Stop using the word "tribal" for modern political and social groupings.
1. The groupings in question actually act much more like classes than like tribes. (Yes, I'm putting the matter crudely and confusedly.)
2. Setting aside its potential racism towards Native Americans — "clan" or "family" would be just as wrong conceptually — the term mislabels a part as a whole. That is, a tribe is a society with an internal social structure, whereas groups like "lower-middle-class whites" and "college-educated blacks" and "Republicans" and "Democrats" and so on are subgroups within a society, subgroups that relate to one another to form social structures.
Not that tribes themselves never had relations with one another. (I can't say I know much about it, either the structure of, say, the different Native (North) American tribes and Amazonian tribes, etc., or the structure of the interplay between tribes.) "Inside" and "outside" are never absolute social distinctions. But caveats such as this one shouldn't be used to obscure the basic mistake built into the metaphor "tribal."
3. The deep basic mistake that concerns me most is the idea that we have social class, here, as one kind of social relation, but that then there's this other stuff, "culture," there, that works differently from class. In fact, instead, class and culture are so deeply intertwined that "intertwined" itself is much too weak a word.
Obviously, all my points here are what on Wikipedia they call "stubs." This one has the most stubble of all. To say briefly what needs several hundred thousand words: what we tend to call "economic class" must have a cultural component or else class mobility both up and down would be too easy and desirable. Embedded in this idea is that e.g. those "in" the "lower" classes get positive status, and meaning, and love and excitement and a feeling of at least being somewhat "at home," right where they are, even though where and who "they are" is actually always necessarily slippery and at risk and even though they don't necessarily conceive where "they are" as belonging to or inside a class. ("In" got scare quotes above for being a problematic word.) The classes nonetheless make up the landscape in which people find (or look for) themselves. So a class isn't altogether unlike an ethnic group. But it is fundamentally different nonetheless in that to be in (or near) a class is to be part of a social structure that relates you to those who are in or near other classes.
That is, people don't fit snugly within a class. That's not how modern class works. They live instead within class systems, social structures, some of which are fairly ad hoc. But it's within these systems that they work out who they are, their creativity and their loves as well as conflicts and oppression and resentments. And they don't find movement all that easy, or inviting.
(To add another circular or elliptical twist or tangle to all this, as the world gets ever more cosmopolitan, ethnic groups themselves are more and more acting like classes (even more than they always did), so are in relation to other groups as part of a structure, rather than as separate structures in themselves, but paradoxically appear more and more as a choice, with at least some leeway, much greater than in the past, as to whether or how much one deploys one's ethnic identity (of course depending on circumstances).)
4. But most crucially and controversially I'll say that, while upper-middle-working class or some near variant on that is probably "right," i.e., is the basic structure of modern "advanced" societies, such classes often aren't the classes of our most immediate experience, and often aren't the classes that are in most immediate effect. So e.g. being a "freak" or a "feminist" or a "progressive" or a "leftist" or "indie" or "intellectual" may not just feel more crucial and more like an identity than being precariously "middle class" does, it puts you in everyday relation to other social groupings. For example, back in my high school, freaks were in relation to normies, to liberals, and to greasers so were part of a social structure that included these other groups. (And yes, I'm claiming such groupings really do structure a good deal of social life, as do the everyday adult groupings that are much vaguer and more ad hoc than the ones in high school.) Again, it's not that you feel at home in your particular class or group — most students felt estranged and many were unaffiliated — it's that such groupings constitute the social landscape and affect and direct your social choices. (If you're an "outsider" you're nonetheless in this social structure, which tells you you're outside the available groups, but nearer to some than to others, and influenced by all.) My basic point here is that to understand such groups, e.g. "freaks," you have to think of them as CLASSES not TRIBES.
5. Although most members of those groupings I listed in scare quotes in the previous paragraph are from what I call the sideways middle class, not all of those people were of middle-class origin. But all those groupings (I'm going to argue someday, when I get the chance) are generated by the upper-middle-working class structure. At least, somewhat generated by it. (Yes, conversely, we can have culture generating structure too, not just structure generating culture, though here I'm talking about structures generating structures anyway, maybe in a kind of feedback loop, with some uncertainty as to how much a particular structure is "economic" or not, and how hierarchical it is. And again, maybe there's a similar but better description than "upper-middle-working class.")
6. I think most of you would rebel against calling freaks etc. "classes," as it would confuse matters, and people wouldn't understand you. I think that's exactly why you should call them classes, since the confusion might force you to think, and anyway people don't understand you. Nonetheless, getting back to the impetus of this post, calling such groupings "tribes" and their relations "tribal" is just drastically wrong and simply wipes out what you need to be thinking about.
