Passing bull 19 – Tribalism

A generation or so ago, it was the Looney Tunes on the Left that disfigured politics and sought to make one party unelectable.  Now we see it on the Right, alarmingly so in the U S, although Labour in the U K has suffered a remarkable reversion to form.

The following are my drafts relating to the problem for a book I am writing with another on logic and language.

10 Tribalism

We started this chapter on the subject of prejudice as the main corrupter of thought, and near the end of it we come to a common source of prejudice – you might call it tribalism or clannishness, or just the herd instinct.  It is our tendency to surrender our judgment, and therefore our dignity, to the crowd, or the mob.  In its most terrifying form, it is the lynch mob, which the French reached on a national scale during the Great Terror of the French Revolution in 1793.  The surrender was more complete, and the consequences more severe, during the Great Crash in 1929, but we see it all round us every day, and as often as not we do not notice when we have switched into the mode of group control.

A harmless form is the one-eyed Collingwood supporter.  Indeed, one reason why people enjoy that part of the entertainment industry called sport is that this is just the area, either in the stands or on the terraces or around the firm’s coffee machine, where independent judgment may be suspended and blind prejudice masquerading as loyalty can be safely put on show.  (You might from time to time graciously applaud someone from the other side, but you may want to watch who you do that in front of.)  You can even blow the ref a raspberry without going to the slammer.

One worrying form of clannishness is the tendency of some groups to form their own language, and retreat behind it when they come under attack or when they feel insecure or when they just feel like being pompous.  Lawyers and doctors used to be notorious for this, but both have improved.  It is no longer smart or clever to be obscure; the contrary is the case.

This kind of corruption of thought is dangerous because it obscures meaning – it makes the author harder to pin down – and it masks a crude self-interest in protecting the relevant group as the proper or even the sole repository of truth – which is very worrying when they are unable to spell out a verifiable meaning for the benefit of the uninitiated.  Secular thinkers for many centuries have accused priests of doing just this – of denying ordinary people access to the truth, or, if you prefer, the light, by refusing to give them the keys to the codes.  You might recall that before the Reformation, you could be burnt at the stake in England if you dared to translate the Bible into the native language of the believers.  That must be the ultimate example of people being asked to take articles of faith on trust.

We see examples of this form of clannish or tribal protectionism, and the consequent mutilation of language and logic, in the newer social sciences – which some think is a phrase that contradicts itself – and in marketing, ideologues, especially think tanks and their acolytes, political advisers, and some parts of academe.  We tend to see the problem at its worst with the think tanks and political ideologues – the political advisers tend to be more hard-headed people who hardly believe anything, whereas the ideologues bring commitment and passion and are likely to invoke that most dangerous ingredient in rational discussion called sincerity.  (We will come back to sincerity in the next section.)

The problem now is that you are dealing with people with a position and with a patch to defend.  Helen Garner referred to people who have an agenda.  You are dealing with someone who subscribes to articles of faith, and they may not realise or accept that articles of faith lie outside the borders of rational debate.  You might therefore be talking to a zealot.  Zealots are people whose zeal has infected their judgment.  They become like one-eyed Collingwood supporters, but much, much worse because they believe that the stakes are so big.  In the language of the stock market, they have their own skin in the game.

They become unable to see the world from the other person’s point of view.  They are very likely to think that they have uncovered the logical answer – that is, the answer, and there can only be one of those.  They become progressively less able to see that reasonable people might differ on almost any question relating to human behaviour or belief.  That is to say, they get more and more intolerant, and intolerance is the cancer of sensible discussion.  If you think, if you feel, that your position is superior to that of others, the corollary is as unattractive as it is unavoidable.

They tend to look on disputes not as disputes about ideas but as conflicts between the kinds of people who hold various ideas.  They become emotionally attached to their own side and emotionally opposed to the others.  Their judgment goes clean out the window.  They are ready to argue about things that they know little or nothing about, and that must end up in bullshit.  They then get ready to attack almost anything said by the other side, and to defend almost anything that has come out of their side.  They become driven by and to conflict.

They therefore pick fights that they do not have to, and so they ignore the first rule of advocacy – if you have a good point, make it, and don’t bugger it up with a dud; if you don’t have a good point, shut up.

