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The trouble with tribalism

The word of the day is “tribalism.” I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Kenya, where there’s no way to avoid the word—certainly not after the post-election violence at the beginning of this year. In a New York Times op-ed a few months ago, Roger Cohen takes the idea of tribalism on a whirlwind tour that starts and ends in Kenya but zips through internet chat rooms and American politics. It verges on platitude at times but he’s still effective at relating Barack Obama’s Kenyan heritage to his anti-tribalist instincts, which I’ve always found appealing and genuine—all the more since I’ve been reading his clear-eyed impressions of Kenya in Dreams from My Father.

Google turned up a blog entry by David Friedman that sums up the facile political tribalism of internet debates. I think he’s right that human beings are wired to make that kind of in-group/out-group distinction. But it also seems self-evident that a genuine intellectual would reject tribalistic reasoning as a matter of course. Apparently that’s not the case, unless you make it part of the definition of “intellectual.” Judging from his blog, Durham-in-Wonderland (DIW), you’d be hard-pressed to find a more committed tribalist than KC Johnson—in fact I feel like I’ve finally found the word that captures the relentless polarization of Johnson’s Wonderland. In an article I recently criticized, historian Alan Kors starts by idealizing academia as a place that’s utterly hostile to ideological tribalism but then turns to a political pitch that smacks of tribalism, or so it seems to me. It makes sense, I guess, that Erin O’Connor’s reacted to my criticism by confusing me with a whole tribe of “critics.” But before I get to that, a look at the dark side of team spirit…

One of the starkest incidents of tribalism stirred up by rape allegations against the Duke lacrosse team was literally about turf. A couple of weeks into the saga, a couple of Duke students at the Cook Out (a drive-through restaurant) were surrounded and physically assaulted by young men shouting that it was “Central Territory,” referring to historically black North Carolina Central University, where Crystal Mangum, the team’s accuser, was a student. Mangum’s graduation last month provoked a strident op-ed in the Duke Chronicle by Kristin Butler, and the rhetoric of tribal antagonism has flared up again.

You don’t have to go far to see what a hot button Butler pressed—the 500-plus comments that follow her column make it pretty clear. She told Eric Ferreri of the News & Observer that “she’s surprised by the level of reaction she has received, but regrets only that her writing didn’t spark a more constructive dialogue.” Writing that she’d “never again take an NCCU degree seriously, and neither should any other self-respecting Dukie” because “NCCU’s ‘seal of approval’ no longer guarantees good character” wasn’t an invitation to constructive dialog (and since when have colleges been handing out diplomas that guarantee the good character of their graduates?). As she frames it, the problem is that NCCU has done things that are hostile and insulting to upstanding Dukies such as herself. She makes a number of good points that transcend that frame, but her interest in them, and in NCCU in general, pretty much starts and ends with whatever happens to impinge on Duke.

Butler’s chauvinism is most obvious when she writes about Solomon Burnette, a notorious enemy of Duke who graduated from Central last year.

Burnette, you may recall, robbed two Duke students at gunpoint in 1997. After finishing a 13-month prison sentence, he had the audacity not only to enroll in Arabic classes on our campus in April 2007; Burnette also penned a column I and many others interpreted as inciting physical violence against white Dukies in his student newspaper.

Burnette’s column is a nasty piece of work, for sure. The paper’s editors must have some discretion in choosing editorials, and it’s mind-boggling to me that they rationalized this one. NCCU chancellor James Ammons made it clear that, unlike Burnette, he believed that “the facts do matter in this case and every legal case and violence is not the answer.” My understanding of the first-amendment advocacy of groups like FIRE is that toleration for outrageous, irresponsible, and ignorant self-expression like Burnette’s is the real test of our commitment to freedom of speech. Perhaps his suggestion that violence is, in fact, the answer puts him over the line—it’s something that Butler could have argued, anyway, instead of dwelling on just how scandalized she is.

