Thursday, May 03, 2007

Tribalism is programmed into our species as a survival strategy

John McWhorter:

If the top Democratic hopefuls are under the impression that the way to stop Third Worlders from hating America is to build schools in their countries, they need to think again.

On Tuesday, Senator Clinton floated the idea that we should spend 10 billion dollars over a five year period on schools and teachers in poor nations. The justification for this being that such schools could give children an alternative to the anti-Americanism they are so often steeped in these days. Senators Obama and Edwards are of similar mind as well.

It’s a nice idea, but I’m not sure these august persons quite understand how deeply seated the tribalist, us-againstthem impulse is in human beings.

I think about what happens every time I go to a linguistics conference in Europe. It happens not on the first night but the second, when a certain level of social comfort has been established, and not after the first glass of wine but the second. Someone asks me how my country could have elected “that idiot,” and for the next two hours most of the table engages in a civilized rant over how much they hate the Bush administration.

Certainly this sentiment has been exacerbated by the war in Iraq. This gleeful anti-Americanism, however, was typical in my European colleagues long before 2003. The general feeling during these Bush-bashing sessions is that we should not have invaded Afghanistan.

Ten years ago, I recall a discussion with a German schoolteacher proudly recounting her tween-age students’ contempt for America for “doing whatever it wants.” I asked her precisely which actions on America’s part these students, born in early 1980s, were so offended by. The answer was much longer on emotion than fact.

And that’s just it — we are dealing with an emotion. Although anti-Americanism is sparked, of course, by actual events, it takes place as a sentiment, and sentiments die hard. The sentiment in this case is the self-perpetuating demonization by some Third Worlders of a perceived enemy, founded on tribalism. Tribalism is programmed into our species as a survival strategy: humans began as small bands of hunter-gatherers. It’s not an accident that in many indigenous cultures, the name of their tribe is the word for “people,” the assumption being that nontribal members fall outside of that definition.

Thus, by building police forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, we struggle to get local recruits to develop a sense of loyalty beyond their clan. After September 11, two American Muslims I knew harbored a sense that Osama Bin Laden was, on some level, a hero: he was “one of them” despite their genuflective assertions that what he did was “terrible.”

Nice to see an intellectual acknowledging that tribalism is normal and not some form of mental illness.


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