If you must, admit that you don't have a word. You've been using "tribal" by default and it's time to stop.
7. Especially, stop using "tribal" as an explanation. The word doesn't explain much. It's more a conversation stopper.
8. Yes, people tend to vote their hairstyle, and feel safer when surrounded by those with similar styles; but this doesn't explain at all where the hairstyles come from, or how the consensus happens.
9. The paradox of class, whether you limit the concept to upper-middle-working or go wild with it as I do, is that your apparent freedom of choice and freedom of association, to work for whom you want and to befriend whom you want, unfettered by kinship or caste, are what throw you unwillingly into these social structures, which actually constrain where you hang out within them, and — even if you're fairly mobile — limit the number of choices offered to anyone.
10. A commentator who reaches for the word "tribal" is more or less trying to signal, correctly, that people are exercising less choice than they're aware of in what they believe, how they dress, whom they run with, what they do, that in effect they're letting their social affiliation constrain their thought.
I'm not really plumping for you to plug in the word "class" everywhere you'd have said "tribal." Rather, just don't use "tribal." There doesn't have to be an all-purpose word. But "class" is better here than "tribal" for suggesting not just that you exercise less choice but that you have less choice. Maybe a better way to put it is that to create choice for yourself requires way more thought and social effort and risk than you realize. (Even if I realize it in principle, I forget in my day-to-day how much my consciousness is directed rather than chosen.) Now "tribal," if taken literally, would imply even less choice than "class" does: you don't choose your kin, your tribe; you're born into it or marry into it. But we're not using "tribal" literally. That our use of it is so obviously metaphoric is one thing that makes it so pernicious. That is, since we know we're not literally in a tribe, we — those who tend to use the word "tribal" — believe that both we and others ought to be able to snap out of it, simply switch off our parochial, prejudiced, "tribal" perspective. Whereas with "class" you at least know you're not going to flip the switch and take a new view.
11. The paradox of class — that choice leads to constraint — occurs exactly where you appear most free, not just in what you do, where we acknowledge that there are constraints imposed by the job market, by customers, by supervisors, but in your apparent ability to invent who you are, in your hobbies, your friendship groupings, your leisure pursuits, your social markers, your hairstyle, your colloquialisms, your everyday speech,. —Yes, this "freedom" will be greater or lesser depending on whether the group in question is something like "evangelical Christian" or whether it's something like "black." Obv. the former is way more of a choice than the latter. But these days the range of things like the former — "evangelical Christian," "math geek," and on and on — is expanding in comparison to the latter. E.g., almost no one notices or cares if you're Irish. There really seems to be a lot of choice as to which part of the "self" to make a big deal of, to put into play as "social identity."
12. But then it turns out that you've chosen constraints, not freedom, or that you're thrown into situations (high school is an example) where a structure is imposed on you, and you have to wend your way through the structural features even if the choices they offer seem limited and dumb. (E.g., you can choose to enter politics, but once you do...)
13. And this is just what the word "tribal" doesn't explain, though it's offered as an explanation. ("Why doesn't she believe in global warming?" "Oh, that's tribal. The people she identifies with don't believe it either.") It doesn't explain why your free choices run into unexpected limits, and doesn't explain why, even where you're most free — what movies you see, what videogames you play, whom you friend on Facebook — your choices seem to be accompanied by locks and bolts on how you think, or on what everybody else thinks, anyway.
14. And here's where the word "tribal" is worse than useless. I imagine that in actual traditionalist cultures — I wouldn't know, I've never lived in one — when queried as to why you think or do things in a particular way, you can answer, legitimately, "because this is the way of my people." But in my world that's a justification that just doesn't cut it. I raised this issue back when I got an LVW column: Since people like the music they like for reasons that are largely visceral and individual, how come musical taste clusters by social class? (Of course, for this question to work, I needed to expand the def'n of class.) "I like this song because to do so helps me maintain my social identity" doesn't fly as a reason, either when spoken to others or spoken to oneself. And it doesn't fly any better as a justification for one's ideas and one's politics.
And it isn't that one is simply failing to admit one's conformity. If there's a conflict between your tastes and your group's tastes, or your ideas and your group's ideas, and your politics and your group's politics, you'll go with your own tastes, ideas, and politics every time. Whether or how you make your ideas public is a different matter. But still, as I wrote in that LVW piece (in regard to music), "How is it that individual visceral responses align — or realign — so that members of the same social group respond similarly to music? And how is it that individual visceral responses further deviate a bit, so that individuals will be enough at odds with other members of their social group so that they will be individuals?" "Tribal" is no answer whatsoever here.
