny, homophobia or religious hatred with folks who insist, sincerely, that they do not have any such feelings.

And for many people, that’s largely true. They don’t feel such dislike, and some of their best friends are, etc. Because this isn’t about feelings, it’s about tribes. Plenty of people who are driven by the desire to defend the interests of their tribe don’t feel any visceral dislike for those they regard as outsiders — as not “we,” not “us,” not “ours.” Those folks just happen to be on the other team.

And if our team is going to win, they imagine, then their team can’t.

I think that’s the key. That, right there, is the idea that makes personal feelings of dislike or hatred superfluous. Once you accept the framework of a zero-sum struggle between competing tribes then it no longer matters whether or not you feel any such feelings — you’re still bound to regard any advance for them as a loss for us. You’ll still imagine that “we” cannot be up and in unless “they” are kept down and out.

In that zero-sum tribal framework, it doesn’t matter whether or not you dislike the other tribe or view them an inferior. If you think of yourself as part of the straight, white, male, Christian tribe, then you’ll defend the interests of that tribe against anyone who is not straight, white, male and Christian. Whether or not personal sentiments of antipathy are involved, the effect is the same.

It’s very difficult, if not altogether impossible, to separate out the various threads of tribal identity as distinct factors. The tribal anxiety that comes from the idea of a zero-sum world is all of a piece. Antitribalism struggles to be “intersectional,” but tribalism has always been intersectional. Tribalism was intersectional before intersectionality was cool.

Look again at that amorphous and undifferentiated use of the tribal “we.” We need to take back our country. The anxiety there — the sense that we are losing, somehow, due to the advances made by others — cannot easily be separated into discrete elements of ethnicity, gender, religion or sexuality. The loss that “we” feel for “our” tribe arises from a host of changes that combine to form a single anxiety. The anxiety that perceives the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell as a tribal defeat is bound up with the anxiety that festers behind fear of the so-called “War on Christmas.” The tribal anxiety felt over every advance of feminism is intermixed with the anxiety felt over every advance in civil rights for ethnic minorities. The sense of tribal besiegement that perceives a same-sex wedding as some kind of setback is intermingled with the anxiety over the new neighborhood mosque, the ending of prayers at high school football games and “Press 2 para Español.”

This is part of what I was trying to convey with the Venn diagram I posted last night. State-mandated sectarian prayer in public schools is a theocratic idea, yet “school prayer” isn’t primarily a rallying cry for theocrats, but for tribalists. The 1962 decision forbidding mandatory sectarian prayers was perceived as a loss for the tribe, just as the desegregation decisions of the previous decade were. “We” were losing control of “our” schools.

Racial animus may play a role in that tribal anxiety, for some. And I suspect that for many who harbor such feelings of racial animus, “school prayer” is considered a safer, more acceptable-seeming way of expressing their objection to desegregation. But explicit, visceral racial animus is not necessary for such an objection any more than state Sen. Dennis Kruse needed to be a raging anti-Semite to introduce legislation allowing Indiana schools to mandate the recitation of the Christian Lord’s prayer. It doesn’t really matter whether or not Kruse feels any such feelings of bigotry — the effect is the same either way.


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  • Carstonio

    Late reply…Yes, an established ally of the group would get some benefit of the doubt, although not as much as a group member, and this would likely be based on the ally’s record. The ally might disagree with some tactics in the group’s fight against privilege, but would understand that hir role is fundamentally supportive and not paternal.

    The poster we were discussing in no way counts as established. The person came right out of the gate expressing concern about the American Atheist tactics, and talked vaguely about the group’s goals without naming them. I share Ellie’s suspicions that the poster wasn’t really speaking from an atheist perspective.

    And I’m glad that you respect my opinion.

  • The_L1985

    No, on both counts.  However, the causality does work in the other direction: If you tell somebody the truth, and it is uncomfortable, that person won’t like hearing the truth. This doesn’t mean that everything uncomfortable is the truth. “There’s a bug in your hair” is going to make most people uncomfortable whether there really is a bug there or not.

    Also, I am white.  I believe that, as a white person, I have privileges over other racial groups, and that I should not be automatically treated differently from members of other racial groups.  Most of the people I’ve heard talking about white privilege are also white.

    Here’s an example of white privilege:  If I, as a white person, walk to my apartment with a new Xbox that I just bought, the default assumption by other people is that I have bought and paid for that Xbox.  If a black person buys an Xbox and walks home with it in full view of others, the default assumption by other people is “that guy just stole an Xbox.”  This difference in treatment is obviously unfair: that’s what we mean by privilege.  I want the default for anybody, of any race who walks home in broad daylight with an Xbox without obvious signs of guilt* to be “That person just bought an Xbox.”

    “White privilege” doesn’t mean “let’s tear white people down so EVERYBODY is treated crappy.”  I don’t want life to suck for everybody–that wouldn’t be helpful at all.  It means “let’s fix racial prejudices so that EVERYBODY is treated equally well.”

    * Furtive glances, trying to hide the Xbox, signs of distress if police come near, that sort of thing.  I don’t consider “black skin” to be a sign of guilt, because that’s racist.

