Monday, August 7, 2017

Readings about tribes and tribalism — #14: Richard Landes's “How Thinking Right Can Save the Left” (2015)

Here's an argument I've not seen before: “What’s needed is more tribalism, not less”.
It's the subtitle and crucial point of Richard Landes's “How Thinking Right Can Save the Left” (2015). I keep urging we do more analysis using a tribal optic, but mostly for purposes of decreasing tribalism. Landes uses a tribal optic here, but for a contrary purpose: He sees virtue in urging that a particular kind tribalism be increased. 
The article focuses on Jewish responses to the jihadi terrorist attacks in Paris in 2013. His starting point is to identity a paradoxical "split in Israeli discourse about the Paris attacks". The split is between Jews who hold tribalist views of what's going on and what to do, versus Jews who hold universalist views. The paradox is that Europe is mostly full of universalists who feel an affinity for the Jewish universalists, but, says Landes, their views only make Europe and Israel more vulnerable to terrorism. It's the tribalists who have the more accurate views.
Here's what Landes writes up front about the paradox, before analyzing one view as tribalist, the other as universalist: 
“In a deeply disturbing and repeating 21st-century, paradox, however, the approach of Israel’s generous and selfless ones [i.e., the universalists] has worked to the benefit of most regressive forces on the planet — while on the contrary, the voice that awakening Europe needs most to heed in the current crisis is that of those self-centered Israelis [i.e., the tribalist] who relate European woes to their own pain. The failure to understand this paradox explains both why Western elites are so poor at resisting global jihad, and why, for a disaffected youth — Muslim by birth or by choice — it makes sense to join that jihad. Indeed, this split in Israeli discourse about the Paris attacks illustrates the disproportionate impact of a peculiar Jewish dispute on the current cognitive disorientation of the West."
What makes this apropos for this series is that Landes then turns to contrast two types of thinking. First up is the tribalist type:
“But first, let’s explain our terms. Let’s call the first response the tribalist approach. It is centered on the self, preoccupied with defending family, clan, group; suspicious by default of others, especially of strangers; and easily rendered defensive by threatening behavior. Tribalists think in terms of “us vs. them”; they treat “their own” differently from others, and when they feel sufficiently threatened, they will lash out. They think of their own pain and feel anger at hypocrisy (in this case against the French for their 15-year-long indifference to the pain of their Jews). This mindset historically favors vengeful attitudes — “they deserve it” — and rough justice.
“Politically, these folks appear on the “right” of our spectrum, and they remind us of historical periods when people with power lacked empathy and used it cruelly, a political culture of rule or be ruled, that democracies hope to have outgrown. Tribalists are the zero-sum folks: “I only win if they lose,” and, “they only understand force.” Like Huntington, one of their intellectual heroes, these tribalists tend to look for enemies. They find reasons to be belligerent, to provoke war, they “invent the enemy.”
I think that's a good accurate description of how the tribalized mind works.

Here's what he says next about the universalist:
“Let’s call the second response the universalist: considerate of others, self-abnegating: “This is not about Israel.” These are the positive-sum folks, the ones who make friends, who build on trust, who come up with mutually beneficial projects from which everyone profits, who look for the voluntary win-win rather than the coerced win-lose. They reject the selfish me first, the invidious us-them, the tribal my side right or wrong.
“These folks appear on the “left” of our political spectrum. They empathize with the “other” and embrace diversity. They can and want to trust. In renouncing the win-lose, they become capable of granting dignity and freedom to others — the fundamental social contract of a successful egalitarian culture. They imagine themselves as inhabitants of a future diverse, civil, and peaceful global community, where racism and xenophobia are no more."
Again, that's a fair description. And it hones in on the dichotomy behind the paradox that concerns him in both Israel and Europe:
“This dichotomy between tribal and universal sheds light on the current paradoxical situation in Europe, where the most extraordinary cognitive disarray rules.” 
The article then becomes long, offering an intricate analysis of Jewish and European perspectives. I'm going to skip over that, in order to provide you with Landes' hard-hitting conclusion. It's about why Europeans should heed the Jewish tribalists, for they are better than the universalists at understanding the enemy and thus at knowing how best to defend the future of democracy:
“What has this got to do with the two Jewish-Israeli responses with which I began this discussion? Ironically, it suggests that those tribal Jews/Israelis that Europe deplores are fighting not only for themselves, but for a decent democratic and egalitarian culture the world over, against a deeply regressive, triumphalist Islam. The “left-wing” Israeli responses that disdain tribalism, and promote lofty universalist values, dismiss this Israeli tribal voice as paranoid, conspiracy-minded, xenophobic, Islamophobic. Yet, in so doing, they contribute to the cognitive disorientation of the outside nations and peoples. In their eagerness to confess Israel’s sins, to consider Palestinians innocent and Israel guilty, they shield outsiders from hearing the much harsher jihadi voice that explicitly targets not just Israel but them.”
Landes usually focuses on honor-shame dynamics in the Middle East, as well as on the kinds of cognitive warfare that result from this. This 2015 article is one of the few where he explicitly focuses on tribalism per se. For that, I'm delighted to include it in this series of readings.

To read for yourself, go here:

[I posted an earlier write-up of this reading on my Facebook page, on April 19.]

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