Rev. Carl Kenney, a Duke divinity school graduate and freelance writer, stepped in as Butler’s opposite number, more or less. But Kenney’s reaction also reflects his ambiguous history as an African American who attended Duke. It seems that the choice didn’t sit well with some black Durhamites who weren’t shy about letting him know just how they felt. After working to moderate that reflexive distaste for Duke, Butler’s column left him “feel[ing] like stuffing [his] head in the sand.”

Kenney’s sense of betrayal has a counterpart in the racially-charged animosity that bubbled over into violence early in the scandal. The Cook Out incident and other threats directed at Duke students led to a heightened security consciousness around campus, and according to Charles Piot, Duke’s black male students came under suspicion and scrutiny. Tribal logic is especially hard on the folks with divided or ambiguous loyalties, who don’t obviously fit in one place or the other.

But it seems to me that Kenney gives in to tribal logic, too. He makes little if any effort to separate what I think are natural and appropriate questions about Mangum’s status at NCCU from Butler’s way of raising them. Knowingly making a false felony accusation is a felony for a good reason—it’s terribly destructive. It’s easy to get fixated on the drama of poor black woman vs. rich white men (adding adjectives to taste) but the damage spreads to women who have been raped and those who will be in the future, and it spreads to communities and institutions—the scandal ground its way through Durham as tabloid news and, as NCCU alum W. Russell Robinson says in his response to Butler, “everyone lost” (with that point and several others Robinson seems, to my ear, to be saying that it’s time to set the tribalism aside). Mangum wasn’t held legally responsible for the damage, and as Butler points out it seems that she wasn’t accountable to NCCU’s honor code, either. Instead she’s been awarded a degree in “police psychology.” It’s not clear what sort of major that is—I can’t find any mention of it on NCCU’s web site, which is odd. It’s drawn plenty of bitter sarcasm (“Police psychology? If it includes conning cops, she’s at the top of her class.”). Peel away the sarcasm, though, and there are reasonable questions that a degree in, say, Visual Communications wouldn’t raise.

Kenney believes that Mangum is just “a person getting a second chance after a mistake is made.” As far as I’m concerned she deserves a second chance as much as anyone else. But a second chance implies a fresh start, and with the dust still settling on the scandal and no sign that she’s faced up to her responsibility for it, it’s hard for me to believe that she’s reached that point. It’s not something I can settle one way or the other. What is clear to me is that it’s a situation that should be open to discussion, that calls for some reflection—more than a shrug (“she earned the credits, so here’s the diploma”) or tribal defensiveness (“she’s one of us so leave her alone”). I don’t know exactly how they should go about it—Ferreri mentions privacy laws that restrict the information NCCU can make public about Mangum or any other student, so they can’t and shouldn’t just open her files to the public—but surely there are ways for the school and its community to show that they’re grappling with the issues raised by her conduct. Maybe that would even dampen a little of the free-floating indignation.

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I see that while I’ve been puttering away, KC Johnson has put up a post of his own about three reactions to Butler’s column—Kenney’s and two that I haven’t read. One must be in print but not on the web, since there’s no link, and according to the little note Johnson appended to his post, the other one was taken down soon after his went up. Someone posted it in the comments, though, so it’s not gone. Thank goodness.

Johnson’s latest is a by-the-books DIW post of a particular type, running down a list of critics. Tribalism is the main order of business—letting you know who’s wrong and cataloging their failings so you know just how wrong they are. Four numbered items this time—bang, bang, bang, bang. For people keeping score, it seems like a convenient format, though the score must be so lopsided by now that it’s hard to imagine anyone would still care. It seems to be less important to dwell on who’s right—it’s not like there’s any doubt. In this case Johnson just reminds his readers that Butler is an award-winning student journalist and leaves it at that.

He shows once again that he’s never more insistent about the value of facts than when he’s found one he can use to discredit an opponent. Only a certain kind of person would use a “damn-the-facts” argument. And only a true Wonderlander like Rev. Kenney would “fantastically assert” (or claim, demand, wonder, etc.) anything. Johnson and I seem to more or less agree on one thing, at least—some soul-searching on the part of NCCU would be a good thing.

