On Transcending Tribalism: A Critique of Jonathan Haidt

No comity without commonality

Jonathan Haidt:

Humans are tribal, but tribalism can be transcended. It exists in tension with our extraordinary ability to develop bonds with other human beings. Romeo and Juliet fell in love. French, British and German soldiers came out of their trenches in World War I to exchange food, cigarettes and Christmas greetings.

The key, as Cicero observed, is proximity, and a great deal of modern research backs him up. Students are more likely to become friends with the student whose dorm room is one door away than with the student whose room is four doors away. People who have at least one friend from the other political party are less likely to hate the supporters of that party.

But tragically, Americans are losing their proximity to those on the other side and are spending more time in politically purified settings. [. . .]

Haidt is right that tribalism can be transcended, at least to some extent, and that proximity and interaction can facilitate the transcending.  But he is far more optimistic than I am.

What Haidt ignores is that there is no comity without commonality, as I like to put it.  You and I can live and work together in harmony only within a common space of shared values and assumptions and recognized facts.  But that common space is shrinking.

Take any 'hot button' issue, Second Amendment rights, for example.  What do I have in common with the anti-gunner who favors confiscation of all civilian firearms, or only slightly less radically, wants to ban all hand guns or semi-automatic weapons?  To me it is evident that my right to life grounds a right to self-defense, and with it a right to acquire the appropriate means of self-defense.  If you deny this, then we have no common ground, at least not on this topic.  On this topic, we would then be at loggerheads.  If you then work politically or extra-politically  to violate what here in the States are called Second Amendment rights, then you become my enemy.  And the consequences of enmity can become unpleasant in the extreme. Push can come to shove, and shove to shoot.

In a situation like this, proximity and interaction only exacerbate the problem.  Even the calm interaction of scholarly argument and counter-argument does no good.  No matter how carefully and rigorously I argue my position, I will not succeed in convincing the opponent, with only a few exceptions.  This is a fact of experience over a wide range of controversial topics, and not just in politics.  The only good thing that comes of the dialectical interaction is a clarification and deeper understanding of one's position and what it entails.  If you think, say, that semi-automatic weapons ought to be banned for civilian use, then you and I will never find common ground.  But I will perfect my understanding of my position and its presuppositions and better understand what I reject in yours.

After we have clarified, but not resolved, our differences, anger at the intransigence of the other is the likely upshot if we continue to interact in close proximity whether in the same academic department, the same church, the same club, the same neighborhood, the same family . . . .  This is why there are schisms and splits and factions and wars and all manner of contention.

Anger at the intransigence of the other can then lead on to the thought that  there must be something morally defective, and perhaps also intellectually defective, about the opponent if he holds, say, that a pre-natal human is just a clump of cells.  One advances — if that is the word — to the view that the opponent is morally censurable for holding the position he holds, that he is being willfully morally obtuse and deserves moral condemnation.  And then the word 'evil' may slip in and the word 'lie': "The bastard is not just wrong; he is an evil son-of-a-bitch for promoting the lie that an unborn child is just a clump of cells, or a disposable part of woman's body like a wart." The arguably false statements of the other get treated as lies and therefore as statements at the back of which in an intent to deceive. And from there it ramps up to 'Hillary is Satan' and 'Trump is Hitler.'

One possible cure for  this unproductive warfare is mutual, voluntary, segregation via a return to federalism.   I develop the thought in A Case for Voluntary Segregation.  I say 'possible' because I am not sure the federalist route is sufficient.  Secession, partition, and nullification are other options, not to mention the one no sane person could want: full-on hot civil war.  We are already beyond cold civil war, what with the Left's violent Stalinist erasure of monuments and memorials (and not just that).

So while Haidt is right that proximity and interaction can promote mutual understanding and mitigate hostility, that is true only up to a point and works only within a common space of shared assumptions, values, and recognized facts.  (His examples, by the way, were poorly chosen: Romeo and Juliet were young Italians; the French, German, and British soldiers were Europeans.)  Absent the common space, the opposite is true: proximity and interaction are precisely what must be avoided to preserve peace.  

The Problem and Three Main Solutions

The problem is how to transcend tribalism.  I count three main solutions, the Liberal, the Alt Right, and the Sane.

There is first what I take to be Haidt's rather silly liberal solution, namely, that what will bring us together is proximity and interaction. He assumes that if we all come together and get to know each other  we will overcome tribalism.  This borders on utopian nonsense.  It is precisely because of proximity and interaction that many decide to self-segregate.  The more I know about certain individuals and groups the less I want to have to do with them.  The Marxist thugs of Black Lives Matter, for example.  The Antifa fascists are another example. The anti-white White Fragility racists. I could go on.


At the other extreme we find the 'alties' and neo-reactionaries.  They have a sound insight, namely, that there are unassimilable elements and that they must be kept out.  For example, Sharia-supporting Muslims are unassimilable into the U. S. because their values are antithetical to ours, perhaps not all of their values, but enough to make for huge problems.   

The success of e pluribus unum depends on the nature of the pluribus.  A viable and vibrant One cannot be made out of just any Many.  The members of the manifold must be unifiable under some umbrella of common values, assumptions, and recognized facts.  One proposition nation cannot be made out of many tribes of immigrants unless the many tribes of immigrants accept OUR values, our American values, and our propositions.  The tribalism is overcome or at least mitigated by acceptance of a unifying set of American values and ideas and a willingness to assimilate.

The alt-rightists, however, do not really offer a solution to the problem of transcending tribalism since their 'solution' is to embrace an opposing tribalism. They are right about the reality of race, as against the foolish notion that race is a social construct, but they push this realism in an ugly and extreme direction when they construe American identity as white identity, where this excludes Jews. American identity is rooted in a set of ideas and values.  This must not be lost sight of. It must be granted, however, that not all racial and ethnic groups are equally able to assimilate and implement these ideas and values.  Immigration policy must favor those that are. There is no right to immigrate, and immigration must be to the benefit of the host country.

The sane way is the middle way.  To liberals we ought to concede that diversity is a value, but at the same time insist that it is a value that has to be kept in check by the opposing value of unity.   Muslims who refuse to accept our values must not be allowed to immigrate.  They have no right to immigrate, but we have every right to select those who will benefit us.  That is just common sense.  The good sort of diversity is not enhanced by the presence of terror-prone fanatics who have no respect for such Enlightenment values as free speech, open inquiry, religious liberty, and the rest. Once again. immigration must be to the benefit of the host country.  Every nation has a right to protect its culture from dilution and dissolution.

What we need, then, to mitigate tribal hostility is not more proximity and interaction, but less; fewer 'conversations' not more; less government, more toleration, voluntary segregation, a return to federalism, a total stoppage of illegal immigration, and a reform of current immigration law.

Will any of this happen?  Donald Trump took steps in the right direction.  But the Left reacted with rage and a willingness to do anything to destroy him. They succeeded and are now in the process of reversing all of his positive accomplishments. There is now little reason for optimism. We fight on nonetheless. The Republic is at stake.