Scott Alexander reflects on American tribalism and the paradoxes of contemporary liberal tolerance.
The Emperor summons before him Bodhidharma and asks: â€œMaster, I have been tolerant of innumerable gays, lesbians, bisexuals, asexuals, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, transgender people, and Jews. How many Tolerance Points have I earned for my meritorious deeds?â€
Bodhidharma answers: â€œNone at allâ€.
The Emperor, somewhat put out, demands to know why not.
Bodhidharma asks: â€œWell, what do you think of gay people?â€
The Emperor answers: â€œWhat do you think I am, some kind of homophobic bigot? Of course I have nothing against gay people!â€
And Bodhidharma answers: â€œThus do you gain no merit by tolerating them!â€…
Freud spoke of the narcissism of small differences, saying that â€œit is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and ridiculing each otherâ€. Nazis and German Jews. Northern Irish Protestants and Northern Irish Catholics. Hutus and Tutsis. South African whites and South African blacks. Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. Anyone in the former Yugoslavia and anyone else in the former Yugoslavia.
So what makes an outgroup? Proximity plus small differences. If you want to know who someone in former Yugoslavia hates, donâ€™t look at the Indonesians or the Zulus or the Tibetans or anyone else distant and exotic. Find the Yugoslavian ethnicity that lives closely intermingled with them and is most conspicuously similar to them, and chances are youâ€™ll find the one who they have eight hundred years of seething hatred toward. …
The people who are actually into this sort of thing sketch out a bunch of speculative tribes and subtribes, but to make it easier, let me stick with two and a half.
The Red Tribe is most classically typified by conservative political beliefs, strong evangelical religious beliefs, creationism, opposing gay marriage, owning guns, eating steak, drinking Coca-Cola, driving SUVs, watching lots of TV, enjoying American football, getting conspicuously upset about terrorists and commies, marrying early, divorcing early, shouting â€œUSA IS NUMBER ONE!!!â€, and listening to country music.
The Blue Tribe is most classically typified by liberal political beliefs, vague agnosticism, supporting gay rights, thinking guns are barbaric, eating arugula, drinking fancy bottled water, driving Priuses, reading lots of books, being highly educated, mocking American football, feeling vaguely like they should like soccer but never really being able to get into it, getting conspicuously upset about sexists and bigots, marrying later, constantly pointing out how much more civilized European countries are than America, and listening to â€œeverything except countryâ€.
(There is a partly-formed attempt to spin off a Grey Tribe typified by libertarian political beliefs, Dawkins-style atheism, vague annoyance that the question of gay rights even comes up, eating paleo, drinking Soylent, calling in rides on Uber, reading lots of blogs, calling American football â€œsportsballâ€, getting conspicuously upset about the War on Drugs and the NSA, and listening to filk â€“ but for our current purposes this is a distraction and they can safely be considered part of the Blue Tribe most of the time)
I think these â€œtribesâ€ will turn out to be even stronger categories than politics. Harvard might skew 80-20 in terms of Democrats vs. Republicans, 90-10 in terms of liberals vs. conservatives, but maybe 99-1 in terms of Blues vs. Reds. …
The worst reaction Iâ€™ve ever gotten to a blog post was when I wrote about the death of Osama bin Laden. Iâ€™ve written all sorts of stuff about race and gender and politics and whatever, but that was the worst.
I didnâ€™t come out and say I was happy he was dead. But some people interpreted it that way, and there followed a bunch of comments and emails and Facebook messages about how could I possibly be happy about the death of another human being, even if he was a bad person? Everyone, even Osama, is a human being, and we should never rejoice in the death of a fellow man. One commenter came out and said:
Iâ€™m surprised at your reaction. As far as people I casually stalk on the internet (ie, LJ and Facebook), you are the first out of the â€œintelligent, reasoned and thoughtfulâ€ group to be uncomplicatedly happy about this development and not to be, say, disgusted at the reactions of the other 90% or so.
This commenter was right. Of the â€œintelligent, reasoned, and thoughtfulâ€ people I knew, the overwhelming emotion was conspicuous disgust that other people could be happy about his death. I hastily backtracked and said I wasnâ€™t happy per se, just surprised and relieved that all of this was finally behind us.
