Tuesday, January 06, 2009

'Tribalism' and the Language Police

Long-time readers will know that I often criticize the 'tribalistic' elements of partisan politics, i.e. letting group loyalties trump reasoned judgment. Ampersand objects:
Is this negative use of “tribalistic” both racist and colonialist? It seems to me that it is, but I hesitated to bring it up because Richard might mistake it for me accusing him of racism. It’s racist in the same way that using the phrase “what a gyp” is racist; however, people of good will can thoughtlessly use these phrases without themselves being racist. The racism is in the society that normalizes these phrases, to the point that even anti-racist individuals use them without noticing.

Bollocks. What, exactly, is wrong with the word 'tribalism'? It's a useful word (can you think of a replacement that communicates the desired idea so vividly?), and doesn't harm anyone. Such petty complaints, on the other hand, encourage hypersensitivity -- which is bad for several reasons. Firstly, it increases the chances that people will feel offended unnecessarily, if they come to perceive a harmless piece of language as a personal or racist slight. Second, calling "racism" on things that are completely harmless risks trivializing what should be a serious matter. Third, attending to such trivialities is a pointless and unpleasant distraction.

I'm inclined to think that moral demands on our will or attention should be minimized at the best of times. To demand that people attend to such trivialities of speech without good reason is all the more objectionable. For this reason, it is often considered rather rude (and rightly so). This suggests a further, more crassly pragmatic point: nobody likes the 'language police', and it reflects poorly on the political Left to be associated with such PC crap.


  1. Huh. I would have thought the word 'tribe' used negatively would be as objectionable as the word 'race' used negatively. Or 'sex' used negatively as opposed to 'gay' or 'straight'. It's a strange objection.

  2. Oh man, the debates I've had about the word niggard...

    I agree with your three points in the last paragraph. It's upsetting, and this is counter to what Ampersand says, that our society has usurped certain words as necessarily racist or offensive without in any way looking at the use of the word or the intentions of the person using the word.

    I mean, since when are the actual words you are saying racist? Isn't the person a racist? Doesn't racism imply a process of thought, albeit irrational? I don't think words can have those kinds of processes. And before you say anything about connotations, they don't own those either, everyone connotes what they want or, alternatively, are told what to connote by society and culture etc.

    Word connotations can change over time, and it's interesting to ask if the word you are using now even refers to what the word's meaning was before. I highly doubt Richard had any particular race or people in mind when he used the word 'tribalism', rather he had a concept of more primitive social interaction.

  3. I think it should be noted that Celts and Saxons both came in tribes. Last I checked, they were (predominantly, under all that woad) white.

  4. I agree— most of the time we are trying not to offend because others feel that we need to say things just the right way. So often we just want to say something without having to worry, but the word police tend to scare us into second guessing what we say.

  5. I think most of your arguments here are question-begging -- of course we shouldn't waste time on things that are "trivial" and "completeley harmless." But we're having this argument because Ampersand thinks that these things are *not* trivial and are harm*ful*.

  6. Are there any reasons to think such a thing? (He didn't mention any, that I could see.)

  7. Don't Europeans have tribes? Weird.

  8. Agreed. 'Tribalism' is an extremely useful and apt term. There are *some* unfortunate implications of the term being used in this way, but they seem minor and distant enough to be safely ignored. (Note: I'm willing to be talked out of that position.)

    The language police are a tedious lot. It's not that there are no good points of that kind to be made, but they seem to spend more and more time berating everyone else more and more harshly for ever smaller and more obscure terminological peccadillos. Frankly, despite my automatic liberal guilt response, at some point, I just started ignoring them.


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