Opposing the tribalist mindset

Events in the past couple of weeks ought to have disgusted most of the people reading this blog, whatever we may disagree on. A cop choked Eric Garner to death for selling cigarettes, he was caught on video, and no charges were brought against him. It’s official now that the CIA has been torturing people, stumbling into the policy rather than having a real purpose, and not even accomplishing anything, and no charges are being brought against anyone. Obama is being True Neutral on torture, showing himself more than ever as a slimy creature with no principles. At least Cheney stands for something, even if it’s vile.

Outside the US, there are the ongoing atrocities by the Islamic State and Boko Haram. The majority of their victims are other Muslims. Lately the loudspeakers on the mosques in Kabul have been urging people to stay inside instead of calling them to prayer.

All these events are manifestations of the collectivist, tribalist impulse to divide the world into “us” and “our enemies.” It seems to be a path of least resistance in human psychology. In primitive societies, there must be a value in making snap judgments about whether someone is friend or foe. The Bible, which is part of our culture whether we grant it religious significance or not, is full of horrible deeds which are supposedly good because their targets have a different religion. It presents the child-butcher Joshua as a hero because the children lived in a Canaanite city.

Science fiction fans aren’t completely free of the impulse. While the division between fans and “mundanes” is usually expressed in a good-humored way, I’ve heard “mundane” used as an expression of contempt often enough and may have used it that way myself. This is especially likely to happen when a convention is sharing a hotel with a group that includes some obnoxious people. All mundanes get painted with the same brush. I’ve heard annoyingly often, among filkers, that people speaking German always sound angry. Perhaps a good reply would be, “If you’d stop saying that, they might sound less angry.”

Uglier than either of those is the “race identity” mindset that’s taken hold in some parts of fandom. This is the notion that we’re supposed to think of people not as people, but as members of racial groups. There was a post I encountered on Tumblr a long time ago, which I’d meant to work into a blog post but never did. The text was in pictures, and I couldn’t figure out how to link to it, but here’s the relevant part:

I kind of just spontaneously groaned and put my head in my hand and someone said, “Well, what was THAT reaction?” And I said, “Well, when I wake up in the morning and I look in the mirror I see a human being.” I’m kind of a generic person, y’know, I’m a middle class, white, man. I have no [visible] class, no race, no gender, I’m universally generalizable. So I like to think that that was the moment that I became a[n aware] middle class, white, man. That class and race and gender weren’t about other people but they were about me and I had to start thinking about them and it had been privilege that had kept it invisible to me for so long.

The brackets were in the original, if my recollection is correct.

The KKK couldn’t have put it better: Stop thinking of yourself as a human being and start thinking of yourself as a privileged white (or as whatever group has been assigned to you). People of other skin colors are different. I don’t have any reason to think this person (yes, person, however how much he objects) was in fandom, but the expression is a particularly clear form of the rhetoric I’ve seen from people trying to promote race identity on convention programs. As far as I know, no con has yet put “Your race:” on its registration form; I hope none ever do.

There’s a large difference, of course, between mocking mundanes and torturing prisoners, but the motivation is the same in kind. The same kind of motivation has muted the response to the torturers — excuse me, the politically correct term is “enhanced interrogators” — and their defenders. We’re Americans. They’re “terrorists,” whether anything has been proven against them or not. So we can regret that “we tortured some folks,” but let’s not be vindictive against people who approved or committed war crimes “in the past.” Let’s “look forward, not backward,” unless we’re talking about Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, or Chelsea Manning.

If we’re ever going to reach a society that isn’t ruled by tribal hostilities, we have to learn to be aware of those impulses, control them in ourselves, and point them out in others. That requires a culture with an ethic of individualism, the treatment of people according to their personal merits rather than their group membership. Today that’s an unpopular idea, and we’re paying a high price for its lack.

We can’t change the world, but we can each speak as the opportunity arises. We can be careful to check our premises every time we start to think “All of those ___ are scumbags.” Any degree of honest effort helps.

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