And I genuinely believed that day that I had found some unexpected good in people â€“ that everyone I knew was so humane and compassionate that they were unable to rejoice even in the death of someone who hated them and everything they stood for.
Then a few years later, Margaret Thatcher died. And on my Facebook wall â€“ made of these same â€œintelligent, reasoned, and thoughtfulâ€ people â€“ the most common response was to quote some portion of the song â€œDing Dong, The Witch Is Deadâ€. Another popular response was to link the videos of British people spontaneously throwing parties in the street, with comments like â€œI wish I was there so I could join inâ€. From this exact same group of people, not a single expression of disgust or a â€œcâ€™mon, guys, weâ€™re all human beings here.â€
I gently pointed this out at the time, and mostly got a bunch of â€œyeah, so what?â€, combined with links to an article claiming that â€œthe demand for respectful silence in the wake of a public figureâ€™s death is not just misguided but dangerousâ€.
And that was when something clicked for me. …
[M]y hypothesis, stated plainly, is that if youâ€™re part of the Blue Tribe, then your outgroup isnâ€™t al-Qaeda, or Muslims, or blacks, or gays, or transpeople, or Jews, or atheists â€“ itâ€™s the Red Tribe. …
One of the best-known examples of racism is the â€œGuess Whoâ€™s Coming To Dinnerâ€ scenario where parents are scandalized about their child marrying someone of a different race. Pew has done some good work on this and found that only 23% of conservatives and 1% (!) of liberals admit they would be upset in this situation. But Pew also asked how parents would feel about their child marrying someone of a different political party. Now 30% of conservatives and 23% of liberals would get upset. Average them out, and you go from 12% upsetness rate for race to 27% upsetness rate for party â€“ more than double. Yeah, people do lie to pollsters, but a picture is starting to come together here.
(Harvard, by the way, is a tossup. There are more black students â€“ 11.5% â€“ than conservative students â€“ 10% â€“ but there are more conservative faculty than black faculty.)…
There was a big brouhaha a couple of years ago when, as it first became apparent Obama had a good shot at the Presidency, Michelle Obama said that â€œfor the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country.â€
Republicans pounced on the comment, asking why she hadnâ€™t felt proud before, and she backtracked saying of course she was proud all the time and she loves America with the burning fury of a million suns and she was just saying that the Obama campaign was particularly inspiring.
As unconvincing denials go, this one was pretty far up there. But no one really held it against her. Probably most Obama voters felt vaguely the same way. I was an Obama voter, and I have proud memories of spending my Fourth of Julys as a kid debunking peopleâ€™s heartfelt emotions of patriotism. Aaron Sorkin:
[What makes America the greatest country in the world?] Itâ€™s not the greatest country in the world! Weâ€™re seventh in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, No. 4 in labor force, and No. 4 in exports. So when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I donâ€™t know what the f*** youâ€™re talking about.
(Another good retort is â€œWeâ€™re number one? Sure â€“ number one in incarceration rates, drone strikes, and making new parents go back to work!â€)
All of this is true, of course. But itâ€™s weird that itâ€™s such a classic interest of members of the Blue Tribe, and members of the Red Tribe never seem to bring it up.
(â€œWeâ€™re number one? Sure â€“ number one in levels of sexual degeneracy! Well, I guess probably number two, after the Netherlands, but theyâ€™re really small and shouldnâ€™t count.â€)
My hunch â€“ both the Red Tribe and the Blue Tribe, for whatever reason, identify â€œAmericaâ€ with the Red Tribe. Ask people for typically â€œAmericanâ€ things, and you end up with a very Red list of characteristics â€“ guns, religion, barbecues, American football, NASCAR, cowboys, SUVs, unrestrained capitalism.
That means the Red Tribe feels intensely patriotic about â€œtheirâ€ country, and the Blue Tribe feels like theyâ€™re living in fortified enclaves deep in hostile territory.
Read the whole thing.
Hat tip to Claire Berlinski.