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Last week, Erin O’Connor responded to criticism of Alan Kors’ article, “On the Sadness of Higher Education” (originally in the New Criterion, but the full text is available from the Wall Street Journal). She’s

shocked by the amount of vitriol that was slung in Kors’ direction, not least because the academic establishment, if it does nothing else, readily grants authority to analyses based on personal experience and is so friendly to reflective memoirs that it even tolerates a few that have been exposed as fabrications. But Kors is no Rigoberta Menchu, and critics accord him no such authority.

Where did all this “contemptuous dismissal” come from? She gives two links. One is to a post of mine. The other is to the comments on a post in Timothy Burke’s blog, where there are lots of unflattering generalizations about conservatives but I’m the only person with anything to say about Kors’ article—possibly the only one who read it. O’Connor also points to comments on her original post about the article, where Mike cogently suggests that Kors “go[es] off the deep end” on one specific point, and Luther Blisset briefly outlines a more sympathetic perspective on the developments that Kors decries. The most far-reaching criticism is again from yours truly. I did quick Google and Google blog searches and found a number of people who clearly admired the article and only one mild objection—incidentally, part of a thoughtful post that takes on more urgent issues in higher education than the one I’m going on about.

So it seems I’ve become “the academic establishment,” or at least the bulk of it. As Wayne would say, I am not worthy! For one thing, I’ve never accorded a shred of authority to Rigoberta Menchu, haven’t given her any thought at all beyond reading the name here and there. And I’ve never ranked higher than Visiting Instructor—I hope the new title comes with a raise.

It’s disconcerting enough that O’Connor seems to be responding mostly to me but refers instead to “critics” without mentioning my name. What’s even stranger is how little she has to say about what I actually wrote. It’s true that I was sarcastic at times, and no doubt it annoyed her that I wondered out loud if a followup comment I left on her blog didn’t appear because she wanted to “duck the challenge.” But “contemptuous dismissal”? “Vitriol”? I don’t see it. I thought I made it clear that I admire the resonant case Kors makes that a wide-ranging, open-minded dialog of perspectives is the essence of academic intellectualism, even though I don’t understand why he sets the ideal aside when he turns to his political agenda. I quote examples of perspectives on the “therapeutic university” that, in counterpoint with his, suggest a more rounded understanding of the situation. I hoped that part might drum up some more constructive responses, but none of it seems to have registered with O’Connor, nor did the substantive points made by Mike or Luther or any other elusive “critics” floating around in cyberspace.

It’s clear that O’Connor has a great deal of respect and admiration for Kors, and that she’s moved by the “hopeless and defeated” tone of his essay. No problem there—that sort of personal reaction is good blogging material, and people should speak up for their friends. And I suppose looked at that way, it’s fine to point out that he’s “winding down a long, genuinely important career” during which he’s been “one of the most important and influential crusaders for free inquiry that we have.” But to O’Connor these points are not just personal appreciation, they’re somehow an answer to the “critics.” Kors’ fine qualities go hand in hand with the qualities of others who contribute to the “good fight—the fight that organizations such as FIRE, ACTA, the NAS, and individuals such as Mark Bauerlein and KC Johnson fight.” FIRE gets a rhapsodic paragraph, in which she remarks that in the time since it was founded by Kors and Harvey Silverglate, it has “definitively shaped the fair-minded defense of individual rights and free expression on campus… [and] given hope to those who want to believe that higher ed can be saved from itself, and who think it’s possible for the academic world to be usefully and substantively reformed for the good of all.” She’s standing with her tribe, in the firm belief that virtue is on their side.