  • Carstonio

     “attempts to move minorities into positions of power, specifically at the exclusion of all white people” – Those attempts exist only in the minds of whites anxious about protecting their privilege.


    “White privilege” doesn’t mean “let’s tear white people down so
    EVERYBODY is treated crappy.”  I don’t want life to suck for
    everybody–that wouldn’t be helpful at all.  It means “let’s fix racial
    prejudices so that EVERYBODY is treated equally well.”

    This is why I hate the term “privilege”. If you want a term that describes a right due to all and not some special perk limited to a few, privilege doesn’t mean that.

  • Danacarpender

    I’m mostly “English,” mixed with some Dutch — early Colonial ancestors in the NY/NJ area don’t you know? — and I have long been amused by the idea that being of “English” descent means anything.  I’m pretty sure my Pictish ancestors didn’t think of my Celtic ancestors as the same race, and ditto my Celtic ancestors with my Angle and my Saxon ancestors, and any Roman that might have crept in there.  Then there were the Vikings, of course, and on Dad’s side a hefty dose of Norman.  “English” just means “mutt further back.”

    (When I was 19, and entering a Wiccan phase, I learned that a lot of my ancestors on my mom’s side came from Cornwall.  I told her I thought that was cool, since it probably meant a sizable dose of Celtic genes, and that appealed to me more than Angle or Saxon.  She said she didn’t mind being an Angle or a Saxon, she just didn’t want to be any damned Norman.  Old feuds die hard.)

  • Danacarpender

    Right, ’cause the conquerors didn’t keep some of the women.

  • Danacarpender

    Very interesting, if depressing, article:

  • Danacarpender

    Circular firing squad.  The most recent Republican primary season being a brilliant example.

  • nnnnn

    This country would be down the toilet then

  • Crh29

    obama has SUCKED

  • It was nicer when people like you just thought the Commies were going to attack us.

  • P J Evans

     Tough. It would have been far worse if we’d voted in another GOP candidate who would kill the social programs and spend even more money on Pentagon toys and billionaires.

  • Nimadan

    This entire article (and most of the discussion thread as well) is an expression of LIBERAL TRIBALISM.  And the fact, that none of you are even aware of that,  is a tribute to how utterly unconscious you are.

  • AnonymousSam

    Quite true, there is a certain form of tribalism here. Pointing it out, however, is as meaningless as claiming that refusing to tolerate bigotry is the same as being bigoted and intolerant.

    First you need to examine what precisely constitutes tribalism and why the example that’s being decried is not the same as the act of decrying it. Then you’ll understand why your statement is false equivalence.

  • Nimadan

     Blah, blah, blah.  Liberals/”progressives”/lefties, / Call-‘Em-Whatever-You-Please are viciously intolerant of anybody who deviates from their ideology and stupidly unaware that their ideology is nothing but a culturally-constructed BELIEF SYSTEM… and thus subject to all the errors and limitations intrinsic to human belief systems.

    Until you people take inventory of YOUR OWN PREJUDICES, you have no standing to critique anyone else. 

  • AnonymousSam

    Decompression: Liberalism, progressivism and political left-leans are not the same thing. Liberalism and progressivism are close, but there’s a reason why the term “conservative” in Britain refers to someone who would rather keep nationalized health care.

    Let’s see. Three things I’m definitely prejudiced against:

    1) I’m prejudiced against the excessively rich, because the concentration of wealth serves no useful purpose for society. We have already reached the point where a few million dollars poured into certain places could bring incredible good to society, but instead, that money remains squirreled away in offshore accounts for the purposes of avoiding taxation.

    2) I’m prejudiced against the use of religion as an excuse to remain ignorant, or to reject established facts. This entails everything from the rejection of evolution and the age of the Earth to the oft-repeated lie that Plan B pills induce abortions.

    3) I’m prejudiced against the attitude that everything bad happens to people for a reason. This is called the Just World fallacy and rejects the possibility that bad things can happen through no fault of the affected party, or anyone related to them. Its purveyors invoke this belief to blame victims for matters ranging everywhere from being poor for not being properly austere to blaming Sandy Hook on the rise of atheism.

    In another thread, someone is rejecting the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act because he believes employers are harmed to a disproportional degree by being required to make accomodations for female workers such as “a stool to sit upon between activity” and “a bathroom break on the hour instead of once every three hours.”

    Your argument is that we should feel ashamed of ourselves for daring to criticize this person’s argument because “we’re just as bad.”

    That’s still false equivalence. If you’re not satisfied with that answer, that’s too bad. I’m not required to justify myself to you, only to do my part to keep people from fucking up the world to satisfy the desires of the powerful few at the expense of the vulnerable masses.

  • arcseconds

    OK, so rather belated reply here, but this has been bugging me.

    I was admittedly a little sarcastic in one of my responses to you, but that was because you were a wee bit sarcastic to me just earlier — and not because you slipped up on grammar.

    Just wanted to be sure that was clear :] all’s fair in love and sarcasm, but I’m not the sort to ridicule people for grammatical mistakes (although I’m not above correcting them… or for that matter committing them)

  • billy

    good, about time