While certain groups of people use the words “Government” and “Taxes” as a weapon to block rational discussion. Generally, a very different group of people use “Racism” for the same reason.
I am not contesting the fact that “racism” as the word is used does in fact exist. Certainly people who see their “race” as being better in some way than some other “race” continue to preach their beliefs. But “race” is more of a political word than an accurate description of human variability. Race is more of a concept than a genetic reality. The various localities where people evolved determined their genetic variability not some overseeing power which shapes people differently for whatever reason and orders them in clearly defined categories. To see ourselves as belonging to different races is akin to seeing ourselves as having been bred like dogs, each one chosen for its particular trait by an overseeing power (in the case of dogs; humankind). But the evolution of homo-sapiens is much more attached to their environment, migration patterns, disease and resistance to disease, and things along these lines. The color of one person’s skin does not make that person more like someone else with a similar color skin. If the region where someone’s genetic history has evolved is in the same region where another person’s genetic history was evolved, then those two people are more genetically similar but that means very little. As people become more mobile and are finding mates among other “races”, it means almost nothing.
The concept of “race” may have originally brought with it a long history of where your genes came from in the world. An adaptation to that particular small valley, riverbank or coastal town where all your ancestors grew up. And there are peoples who have occupied those same valleys, riverbanks for thousands of years but they are rare in the world today. Most of the differences which the categories of “races” were attempting to define have long since faded. And it was a very amorphous concept to begin with. To continue to use the word “race” in the political realm reinforces to a degree, the concept of differences when they mean so little anymore. This is not to say people no longer align themselves with different groups and develop resentment toward outside groups. This phenomenon runs even deeper than “racism”.
I prefer the word “Tribalism”. Tribal feelings have been with us throughout our evolution and will probably continue to be with us even though we no longer form the same kind of tribes as we once did. Just as “Government” and “Taxes” will always be a part of our social structure (regardless of any school of thought that claims they can be put to an end) “tribalism” will always be with us as well. I don’t mean that the hatred and exploitation of one race by another will always be with us. I mean it is human nature the identify ourselves with a certain group of people and form bonds with that group of people.
While “racism” is a word that has lost its rational descriptive quality because of its use as an attack word, “tribalism” does a better job of describing something that seems to be inherent in human nature. When we hear the word “racist” we immediately think of those defenders of a segregated society. Those images from the South of “racists” blocking black school children from their schools, the Jim-Crow Laws, the church burnings, or the lynchings and cross-burnings that preceded that time. Sure, those examples were based on genetic differences, mostly pitting one group whose genetic traits came from a certain small portion of the African continent against another group whose genetic traits from a certain small portion of the European continent. We all know the abuse one group had to endure at the hands of the second group. And in fact the effect of that abuse and echoes of that abuse continue even today. But this is a very narrow example, there are many more examples of one group exploiting another group based on something besides genetics alone.
When people connect those types of hate-filled attitudes with “racism” it is easy for them to believe they are free of such prejudices. They think “racism” must carry with it some ugliness, some undercurrent of seething rage and hate for people unlike ourselves. It is easy for the average person to brush it off and claim they are free of “racist views”. This is why I use “racism” as another example of an ossified word. To imagine that we can be free of “tribalism” if we try hard enough is the equivalent of believing we can be free of “government” or “taxes”. We need to look at ourselves honestly as human beings, what is our history, where have we evolved from? The history of groups of people forming alliances for the reason of sharing common customs, common language, common space, common genetics, common mythologies, or common defenses is so ingrained in our history that it can’t be ignored. It has happened frequently that these alliances of groups have given one group distinct advantages over another group. The advantaged alliance has frequently abused the alliance with less advantages.