And then there’s my tribe—the “academic establishment,” “critics” who adore Menchu but dismiss Kors, who deal in “vitriol” and “contemptuous dismissal.” “[H]ard core, uninformed cranks [who] continue to insist that FIRE is a right-wing organization devoted to advancing a right-wing agenda.” No doubt there are critics and cranks like that, but as far as I can see they aren’t involved in this little discussion. Based on my limited experience, supporters of FIRE seem to think that any and all criticism is outright dismissal or condemnation. All I’ve done is to question the highly partisan treatment of the lacrosse case on FIRE’s web site and poke a little fun at the rhetorical excesses of its cofounders. I have to wonder what sort of disclaimer it would take to keep from being lumped with the “hard core, uninformed cranks.”

I’m used to the tribalistic lumping, though no one has found a stranger or more furtive way to do it than O’Connor. It’s usually much more overt. The post KC Johnson wrote to introduce me to his readers started with a ten-paragraph narration of the “long, and torturous, path” of the “Group of 88 rehab tour”—a list of about a year’s worth of seemingly inexcusable and muddleheaded efforts to “rehabilitate the Group from its rush to judgment.” Finally, “[t]he latest stop in the Rehab Tour, a series of posts by Duke Music professor Robert Zimmerman.” I had no personal involvement with anything he lists and no contact with the other professors. But his readers are primed and ready for yet another of those kind of people. It’s easy enough for them to line up much of what I say with their reflexive beliefs about the tribe and whatever doesn’t line up can be ignored. Not that I’m complaining—it’s good for laughs and usually validates my analysis. And there are always a few people who are more curious and open-minded.

Johnson cultivates the tribalistic atmosphere but leaves its coarser aspects to his readers, many of whom happily answer to a title—“blog hooligan”—that sums up the violence and intolerance of tribalism remarkably well. And when it comes to conspiracy theories, the us-against-them mindset is just the ticket. Of the things that have been said about me, this is a personal favorite, from a couple of weeks ago:

If I were an attorney representing any of the plaintiffs in the lax civil suits, Zimmerman would be on my deposition list. He has been poking into what the Klan of 88 did and corresponding with at least some of them (or their enablers).

I can’t really explain how off the wall that is, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. What’s funny is that she (I’m guessing) starts with a reasonably astute analysis of my “modus operandi” in leaving comments here and there. Maybe it’s someone from the bowels of the poststructuralist humanities—someone who’s sophisticated at parsing texts—gone undercover to plant blatant evidence of the “faux juridicalism” that Robyn Wiegman, Wahneema Lubiano, and Michael Hardt wrote about.

It’s not just blog hooligans who are inclined to imagine the “Group of 88” and it’s “enablers” and “sympathizers” as a nefarious tribe. Apparently it’s possible to deplore the hooligans and still insist that Duke’s atrocious reaction to the lacrosse incident has an undeniable tribal “vibe”, or discount my analysis of people and things from Duke on the assumption that I’m acting out of tribal loyalty, or something very close to it. It’s only good sense to be skeptical about my loyalties and my objectivity, but skepticism can also turn into just another excuse to be dismissive.

{ 7 } Comments

  1. Ralph K. DuBose | June 12, 2008 at 22:23 | Permalink

    Sometimes tribes assemble themselves out of previously unconnected individuals on the basis of decisions that these individuals make.
    I doubt if any of the people in these groupings that formed during this saga were self-consciously aware of being part of any well defined common identity - until certain choices had to be made - and then they looked around to see who their new friends were.
    For the sake of brevity, we should call these tribes The Criminals, The Heroes, and The Cowards.
    The easiest way to tell nowadays which tribe a person had joined in the spring of 06 is to listen to whether or not they now want to “move on” or otherwise change the subject.

    ~   ~   ~

    Yes, it’s natural for people to coalesce around shared interests or beliefs without making any conscious effort to form a community or a “tribe.” That’s not tribalism, though. Tribalism is a way of thinking about one’s own group in relation to the others (here’s a definition)—uncritical loyalty to your own group and broad generalizations about the character and qualities of the other groups. You came up with a fine example—The Criminals, The Heroes, and The Cowards.

