Tag Archives: tribalism

Speaking of Infectious Diseases…

It would do us well to remember that chosen ignorance isn’t confined to the uneducated, Fox-“news”-watching, fearful folks who tend to be the butt of liberal disdain.

 A new study confirms its presence in tonier liberal precincts as well.

When it comes to science illiteracy in the form of Creationism, we know what kind of people are more likely to believe it: Those who attend church frequently, the elderly, and people without much formal education.

But when it comes to parents who refuse to vaccinate their children, the demographics are very different, according to a new study in the American Journal of Public Health.

The people most likely to refuse to have their children vaccinated tend to be white, well-educated and affluent.

Although this particular data point was not in the study, I’d be very surprised if the same people who are rejecting the overwhelming scientific consensus about the value of vaccination aren’t also sneering at the “anti-science” folks denying the reality of climate change.

At both ends of the political spectrum, we have people picking and choosing the scientists and scientific conclusions they are prepared to accept. I’m neither a sociologist nor a political psychologist, so I’m unprepared to offer a theory about why liberals choose to reject one set of conclusions and conservatives another, although I have a sneaking suspicion that in each case, tribal identity plays a large part.

And independent–let alone critical– thinking plays very little…..

Why I Have Blocked “Gopper”

Regular readers of this blog’s comments sections know that it has attracted a regular troll who calls himself “Gopper.” Gopper’s comments suggest that he is an unhappy and angry individual (with, evidently, a great deal of time on his hands), and although he has frequently crossed the line into invective and incivility, I haven’t previously blocked him, for a couple of reasons: for one thing, I am a big believer in the widest possible exchange of perspectives; for another, it is much too easy in the age of the Internet to limit our interactions to those with whom we agree, and thus fail to recognize the extent to which others hold not just diverse but frequently disturbing and even dangerous beliefs.

In that sense, Gopper’s frequent bizarre rants were instructive (although to the extent others couldn’t resist taking the bait, he managed to derail several otherwise productive conversations).

Yesterday, however, the anti-Semitism that has been visible in previous comments was full-blown; his defense of Nazi atrocities exceeded any tolerance to which he might otherwise be entitled in a civilized society,  however useful he might be as a “case in point.”

In a very real sense, this blog is my virtual home, and those invited in will be expected to adhere to the rules of civilized behavior. Visitors are free–indeed, encouraged–to disagree with me or with anyone posting comments. As arguments heat up, I can tolerate–and I have tolerated–a certain degree of testiness and occasional incivility. But ad hominem attacks, personal nastiness and unrepentant bigotry are not welcome and cannot be tolerated.

Gopper’s presence here has served its purpose; he has demonstrated where the problem lies.

The raw vitriol–unleavened by any respect for evidence or reason or other people’s humanity–is undoubtedly not unique to him. Those of us who are trying to leave this world just a little bit better, a little bit kinder than we found it, need to realize that Americans aren’t just arguing about the best way to achieve the common good, or even about what the common good looks like. All too often, debates that are ostensibly about policy are really about power, fear, privilege, advantage–and deep-seated tribal hatreds.

People in the latter category simply cannot be allowed in polite company.

Forgive the detour; this blog will return to its regular obsessions tomorrow.




If You Think Immigration is an Issue Now, Just Wait….

The Donald’s anti-immigration rhetoric and ridiculous “policy” prescriptions–discussed here yesterday–have highlighted the resentment and nativism with which far too many of us respond to newcomers to our shores. It’s embarrassing, but hardly unique to America. Just look at the recent international headlines, detailing Europe’s response to the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing violence and poverty in Africa and the Middle East.

In the wake of those mounting conflicts in Europe, the Brookings Institution considered not just the dislocations and social issues involved, but the reasons for human movement across political borders. (Hint: those reasons aren’t likely to abate.)

One “take away” from the lengthy and somewhat abstruse paper:

Consider the potential effects of the recent IPPCC projections of a 4 degree Celsius rise in temperature expected by the end of the 21st century in the absence of aggressive mitigation. Then agricultural lands would be displaced by 1,000 km from the equator and sea level would rise another 70 centimeters by the end of the century, or about 3.5 times the rise in sea level over the past 150 years. This would put in jeopardy the 44 percent of world population currently living within 150 km from the coastline. Abstracting from other likely disastrous side effects (acidification of oceans, loss of biodiversity, possibility of life collapse), can we adapt to such changes? Since 72 percent of the population and 90 percent of world GDP is located on 10 percent of the Earth’s land, there is ample room for people to move if they are allowed to.