15. Yes, regarding many — most — of my beliefs and ideas, I recognize that I haven't seen with my own eyes and worked through with my own mind; rather, I'm trusting some source, who may well be trusting some other source, or I'm following some thinker who seems to know what she's talking about. But again, "Seems to know what she's talking about" or "is thoughtful and self-questioning on subjects I at least half understand, so is likely to be trustworthy on the ones I don't much understand at all" isn't another way of saying "tribal." In fact, "seems to know" and "is thoughtful and self-questioning" will always outvote, "Is the sort of person I identify with," will outvote it every time. So deploying my trust is pretty much the same operation as deploying my tastes or deploying my brain. It's still my judgment. And my judgment won't bow to my friends' judgment, where there's a difference. Which leaves totally open the question why there aren't more differences, and why my tastes, attitudes, and ideas tend to resemble that of my group(s), my class(es), as if I have chosen my class over my brain.*
So the word "tribal" again offers no insight into the question: Why do individual judgments cluster by social class?
16. The word "tribal" offers no good explanation for how the groups form in the first place, or take the form that they do (which isn't remotely tribal), or arrive at their group characteristics, their collective ideas and assumptions and styles, and their internal disagreements and tensions, or how authority and influence within a group work — nor does "tribal" explain how the groups relate to one another, wield power and influence over each other, shape each other, are forced into relation with one another.
That's where I'll leave it for this post, with questions rather than answers. I was inspired here partly by running across an old Ezra Klein column that half-assedly attempted some answers; Klein is usually sensible and intelligent; here he was bordering on hysteria. I do love the title, "How politics makes us stupid." And I'm not really going to go into a full-scale critique. The experimental results Klein cites by Dan Kahan and crew are not surprising: people have trouble taking in information and ideas that run counter to what they expect, especially when the info etc. require mental work; and when the information and ideas run counter to people's political identity they have even more trouble taking them in.
These are dog-bites-man results that shouldn't lead anyone to the nihilism that Klein fears might be lurking there. E.g., the experiments don't show that people can't take in unexpected or unwanted information or ideas, or that conversation with someone willing both to respect and challenge your logic won't cause you to notice when your own logic has gone astray. So the actual effect of actual information and discussion wasn't being tested by Kahan's experiments. (But such criticisms can also wait for another post.)
The Klein piece brings up (1) genuinely appalling and destructively consequential behavior that (2) needs to be explained. I'm not kidding when I say I like the phrase "politics makes you stupid" in Klein's title. My concern again is that "tribe" and "tribal identity" are being used as explanations rather than being treated as the phenomena that need to be explained. There's an entirely speculative and evidence-free account of the dire social consequences that would befall Sean Hannity if he were to decide "that climate change was the central threat to the planet." But the account just takes people to be the cowards and bores I don't think they are.** It also incorrectly assumes that political activists are typical members of their "tribes."
Which doesn't mean I don't think a lot of the activists are fucked-up and are capitulating to fucked-up social dynamics.
*I don't mean to imply in all this that e.g. because language is social, language constrains us. Compared to what? Language and society make thought possible. But the struggle to think is social, in that communities have to genuinely value counter evidence and the understanding of alternative viewpoints if they want to produce them much less learn from them, and few communities do.
**Not sure if it's Klein or Kahan who concocted the account; and to be fair to Kahan, he is trying to weave a theory in which — in my words — it's subconsciously rational to subconsciously be highly motivated not to take in counter evidence and not to understand alternative ideas. My double use of "subconsciously" indicates that I don't think Kahan's really got a grip on the issue, but I don't think he's wrong to try for one. (I think my description in my old Paris/Vietnam piece might be useful, of how at age 12 I became primed to switch from supporting to opposing the Vietnam War, this being before my having good reason for either. Now, the case here was more my being prior to taking in info and ideas than my making myself unable to, but my piece shows reasons that are deeper and more real and positive and compelling for wanting to take a particular side than just fearing ostracism or wanting to stick with a social identity.) And Klein's use of the word "structures" in the final sentence of his article suggests he has various social theories that might be worth seeing. He'd be less likely to fall into glibness if he'd drop the words "tribe" and "tribal."
- Stop using the word "tribal" for modern political or social groupings