Here is a quote from the American ethnologist Daniel Garrison Brinton in his 1890 book “Races and Peoples: Lectures on the Science of Ethnography”, describing the traits of the so-called “Celts”:”Their mental traits are quite as conspicuous as; turbulent, boastful, alert, courageous, but deficient in caution, persistence and self-control, they never have succeeded in forming an independent state, and are a dangerous element in the body politic of a free country. In religion they are fanatic and bigoted, ready to swear in the words of their master rather than to exercise independent judgment. France is three-fifths of Celtic descent, and this explains much of its history and the character of its inhabitants.” This is basically a collection of adjectives which in this case is applied a subset of the “white” race. What is the basis of these assumptions? And what makes him think the people belonging to this “race” are uniformly alike? He offers little in the way of observation and experiment. In this same book he systematically classifies numerous races, throughout the world. He has great praise for the beauty of the Caucasian Peoples (though he doesn’t consider it a “race”) and has little good to say about the “Austafrican races”. Another interesting quote from his book; “It seems, for instance, tolerably certain that the cross between the white and black races produces offspring (mulattoes) who are deficient in physical vigor. It is well ascertained in the United States that they are peculiarly prone to scrofula and consumption, unable to bear hard work, and shorter lived than either the full black or the full white.”
As ridiculous as some of his judgments may sound today in the scientific realm, he obviously was no slouch and worked hard at his research. But he used the broad assumptions (laden with prejudice about people different from himself) that were common in the science of his day. Such broad assumptions are still common today, not so much in scientific thought but in plain everyday thought. One could easily imagine the collection of adjectives a person of one tribe might invent for people they saw belonging to a different tribe. In fact, this is exactly what people do all the time when they start to think in a tribal manner. But I don’t think it is helpful to call it “racism”. It only helps reinforce the pseudo-science of some like Brinton.
The word “racism” simply puts it into the realm of automatic denial and limits its scope. No one would consider themselves a “racist”, though I would guess most people think of themselves as connected to certain groups of people, through common customs, economic situation, nationality etc. It is merely human nature to form bonds with other people and in the process of forming bonds with one group of people, there is inevitably people that fall outside the group, those ones with different beliefs, economic situations, genetic background, nationality etc. If I attend the local Bobby Burns night, eat some Haggis, and recite some Burn’s poetry, that doesn’t make me a racist. If I become an aficionado of African drumming and dancing or I take up Capoeira or I became a fan of Cajun Music, that doesn’t make me a racist. But any of those activities help me bond with a certain group of people at the exclusion of many other groups. This is the basis of what I am calling “tribalism”, groups of people forming bonds through shared experiences. Certainly other names could be applied “clubs”, “religions”, “communities”, “races”, “villages”, “families”, “classes”, “fans”, “nations” etc. But whatever it is called I would venture to say it has been with us from the beginning of human history, remains with us today and will remain with us in the future. If you want to consider just how esoteric this bonding can be, observe a soccer, football, baseball, cricket, rugby or any type of competition with a well-formed fan base. The absurdity of watching one group root for one team while another group roots for the opposing team seems utterly ridiculous…unless your team is playing or there is some relevance to your team.
Of course acknowledging that “tribalism” is a fundamental part of human nature does not mean “abuse” is a fundamental part of human nature. One tribe (or individual for that matter) exploiting their advantage is not inevitable, though it is has been common in history. This type of exploiting can quickly fall into the realm of abuse. Throughout history this abuse has often taken on the form of “racism”, though to limit to cases of “race” is deceptive. Though the cases of abuse based on genetic differences have perhaps the ugliest, maybe because one can not change their own skin or appearance. Other cases of exploitative tribalism seem less vicious and unfair because some things about what “tribe” we belong to can be changed. A person can change their allegiances whether by nationality, by religion, their traditions, and sometimes their economic station, but genetics stamp us for life.
Today, when we see this kind of abuse; the economic element stands above the racial element. Because economic prejudice is acceptable, racial prejudice is not. The wealthy and would-be wealthy exploiting the poor and less wealthy. The US does not have one of the highest rates of prison incarceration in the history of the world because there are that many more dangerous people than ever. It has such a high rate of prison incarceration because this is just one of the tools used to put fear into the poor and make them more compliant. Pile on, the fines, the penalties, the late payments, the citations, the court dates, the parole fees, bail costs etc etc and pretty soon anyone who couldn’t afford them would find themselves in prison with no hope of ever paying it all off. I’ve seen estimates that have put the number of people in prison over drug charges and mental health problems at a substantial majority of the prison population. It is also no coincidence the poor and less wealthy are often black or brown because that is consistent with the economic position of the non-white people in the US. And it is consistent with the residual effects of racism.