They are heavily into mockery, and into nodding and winking among themselves.  They are not beyond sneering, and they may have an obsession about sneering that is one of those cases where they project their own feelings and reactions on to their opponents.  They often accuse others of being dogmatic or feeling morally or intellectually superior because they have right on their side.  Their essential sin is to feel that they are superior.  It follows that others must be inferior.  This is certainly the case for some of different faith or ethnic background, but their righteous indignation knows no bounds when the implications of this position are spelled out.  Their besetting vice is to deny that every person has their own worth or dignity – this is why they react so much against the word ‘equality’.  This ‘extremism’ is now seen mainly on the Right and is given political expression by demands on government to be hard (‘tough’) on inferiors like refugees and Muslims.  The capacity of the Left to blow itself is in remission.

They are long on conspiracies, especially when it comes to the newspapers or television consulted by the other side.  They stereotype people by reference to their chosen media – readers of Fairfax or viewers of the ABC must be different to readers of The New York Times or The Guardian or the Murdoch press or Fox News.  (Would you be insulted if described as a typical Age reader or adherent to Fox News?  Or would you just think that the author of the remark was both thick and presumptuous?)  They speak of ‘the love media’ and twitterati, even when they thrive on social media(What is the opposite of the love media?)  Their media affiliations are the very essence of tribalism.  If you are not into these nuances, a word that people known as culture warriors may be fond of, you are not part of the game.  Indeed, there are times when they seem unable to choose their cheerleader – the Famous Five or Kim, Enid Blighton or Rudyard Kipling.

They are very defensive about their own culture or faith – words broad enough to mean or contain what they want them to mean or contain – and very suspicious of those who want to share the good life, or who threaten to change its underlying fabric.  For this purpose, they may allow a shock jock or some other gutter-rat to put up kites for them, but the sensible ones always preserve deniability and a distance from the overtly vulgar.  (These gradations were very carefully measured during the French Revolution.  The punctilious Robespierre could benefit from the work of Marat in stirring people up without adopting his squalid venom.)

Their arguments are mainly aimed at the man – ad hominem – in part because of their innate or acquired hostility, and in part because they tend not to play by the rules, and in part because they have lost control of their moral or intellectual compass.  They always accuse the other side of hypocrisy, of which they are World’s Best Practice exponents, and of utter indifference to the consequences of their ideology – which they are past noticing in themselves.  Even when they set out their own contradictions in black and white, they cannot see them for what they are.  They are not just biased or unbalanced – they are wilfully beyond persuasion.  In ordinary terms, they are crippled by the chips on their shoulders.

You will recognise many of the attributes of a bush lawyer and far too many of our politicians.  It will only get worse – as people subscribe to Internet sites for the true believers, and commune in language-killing terms on what are preposterously described as social media – the first and last resort of the intellectually challenged – and banish the anxiety that comes with uncertainty by cocooning themselves in their own echo chambers.  But the tribalists also understand that populism depends on outraging people – the more outrageous a man of the people is, the better are his ratings.  Shock jocks know this instinctively – so did Hitler and Mussolini – but they are apoplectic at the suggestion that they are appealing to the gutter.  That has been the position of the gutter press through the ages – power without responsibility.

11 Bullshit

There might be a residue of categories of falsity which are commonly described, and not just in Australia, as bullshit.  Lest it be thought that that word is too common for a book directed to professional people, let us refer you to a priceless little monograph by Professor Harry Frankfurt of Princeton University, On Bullshit.  The professor said

It is just this lack of a connection to a concern with truth – this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as of the essence of bullshit…..Bullshit is unavoidable wherever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.  The essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony.

Being fake does not of itself mean that you are wrong.  Since we have referred to politicians, we may add that Professor Frankfurt cites a remark that is the credo of politicians: ‘Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through.’  The professor says that bullshitting involves a kind of bluff, and that it is understood by everyone in a bull session that the statements that people make do not necessarily reveal what they in fact believe of feel.  And since it may be objected that we have taken objection to things done in all sincerity, especially the ideologues referred to in the last section, we may say that Professor Frankfurt also says at the very end of this little book, ‘Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial – notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things.  And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.’

The emphases on people being unconstrained by a concern with truth and on bullshit being phony rather than merely false are important in this book.  They are also very instructive on the links between bluff merchants, bull artists, and con men.  We will come back to the subject of bullshit later in this book.  It is a proper subject of study, and a reminder that the headings for the ways we can go off the rails in this chapter are not terms of art, and are very far from being a comprehensive account of how we can go wrong in fact.  It is the same for the failures of logic described in the next chapter that are commonly called fallacies.


The Four Ages of Man (Supernatural Songs)

He with body waged a fight,

But body won; it walks upright.

Then he struggled with the heart;

Innocence and peace depart.

Then he struggled with the mind;

His proud heart he left behind.

Now his wars on God begin;

At stroke of midnight God shall win.