Translation: climate change is going to motivate massive movements of people across the globe. We can accommodate that movement physically, but unless something changes current highly protective attitudes about national sovereignty–unless we rethink the reflexive tribalism that currently motivates policies about immigration– political accommodation and assimilation will be much more difficult.

May Your Tribe Decrease

In a recent column, Dana Milbank of the Washington Post reported on a social science study that came to some surprising (and depressing) conclusions:

Up until the mid-1980s, the typical American held the view that partisans on the other side operated with good intentions. But that has changed in dramatic fashion, as a study published last year by Stanford and Princeton researchers demonstrates.

It has long been agreed that race is the deepest divide in American society. But that is no longer true, say Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood, the academics who led the study. Using a variety of social science methods (for example, having study participants review résumés of people that make both their race and party affiliation clear), they document that “the level of partisan animus in the American public exceeds racial hostility.”

Americans now discriminate more on the basis of party than on race, gender or any of the other divides we typically think of — and that discrimination extends beyond politics into personal relationships and non-political behaviors. Americans increasingly live in neighborhoods with like-minded partisans, marry fellow partisans and disapprove of their children marrying mates from the other party, and they are more likely to choose partners based on partisanship than physical or personality attributes.

The tendency to live among people who share one’s general outlook was highlighted in Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort, and together with partisan redistricting–gerrymandering–it has resulted in the election of lawmakers whose only allegiance is to the deep-red or deep-blue character of their districts; that in turn has made it virtually impossible for “establishment” politicians to control them. The intransigence (and far too often, blinding stupidity) of these hyper-partisan warriors feeds the tribalism described in the study.

The authors of the study reportedly had no suggestions for how we might close the partisan gap.

In their great 2004 rant, The Urban Archipelagothe editors of The Stranger  looked at the electoral map and saw red and blue America as a rural/urban phenomenon–islands of blue floating in seas of red. They had lots of theories about why city folks were “blue,” and the whole essay is a good read, but if they are correct–and subsequent elections have confirmed the archipelago’s persistence–the ultimate remedy for our partisan tribalism may be demographic: the U.S. population has been migrating steadily to more metropolitan areas and hollowing out great swathes of rural America.

According to the theory, at least, neighbors are less likely to demonize each other.

Maybe an Invasion from Outer Space?

The Washington Post recently ran a column listing the top ten reasons American politics are so broken. None of the listed reasons will surprise anyone who’s been following our increasingly uncivil, toxic political environment, and the whole column is worth a read.

That said, this struck me.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States lost a common enemy that had once unified the country.

There’s a Bedouin proverb: Me against my brother; me and my brother against our cousin; me, my brother and my cousin against the stranger. From 1939 through 1989, the United States had a rogue’s gallery of heavily armed strangers to unite with in defense of democracy and the homeland. The Cold War began as a bipartisan affair with strong support from both parties. By the 1980s, the parties had clearly split into the hawk party and the dove party, and that split has only deepened. As the parties have purified and moved apart, foreign policy and the proper response to foreign threats has become more divisive.

I’ve often wondered whether the human animal is hard-wired to need an enemy– whether we evolved to inhabit an “us versus them” universe. It seems increasingly likely.

Sociologists argue that “membership” is a meaningless term unless there are also non-members–people we can point to who don’t belong. Many years ago, in a book focused upon the growing assimilation of Jews in the United States, the author–who was very concerned that Jews might die out altogether–posited that anti-Semitism might be necessary to Jewish identity. In other words, without an enemy, there was really no reason to remain in the “tribe.”

That appeal to tribal loyalties, that lack of a more capacious and inclusive definition of “we,” that view of a world divided into “teams” that allows us to experience the world as “us versus them” is what drives everything from religious extremism to Fox News.

All of which does raise an uncomfortable question:  Do Americans–or earthlings–require an existential threat to our existence in order to see each other as fellow Americans, or fellow humans?