One of the great attractions of tribalism is that you don’t actually have to think very much. All you need to know on any given subject is which side you’re on. You pick up signals from everyone around you, you slowly winnow your acquaintances to those who will reinforce your worldview, a tribal leader calls the shots, and everything slips into place. After a while, your immersion in tribal loyalty makes the activities of another tribe not just alien but close to incomprehensible. It has been noticed, for example, that primitive tribes can sometimes call their members simply “people” while describing others as some kind of alien. So the word Inuit means people, but a rival indigenous people, the Ojibwe, call them Eskimos, which, according to lore, means “eaters of raw meat.”
When criticized by a member of a rival tribe, a tribalist will not reflect on his own actions or assumptions but instantly point to the same flaw in his enemy. The most powerful tribalist among us, Trump, does this constantly. When confronted with his own history of sexual assault, for example, he gave the tiniest of apologies and immediately accused his opponent’s husband of worse, inviting several of Bill Clinton’s accusers to a press conference. But in this, he was only reflecting the now near-ubiquitous trend of “whataboutism,” as any glance at a comments section or a cable slugfest will reveal. The Soviets perfected this in the Cold War, deflecting from their horrific Gulags by pointing, for example, to racial strife in the U.S. It tells you a lot about our time that a tactic once honed in a global power struggle between two nations now occurs within one. What the Soviets used against us we now use against one another.
In America, the intellectual elites, far from being a key rational bloc resisting this, have succumbed. The intellectual right and the academic left have long since dispensed with the idea of a mutual exchange of ideas. In a new study of the voting habits of professors, Democrats outnumber Republicans 12 to 1, and the imbalance is growing. Among professors under 36, the ratio is almost 23 to 1. It’s not a surprise, then, that once-esoteric neo-Marxist ideologies — such as critical race and gender theory and postmodernism, the bastard children of Herbert Marcuse and Michel Foucault — have become the premises of higher education, the orthodoxy of a new and mandatory religion. Their practical implications — such as “safe spaces,” speech regarded as violence, racially segregated graduation ceremonies, the policing of “micro-aggressions,” the checking of “white privilege” — are now embedded in the institutions themselves.
Conservative dissent therefore becomes tribal blasphemy. Free speech can quickly become “hate speech,” “hate speech” becomes indistinguishable from a “hate crime,” and a crime needs to be punished. Many members of the academic elite regard opposing views as threats to others’ existences, and conservative speakers often can only get a hearing on campus under lockdown. This seeps into the broader culture. It leads directly to a tech entrepreneur like Brendan Eich being hounded out of a company, Mozilla, he created because he once opposed marriage equality, or a brilliant coder, James Damore, being fired from Google for airing civil, empirical arguments against the left-feminist assumptions behind the company’s employment practices.
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