We Are One

The tribalism backlash hurts us all.

Posted Sep 20, 2018

E pluribus unum strikes the pluribus lately as a threat, not a promise — more like assimilation by the Borg than a patriotic ideal. Instead of striving for the common good, we’ve split into factions, each defined largely by its enemy. Feminism fights patriarchy, Black Lives Matter fights police brutality, the 99 percent fight the 1 percent. Elsewhere on the political spectrum, midwesterners fight coastal elites, populists fight the “deep state,” white supremacists fight immigration. There’s an awful lot of fighting going on, and a lot of circling the wagons, i.e., huddling together with the like-minded, or at least the like-identified.

Identity politics” was coined in 1977 by the black feminists of the Combahee River Collective, but the term no longer carries its original meaning. Identity politics was a starting point, a catalyst for political activity. To the Collective it was not an end in itself. Cultural critic Kimberly Foster writes:

Their ideology began with self, but it was not self-obsessed. Ultimately, they knew their work would benefit everyone…. An identity politics that is not principally concerned with dismantling all forms of inequality quickly devolves into a never-ending game of oneupmanship where self-satisfaction is all that’s won.

For both the Left and Right, identity politics is now a substitute, not a catalyst, for benefiting everyone. Identity has become a credential for oneself and a prejudicial discrediting of others — the very definition of argumentum ad hominem.

This degraded sense of “identity politics” reflects a much older human propensity: tribalism. Tribalism stands opposed to universalism, inclusive regard for humanity as a whole. The two exist in dynamic tension, with universalism arguably gaining ground over time.  To paraphrase Martin Luther King, the arc of history is long, but it bends toward expansion of our “tribe”: from families to villages to nations, and eventually to supranational coalitions like the European Union and United Nations. Looking ahead, the science-fiction world of Star Trek envisions a utopian Federation of humans joined by like-minded aliens. As generations come and go, we slowly find common cause with those less and less like ourselves. Yet tribalism never goes away. There is always an enemy: a Communist or terrorist menace in real life, the Borg in our imagined future. It’s hard to conceive of group cohesion, Oneness, without an Otherness.

Plus, the long arc isn’t smooth. As with King’s moral universe bending toward justice, there are backlashes. We’re currently experiencing one: a worldwide, presumably temporary regression to smaller tribes. Brexit is an obvious example. Here in America, our enemies these days are not extraterrestrials or even Communists, they’re our neighbors with politics opposed to our own. And while animosity between Left and Right is as heated as ever, we also battle enemies even closer at hand: progressives fight with liberals, traditional conservatives with Trumpists, different schools of feminism with each other. We’re in a freefall of “splitting” instead of “lumping”.  Why this backlash?

Apparently it’s fear. Life in western-style democracies today must feel precarious indeed: in a frenzy we defend ourselves against all who aren’t explicitly in our camp. Fearful self-preservation compels us to hunker down, circle the wagons, and make rough, seemingly vital distinctions between friend and foe. Honoring the humanity of one’s adversary becomes a precious luxury, quickly jettisoned when survival is at stake. Conversely, huddling with the like-identified answers the rhetorical challenge: “You and what army?” There’s strength in numbers.

Living in a small camp under siege, or perceiving life that way, means always scanning for possible attack. It can culminate in paranoia. Unfortunately, there is no compelling way to refute paranoia. Rational argument cannot convince a paranoid person to let down his guard. Paranoia subsides as safety and trust are (re-)established; it’s an incremental process that takes time. Trust must be earned, which is why betrayal is so devastating and reconciliation so slow.

It’s bad enough to live among myriad warring camps. Even worse, the ammunition used in these wars are often competing claims of victimization, a tricky dynamic that in turn leads to whataboutism and charges of false equivalence and fake news. Intersectionality, a term coined in 1989 by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, attempts to account for multiple simultaneous forms of oppression. It was first applied in concrete and pragmatic fashion to the intersection of misogyny and racial oppression in the lives of black women.  However, despite Crenshaw’s disclaimer, intersectionality lately connotes a tally of personal identities, i.e. group memberships, whereby one can claim oppression. As commonly used, intersectionality demands finer and finer screens for tribal membership.

In an insightful opinion piece, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah notes that intersectionality so construed precludes anyone from speaking on behalf of a tribe, no matter how narrowly defined:

If Joe had grown up in Northern Ireland as a gay white Catholic man, his experiences might be rather different from those of his gay white Protestant male friends there.

It only takes a moment to realize there is no end to this divvying up.  Identifying with a particular tribe can multiply political power, but ultimately tribes are an illusion: a strategic foregrounding of certain shared attributes while backgrounding all the others. Barack Obama is “black” here in the U.S. but “white” when he visits Africa; it depends on whether his half-blackness or half-whiteness is in the minority and thus in the foreground. Irish and Italians were considered non-white when many immigrated here over a century ago. Jews are white or non-white (and oppressor or oppressed) depending on the point of the identification. Clarence Thomas and Ben Carson are plainly in the African American camp, except when their political views argue otherwise.

Owing to the miscibility of group identification, it is always erroneous to claim to speak for a tribe, regardless of how narrowly defined it is. I can’t speak for all Americans or all physicians — or even for all San Francisco psychiatrists who write blogs. Likewise, no one can speak for “the disabled,” “real, God-fearing Americans,” or an identified sexual minority. While it’s often useful to clarify one’s viewpoint by noting that it stems from experience as a manual laborer or transgender person or Hawaiian, it doesn’t imply — can never imply — a like-minded army marching behind one’s words.

We speak for ourselves alone. Each of us is only one, no more and no less. This prospect may sound like a lonely and desperate “Every man for himself!”  Paradoxically, however, it may pivot us back to the long arc of history. It may gently ease our social paranoia and allow universalism to gain ground once again.

Recognizing the uniqueness of the individual and the arbitrariness of group identification complicates tribalism. If there is no simple dividing line between friend and foe, if there is no clear-cut tribe or camp with members in lockstep, we may again permit ourselves to see humanity in our adversaries. If we’re lucky, the role of Otherness will be played by impersonal challenges such as climate change and resource limitation, not by other people. As we rejoin the long arc of history, identity politics will be our on-ramp to helping all in need, not just those who look, vote, or pray like us. Inevitably — but sooner is better than later — we will again identify with expanded tribes such as nations, the human race, or all living creatures. Like the stamp of e pluribus unum on our coins, “we are one” will mean honoring both our individuality and commonality.  We will share kinship with a great many, not a small camp.

©2018 Steven Reidbord MD.  All rights reserved.