  2. Ellah | June 13, 2008 at 09:19 | Permalink

    It was disappointing enough to read Butler’s column. One wishes that she had been able to explain her perspective without that ugly generalization about Central degrees, and with some awareness that the critique she hurled at Central could so easily be turned toward Duke.
    Although we might have expected a college graduate to have an ability to make an argument effective, her own biases (and the accolades of her champions) seem to reign instead of the intelligence she might have brought to the critique. This is what happens when we believe our own publicity.

    But Johnson’s inability (?) to address the logical failure of her argument makes it also sadly apparent that despite his being a professor, he could not bring himself to acknowledge the logical weakness of a (former) student’s column. He could have supported the thesis, but still pointed out the illogic of the argument and helped her along by refining it for her. His failure to do so is exactly the “tribalism effect,” which you explain so clearly in this post.

    ~   ~   ~

    The undergraduate experience can be a bit of a fishbowl, so there’s definitely hope for Kristin Butler. I don’t doubt that her intention really was to generate some constructive dialog. Probably Johnson has the same intention, but he seems to be pretty much set in his ways.

  3. Ralph K. DuBose | June 14, 2008 at 13:33 | Permalink

    I am again somewhat at a loss as to why you are doing this. It seems that your point here is that it is wrong to label certain people criminals because they committed crimes, or cowards because they acted in a cowardly manner. Because, I suppose, there exist other sides to their personalities and their careers that are righteous and brave. What is the point? What adult does not already know that? OTOH, who really thinks that matters when the issue in question has life and death dimensions? The Chief Torturer for S. Hussein was no doubt nice to small pets and faithful to his wife. Try asking his victims how much that should count. Besides, it has always been possible for the miscreants in this story to make clear the supposed righteousness of their truest selves: Apologize and make restitution where possible. Indeed, many have done so along the way.

    As to NCCU awarding a degree in Criminal Justice to the false accuser. This is a woman that the N.C. AG described as too delusional and unstable to be tried for filing a false report - the state could not prove intent; in other words because the accuser was so mentally ill that she could not reasonably be expected to seperate reality from her fantasies. And she has in the past been convicted of trying to kill a police officer in addition to multiple previous episodes of false accusation. This persons get a degree in Cr. Justice. And so K. Butler says “Oh. My. God!” more or less. And you guys chorttle about how she is somehow using “illogic”.
    She is doing fine, imho.

    ~   ~   ~

    The funny thing is that I also said that I can’t reconcile Mangum’s history with a degree related to criminal justice. I think NCCU and people who speak out for it should treat your concerns as legitimate and reasonable. That’s clear from my post, and if you think all I did was chortle and call Butler illogical, you’re not much of a reader—I did neither of those things. Or else you don’t have to read more than a sentence here and there because you already know what “us guys” are saying. And it’s not that hard to figure out 2 or 3 reasons that I’m writing all this stuff. My point is not that the “criminals” aren’t so bad after all.

  4. Debrah | June 15, 2008 at 15:51 | Permalink

    “……. the critique she hurled at Central could so easily be turned toward Duke.”

    Ellah, I have no idea where you live; however, if you have lived in the Triangle more than a few years, then you know that this comment is not only false, it’s rather comical.

    No other school in all my days on this earth has ever come out against anyone like a third-world lynch mob the way NCCU did—-(and in most respects, still does, because its students and alumni continue to push the ugly fantasy that “something happened”)—-in the Spring of 2006.

    There animalistic antics at an NCCU news conference were on the national news. My relatives in Seattle saw it. Friends living in Tokyo saw it.

    You have not one leg to stand on. Just emotional bile designed to change the subject and “move on”……..criticizing people like KC simply because he is now recognized as the premiere voice of reason and the go-to analyst regarding this HOAX from the beginning.

    “But Johnson’s inability (?) to address the logical failure of her argument makes it also sadly apparent that despite his being a professor, he could not bring himself to acknowledge the logical weakness of a (former) student’s column. He could have supported the thesis, but still pointed out the illogic of the argument and helped her along by refining it for her. His failure to do so is exactly the ‘tribalism effect,’ which you explain so clearly in this post.”