Abusive “tribalism” seems to occur only occasionally in history, mostly during times of social tension; resource depletion, changes in government, war, mixing of unfamiliar “tribes”, struggles for power, etc. Though, recorded history devotes more of its time to these periods. Of course the obvious example is Germany during the Nazi reign, but what about America during the slaveholding years or the Jim Crow era, or the Westward Expansion (extermination of Native Americans and their way of life) or Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge, The Soviet Union during the reign of Stalin, or South Africa during Apartheid, Rwanda during its 1992 massacre, or Central and South America during the “Dirty Wars”. The examples start to pile up rapidly, but really they are mostly exceptions to the rule, if you list alongside them the much lengthier list of “inter-tribal” cooperation and co-existence. Just because you are a Yankees’ fan doesn’t mean you need to abuse and exploit a Cubs’ fan.
However there does seem to be an element of triumphalism and savoring of an adversary’s loses that goes along with “tribalism”. During relatively stable times “tribal” abuse is much less common, this savoring of an enemies losses which I will call “revenge” is something else that never seems to go away. Of course “revenge” always needs to be prefaced with some previous injustice, some story of victim-hood, some rationale for self-righteous action. If a tribe is looking for such a rationale, any small or large thing will do, whatever is best to stir the spirit of “revenge”.
So if we look at how “tribalism” has evolved throughout human history we see that it has never disappeared, though it goes by different names and takes on different shapes. But one thing that is consistent about “tribalism” is; its continued interplay of empathy and revenge. It is empathy which forms a tribe and defines its boundaries. Anything which lies outside the scope of the tribe is fair play for “revenge” or maybe being “taught” is a better word. When I think of the Spanish Conquest of the New World and how the Conquistadors came to “save the souls” of the Mesa-Indians the word “teaching” fits a little better.
But why do we no longer split up into tiny village groups warring with each other like Scottish Clans? We have somehow finessed some of our feelings of empathy outward toward a larger tribe; a nation. This protects us from some of the more chronic aspects of tribalism. We focus more of our energy upward so our little groups we form have less significance and it is easier to find a common bond in a larger group. Also, our various smaller allegiances; to sports teams, political parties, towns, cities, restaurants, movies stars, etc. may serve as an outlet for our ingrained tribal expression. Religion was also one of those larger unifying currents before nations became as strong as they are now.
This does not mean that we no longer have feelings of division based on race or national origin. It just means those feelings are murkier, mixed up with economic status, more of an undercurrent than an openly displayed position. So “tribalism” remains a struggle for us today, its shape constantly changing, its degree of intensity rising and falling with the times. Words fail to describe its current state.
Our human lack of empathy displayed in our many forms of tribal abuse has shamed us and forced us into twisted rationalizations, emphatic denials when faced with the obvious, and all kinds of political “dog whistles”. Interestingly it is really empathy that helps us form our “tribal” bonds in the first place. Can’t we simply feel empathy for the entire human race while at the same time enjoy our small bonds of commonality? The rational mind would say we could, but that is not what we are as human beings, we are not rational. So will we ever overcome that powerful urge toward “revenge” or “teaching”? I would predict not; it is as much part of our imprint as “tribalism” is. What would TV or the movies be without “revenge”, it is so deeply embedded in our psyche, that its story must be told. However it is certainly something that can be softened and brought down a few degrees. I would suggest that is the purpose sports in general and other forms of competition offer to our larger social order.
There is also hope that comes from stability and aging. As I grow older, in myself I can observe a shifting away from “teaching”, making my opinions forcefully heard, or “righting” of “wrongs”. When observing someone else experiencing the same difficulties I once experienced, I feel an wistful empathy rather than a corrective empathy. I also observe the same thing in others as they grow older, a mellowing or growing state of ease. We admire the young, not for their achievements but for the wonderful process of getting there. It means nothing to us if a four-year-old sits on a bike and instantly starts riding. What we savor is the difficult moments as they try so hard; we remember our own difficult moments.
So maybe, as humanity ages and carries with it an aging collective consciousness, it will also mellow with time. Maybe we will become contented just telling our stories. Then once our story is done, we can sit back and listen to someone else’s story.