Saturday, July 17, 2010

Tribalism And Christianity

I describe historical and social events through the prism of tribalism because I find it has enormous explanatory power. When I am lazy, I can become nearly reductionist on this. Underneath the elaborate explanations people give for their attitudes and actions, if you identify what their real tribe is and predict behavior on the basis of what is good for that tribe, you will not often go wrong.

I usually focus on liberal tribalism, not because they are the only group that shows this (they aren’t), nor because they are the worst offenders (they might be), but because they are so willing to see it in others and attribute ill-motive to others, yet their own tribalism is entirely opaque to them. Tea Partiers, libertarians, blacks, Mormons, military – all of these recognise their own tribal tendencies and can be engaged on the topic. Most even try to make adjustments in their own attitude to compensate. That their group’s advantage might be part of their motives these other groups can often admit. But frustratingly, sometimes infuriatingly, progressives deny that particular legislation or societal changes is good for them personally. They are certain their preferences are good for America, for all of us, for the downtrodden in particular.

But put that aside for the moment. That’s just a favorite soapbox of mine that I worked in unnecessarily. Tribalism shows up all over our social behavior – between departments at work, especially if they represent different professions; between ethnic groups within a geographic area; between classes in a society. The roots of this behavior go back 100,000 generations. Only in the last 100 generations, or even the last ten, have we tried to clean this up. When Shiites and Sunnis compete for power and resources, their behavior resembles far more the behavior of their prehuman ancestors than it does a university debating society, however many diplomats and newspapers they bring into play to compete. When the engineers are arguing with the design team, some of their behavior concerns content, reason, objective truth, and financial advantage for the company. But much of it – far more than any of us care to admit about ourselves – is just fighting over fishing rights at a particular waterfall. We argue over what resources are going to come to our tribe, however sure we are that we are looking at things objectively.

I don’t say that reason and objectivity have no part in our behavior. The beauty of recent civilization, especially Anglospheric civilization, is that we have learned some ability to overrule these impulses, stand back and act in some nobler or general interest. We can do what is not best for our tribe of 20 or 20 million, but what is good for some larger entity. But that is not our first impulse, and Advantage For Us lurks below the surface in all our actions. Even the nicest of us. Even the most educated, or most religious, or most cultured of us. (Even liberals.) In a very Screwtapian, that is to say diabolic irony, these nobler ideals are often the best disguise for our group selfishness, for we can thereby disguise our primitiveness even from ourselves.

I came to this idea relatively late. Mostly, I learned it from my children. Not from observing their competition, but indirectly, through experiences I had because of these particular children. When Jonathan came back from his freshman year at Asbury, he brought Radical Son, David Horowitz’s book about growing up a red-diaper baby. As my own political journey had been a milder version of the same thing, I took to the politics of it quite easily. But what struck me like a wall was his description of leaving the leftist fold, and the primitive, vindictive-out-of-proportion response previous friends had to him. It mirrored entirely the experience of a person leaving a strict religious group, or marrying out of their birth-tribe. My daughter is dead, says Tevye, echoing the rejection by two thousand generations of fathers of their children leaving the Jewish faith. It is dramatic onstage because it seems so primitive, so cruel, so unnecessary. Yet here it was happening in late 20th C America, among magazine editors, professors, artists, authors.

Before I first visited Romania in 1998, I read up on its history and current state of affairs. It is not news to observe that the tribal competition among Hungarians, Romanians, Jews, Germans, Turks, Gypsies, Hutsul Ukrainians, and Slavs is the history of Romania, and continued to dominate its history through the 20th C. Resolutions are passed in parliaments; books are written, papers are passed, envoys are sent – suits are worn, cell phones used, references are made to great thinkers – and yet it is all maddeningly like the invasion of Magyars a thousand years ago into a land ruled in turn by Avars, Pechnegs, and Dacians.

A long-running battle between departments at work brought this into even clearer focus. Each profession tended strongly to see some of the others as not merely wrong or stupid, but evil. Intelligent people developed elaborate arguments why their proposal for distribution of power and resources was the better. Yet their conclusions always matched their self-interest entirely, as if the many meetings and arguments were mere dramatizations in polite form of the spear-throwing and taunting of a collision of neighboring New Guinea tribes.

Sc.D psychologists complain that certain services are not reimbursable by insurers (those evil insurance companies) and how unfair this is to the poor and downtrodden, the most helpless among us. Social workers will complain that it took them 20 years before they made $50K, while others without even a BA make so much more. Professors of education will be incensed at how little this society cares about its children, because they cannot get the legislature to require more than two courses in early childhood development for certain childcare licensures. (Licensure is a particular focus for fury in many fields.) And in all these complaints there is always some other group that they resent, nearly always mentioned explicitly, that makes more money or has more influence. Athletes are a universal favorite for comparison, perhaps because of the longstanding resentment by the self-styled intellectuals for jocks at school – entertainers making similarly outrageous amounts are criticized less. But many professions – perhaps any profession outside one’s own – come in for this resentment. And significantly, the greatest resentment is reserved for those who quite obviously belong to another tribe, another political or social class. Dinesh D’Souza has an excellent book chapter “The Lottery of Success” which includes
I have no doubt that academics with Ph.D.s have, on average, higher IQs than entrepreneurs. Indeed, one reason so many of them resent entrepreneurs, I am convinced, is that they know they are smarter and yet they must manage on $80,000 salaries while some fat Rotarian with a gold chain on his chest pulls in $1.4 million a year selling term life insurance.

I haven’t gotten to the Christianity part yet, have I? Yet I have gone too long. This must go to two essays, then. I am not going in the direction of why Christian denominations compete with each other, as my writing to this point might suggest. I am going to discuss how much we think Christianity should be able to change this primitiveness in human tribes (Preliminary answer: apparently not much), and what this tells us about understanding history.


David Foster said...

"When the engineers are arguing with the design team, some of their behavior concerns content, reason, objective truth, and financial advantage for the company. But much of it – far more than any of us care to admit about ourselves – is just fighting over fishing rights at a particular waterfall."

True. And a big part of the art of management is figuring out how to use this fact to the benefit of the company, or at least to the higher-level tribe directed by the manager in question.

David Foster said...

See also my post respecting other talents.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Good link. Thanks

Barb the Evil Genius said...

There are Saxons in Romania also. I am part of the Saxon tribe. :)