    KC and none of us are obligated to alter Kristin Butler’s chronicling of reality……simply because she outlines and then details everything that took place. She was an honest journalist here when the ones who have been in the business for decades didn’t have the balls to tell the truth.

    Butler gave a nod to civilization by telling the real story.

    Perhaps you guys should make a detour and direct your energies toward those who really have serious issues and who employ double standards and choose to prop up a known prostitute…..attempting to “dress her up” as they downplay her criminality.

    As if anyone who knows anything about this case would do anything but wince.

    Keep trying.

    However, I’m afraid that many inside the academy have already embarrassed themselves beyond rehabilitation.

    ~   ~   ~

    How ‘bout that—it’s the poster girl for mindless tribal loyalty! It’s funny, because the comment about how attorneys suing Duke should put me on their “deposition list” started as advice to Debrah to put me on her ignore list. And I think she’s trying, but I guess she still has to straighten out the occasional commenter who doesn’t toe the party line—and her intolerance for any thing but the party line is truly remarkable. I like the reference to “you guys,” especially after Ralph DuBose did the same thing, and then the apparent certainly that “us guys” are intent on “moving on,” because, well, that’s just the kind of people we are.

    Just fyi, Debrah, the short comment you posted right after this one isn’t gonna be cleared.

  5. Ellah | June 16, 2008 at 08:33 | Permalink

    I agree that both Johnson’s and Kristin’s intent turned out differently from their effort. Kristin’s failure to do the best she might have with that essay hinged on the comment she made about NCCU degrees being worthless. That was, frankly, sad to read, because it fueled the passionate responses she got from Central and others and actually hid the substance of her critique. I imagine she is finding her current work at the N+O rather interesting given the NCCU grads she’s likely to encounter. In some alternate reality, I wish she might have had the strength of character to apologize for that blanket condemnation, and re-emphasized the rest of her argument. It would go a long way towards her own continuing education. [I know, I know, that call for apology will release its own self-righteously indignant retorts.]

    KC is less forgivable in this circumstance, although his response is certainly true to form. He had the chance to claim professorial license (and, responsibility), and explain to KB that that toss-away hyperbole about NCCU substantially weakened her argument and that its rhetorical excess impaired the substance of her argument. I can’t believe KC failed to see that logical flaw. So his failure to disclose it—given he seems to be in the business of analysis—seems mindfully stubborn, and therefore, well, pure “tribalism effect.”

    And Debrah? Well, know that your thoughtful posts, and responses to your readers gives her plenty of opportunity to do better. I have little hope.

    ~   ~   ~

    I have the impression that Johnson does have a sincere interest in encouraging students, and that it’s a role he fulfills quite effectively in other circumstances. But when he has a partisan agenda it doesn’t seem to leave much room for careful argumentation—doesn’t seem to leave room for much of anything besides nailing the bad guys. So no surprise that he has like-minded fans.

  6. RRH | June 16, 2008 at 11:34 | Permalink

    You say, “Johnson cultivates the tribalistic atmosphere but leaves its courser aspects to his readers”. First, it’s “coarser”; also, you may want to rethink that metaphor. “Cultivates atmosphere”? Hmmm. Maybe “cultivates soil” or — here’s one that might be a nice compromise — “seeds the clouds of tribalism”.

    I still intend to get back here with a couple of comments on Prof. Leiter and Prof. Neal, but I’m taking the kids on vacation tomorrow, so I will be away for a week or more.

    ~   ~   ~

    I could use an editor, no doubt about it. I’ll fix the homonym, at least. Have a nice time with the kids.

  7. Debrah | June 17, 2008 at 10:00 | Permalink


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    “Diva Kitty” seems to think that my blog is her litter box. Anyone who wants to can check the DIW comment threads for her copious products, but they’re not going to show up here anytime soon.