“Tribalism” has become an inescapable concept in American politics, partly because the partisan divide in America’s public sphere is becoming more shrill and polarized (though the hyper-partisanship is asymmetrical: The right leans further right than the left leans left).
But there’s a significant problem with using the words “tribal” and “tribalism” to describe this trend: The usage is historically inaccurate when you consider the actual behavior of indigenous peoples, whether African, Native American or Asian. The current use of “tribal” is based on a racist stereotype about how groups of such peoples have interacted historically, and even today.
I know something about “tribalism,” since I was born and raised in Kenya, a country made up of 44 different ethnic groups. My parents are Kikuyu, but they raised my siblings and me in a cosmopolitan, urban environment. My experience with tribes, and my historical knowledge of them, do not resemble what I read about in the writings of political pundits.
Though the general idea of cultural evolution dates back centuries, it was Lewis Henry Morgan, an independent 19th-century scholar and the most influential anthropological theorist of his generation, who outlined a general scheme for the evolution of human society through three broad stages, from “savagery” (a hunting and gathering stage) to “barbarism” (settled agriculture) and then to “civilization” (urban society). This schema was premised on a change from a social organization based on egalitarian kinship to one structured by hierarchical administration in a defined territory. This theory became the frame in which the anthropological notion of “tribe” developed.
But by the second half of the 20th century, scholars increasingly realized that the word “tribe” was a product of colonial logic, reserved only for people not considered fully civilized in that era. It was too broad to be useful, describing peoples that ranged from “groups of a few hundred ‘hunter-gatherers’ like the Araweté of the Amazon to the millions of people in Nigeria and Benin identified as Yoruba, with a long history of rival city states,” as Cambridge university anthropologist David Sneath has noted. And as the late Berkeley anthropologist Elizabeth Colson pointed out, the Hausa state of Kano, in present-day Nigeria, typically described as a tribe, “far surpassed many of the kingdoms of Medieval Europe” in terms of wealth, power, territory and bureaucratic sophistication.
The focus in today’s polemics is invariably on how tribes ruthlessly demonize each other. And certainly, tribes have warred with one another, just as ethnic and national groups everywhere have, throughout history.
But as Jan Abbink, a historian and anthropologist at Leiden University, has written — in a study of the conflict between the Suri and Dizi peoples in southwestern Ethiopia — tribal rules governing cases of intergroup violence often involve “culturally sanctioned reconciliation, with elders and ritual leaders of the local ethnic communities involved, and an appeal to traditional moral values of co-operation, reciprocal exchange and compromise.” Each side hardly views the other as inhuman, despite the violence.
In Kenya, tribal lineage is mostly patriarchal, so women are presumed to take the ethnic identity of their fathers — and later their husbands. They have always been able to marry out of their original ethnic identity (say, Kamba, Maasai or Maragoli) and adopt another one through the new union. If half the population in a “tribal” country such as mine is tribally fluid in this way, it hardly makes sense to assume that “tribalism” is synonymous with rigidity. And this situation is by no means limited to Kenya. The Tswana people, of Botswana and South Africa, have a saying: “Women have no tribe.” Across Africa, appeals to ethnicity often “do not appeal to many women practically or emotionally,” writes historian Jan Bender Shetler.
The patriarchal nature of ethnic identity does have downsides, of course. Men will grumble that outsiders are “taking our women” when an inter-tribal marriage occurs. But even if “tribal” might be synonymous with intense rivalry in such a case, that’s a result of patriarchy, not tribal identity per se — and the ethnic fluidity of 50 percent of the population must still be taken into account.
What’s more, in some cases in Africa, it was the colonial enterprise that froze fluid tribal boundaries into rigid lines for the purposes of administration and control — and to deadly effect. Leroy Vail, a historian at Harvard University who died in 1999, went so far as to argue that “tribalism” would not have existed without the West’s intervention. That variety of “ethnic consciousness,” he wrote, “is very much a new phenomenon, an ideological construct, usually of the twentieth century, and not an anachronistic cultural artifact from the past.” In short, the West partly created the phenomenon it now views as a lamentable primordial throwback.
Before the Belgians arrived in Rwanda, for example, the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi was not as firm as it later became. The word “Tutsi” described the social status of an individual — someone rich in cattle, which were prized. The term “Hutu” described cultivators, who tended to live closer to a subsistence level. Through marriage or the acquisition of cattle, however, a Hutu could become a Tutsi; and if a Tutsi fell on hard times and lost his cattle, he could drop down the class ranks and be regarded as Hutu.
In Rwanda, the Belgians redefined the relationship between the two groups, through legal pronouncements and administrative action, and even began to describe differences between Hutu and Tutsi not just in tribal terms but racial ones. Although “ethnic labels . . . have pre-colonial origins, they became comprehensive and rigidly ranked categories only in the colonial period; they were heavily influenced by imperial codifications and further transformed by politicized actions in the last half [of the 20th] century,” writes Merwin Crawford Young, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The Hutu and Tutsi came to accept these identities, to some degree, which made political activism across tribal lines hard to achieve — precisely the Belgians’ goal.
There is a self-fulfilling dynamic to Western ideas about “tribal” identity: The conflict and division became real because the colonial powers assumed they were real.
The rhetoric of tribalism flattens the humanity of tribal members generally. But the closer you look at tribes — at their internal workings as well as inter-group interactions — the less fearsome and “other” they appear. In Kenya, the vast majority of traditional societies are governed by a group consensus (not hereditary leaders, as Westerners often imagine). Community meetings — referred to as “baraza” in Swahili, roughly analogous to American town halls — continue to be an important part of the social structure. Similarly, financial services are organized in self-regulating small groups called “chama,” in which people pool their savings and lend money to one another.
There’s no doubt that partisanship in the United States today includes an in-group/out-group dynamic that political analysts should take seriously. But you don’t have to romanticize tribes to say that this is not the same thing as tribalism — and that other words better capture this phenomenon. American political parties are polarized, divisive, acrimonious and intolerant. I don’t want to prescribe which word best fits. But “tribal” isn’t an apt choice, despite its pithiness and supposed evocativeness. The picture it summons in many people’s minds has much more to do with Western stereotypes than how people who have a tribal identity behave.
There’s an additional benefit to choosing a word besides “tribal” to describe American political dysfunction: It would make clear that today’s turmoil is entirely home grown, not radically alien to U.S. history, metaphorically foreign and “primitive.”
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