A Twitter thread by Nathaniel Virgo.

Social scientists and journalists: here are some problems with thinking of identity group politics in the U.S. in terms of "tribalism."


Many use the term “tribalism” to refer to political statements, behavior, etc. having to do with social group conflict.

Example: the claim that Democrats hate Republicans so much that they can’t even listen to, let alone engage with, Republican ideas.

(and vice versa)


In this example, the term “tribalism” is used pejoratively to refer to us-versus-them thinking. And I do agree that in many cases journalists and social scientists should disparage this kind of thinking.

But here’s the problem.


The word’s rhetorical power comes from its negative reference to tribes. Wittingly or unwittingly, many people in the U.S. conceive of “tribes” as (1) American Indian; (2) primitive; (3) warmaking.


The term tribalism, as it is typically used by journalists and social scientists, therefore denigrates participants in group politics...

...by characterizing them as similar to primitive, warmaking indigenous people.


It is also common to praise "civility."

And it is no accident that “civility” shares the same prefix as “civilization.”

Thus to speak angrily in us-versus-them terms is to be tribal/primitive/indigenous.

To avoid conflict is to be civilized/rational/modern/white.


In case you didn’t know: tribes are not relics of the past. For example, indigenous tribal nations in the United States still exist and are legally recognized as such, by themselves and by the U.S. government.


And I see no evidence that American Indians are more prone to us-versus-them thinking then, say, the predominantly white journalists and social scientists who use the term “tribalism” to disparage other people.


Indeed, the irony is infuriating when white people use the term “tribalism” as a pejorative reference to group politics:

“Don’t be like those primitive Indians – avoid us-versus-them thinking.” (?!)


Here's another example. Consider the recent conflict between Elizabeth Warren and billionaire Lloyd Blankfein.


She named him personally in a recent ad criticizing billionaires for hoarding money, insider trading, and making money during the financial crisis.

In response, he criticized her use of group politics: “I guess tribalism is in her DNA.”


This response is clever, and its cleverness derives from its racism.

The implicit message is that pursuing conflictual, uncivil, identity politics is the kind of thing an Indian would do.


Once again the irony is breathtaking. A white person is criticizing another person for us-versus-them thinking:



More generally, the use of the term “tribalism” warps our discourse about class politics in the US.


Those who call out billionaires for stealing (through, say, insider trading, as Warren pointed out) and for hoarding wealth are labeled as tribal.

And if they express anger while calling out these billionaires, they are labeled as uncivil.


And thus the image that all of us exposed to this discourse get is:

An image of civil, reasonable whites who just happen to be affluent going about their own business until these angry class warriors foment conflict: tribally, emotionally, irrationally.


This isn't about "language policing" or "political correctness."

I'm not saying let's avoid the term tribal, or call others out for using it, as a performative exercise to prove that we are "woke."


My point isn't just that tribalism is a flawed word. I'm digging into the word here to show how it reflects flawed thinking.

Flawed thinking that serves powerful interests.


So if you look out into the world and see race conflict, class conflict, and partisan conflict, and your instinct is to decry all this "tribalism" and call for "civility"?

I'm not just saying you should find better words. I'm also saying you should find better thoughts.


Of course I'm not the first to complain about the term "tribalism."

https://psmag.com/education/why-david-brooks-should-stop-using-the-word-tribe …

https://fair.org/extra/tribal-label-distorts-african-conflicts/ …


I've also learned a lot about indigenous politics from @John_A_Little and @LauEEvans. Thanks to you both.