Ironic tribalism

Jun 07 2019

Last weekend I attended my college reunion, as I do every five years. There are lots of things to do at a college reunion. Such as: put a positive spin on the last five years of your life, then do that again, then do that again.

Plus, reunions are a good place to study ritual. And I don’t just mean the opening ritual of slowly grasping the awful truth. (“Who are all these old people? Where are the people from my class?… Oh.”) I mainly mean the kinds of rituals an anthropologist might study—rituals of tribalism.

This year I engaged in a ritual that led me to add a new species of tribalism to my taxonomy of tribalisms. I call it ironic tribalism, and I’m wondering if it offers hope for the world.

As it happens, I attended a college, Princeton, that makes a famously big deal out of reunions. It is said to have the highest reunion participation rate of any college in America, or in the Ivy League, or something. And presumably the highest gaudiness quotient. My class-issued orange-and-black weekend wardrobe consisted of three shirts, two hats, and a blazer that made my high-school-senior-prom tux jacket (a tangerine plaid) look dignified. Plus orange shoe strings.

I can’t speak for all Princetonians, but the people I tend to hang out with at reunions are aware of how ridiculous we all look. That’s part of the fun. In that sense, there’s always an air of irony hovering over the exercise. Still, the phrase “ironic tribalism” didn’t pop into my head until well into the reunion.

It happened at the Saturday night fireworks display, as alumni of all ages stood and sang “the alma mater,” Old Nassau. Actually, in my case “sang” is an exaggeration. I don’t know the lyrics. I was a transfer student and so escaped freshman indoctrination. Besides, throughout my undergraduate years I maintained an air of studied alienation, and knowing the lyrics would have ruined my reputation.

But I do know this: there’s a part of the song that starts “In praise of Old Nassau,” and at that point you’re supposed to repeatedly extend your right arm to the right in a way that’s hard to describe but has always struck me as the kind of thing Roman soldiers might have done before marching into war. In any event, it definitely looks archaic. It’s easy to imagine classmates at an all-male school in the late-nineteenth or early-twentieth century getting misty eyed while doing it.

Well, I didn’t get misty eyed, but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the ritual. It felt good being one drop in a sea of people, all of us in sync, all of us bound by…well, all of us bound by not much, actually, except for the pretty arbitrary fact that we’d all gone to school at the same place. I mean, it’s not like we all shared the same religion or ideology or even socioeconomic background—and we certainly didn’t all know each other. In that sense—even leaving aside the ludicrous costumes—the ritual was kind of absurd. And I knew that, and even took a kind of delight in it. The tribalism I felt was ironic.

Here’s my working definition of ironic tribalism: a sense of tribal affinity that coexists with an awareness that the tribe in question is an essentially arbitrary collection of people, an artificial construct.

You might ask: But why feel affinity if you realize that the tribe is artificial? Well, at the risk of straining to justify the feeling I had Saturday night, how about this:

Some highly regarded spiritual leaders have said such things as “All men are brothers,” “All people are one,” “All people deserve love and compassion,” etc. And doesn’t feeling a sense of oneness (however transient, even superficial) with an effectively random group of people point toward these ideas? And doesn’t it do that more effectively than feeling a sense of oneness with kin or with people who share your faith or ideology?

Of course, strong allegiances to artificially constructed tribes have a checkered past. When people who happen to have been born in the same country feel united in their hostility toward another, equally arbitrary, collection of people, bad things can happen.

But that’s my point: when wars break out the people usually aren’t thinking of their tribes as arbitrarily constituted; they’re thinking that the people in their tribe are different from—maybe better than, and almost certainly more right than—the people in the other tribe. Their tribalism isn’t ironic.

Barack Obama showed flashes of ironic tribalism. He said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Of course, being president, he had to then go on to list some great things about America.

And there are great things about America. More broadly: there are distinctively great things about all countries, and there are also meaningful differences among countries in their prevailing values. In that sense, nations aren’t completely arbitrary compositions, and aren’t natural vehicles for an utterly ironic tribalism.

Still, I do think there’s a place and a need for irony in national tribalism, even in the high-minded version of it known as patriotism. Obama no doubt understood that the reason he so easily called those great things about America to mind was because he was American—whereas many Greeks might more naturally call to mind great things about Greece, and maybe bad things about America.

I think it would be a better world if everyone applied this kind of irony to their patriotism—cherished the good in their country but kept in mind that their tribal affiliation was giving them a selective rendering of reality, so they should be wary of doing things premised on a belief in their unique goodness or rightness. Like invading other countries, for example.

By the way, I realize that my reunion is an imperfect example of ironic tribalism. For starters, calling it an “arbitrary” assemblage of people is an oversimplification. As woke Millennials (including some woke Princetonian Millennials) would be quick to point out, this was a group of people who were almost all highly privileged, if not in exactly the same senses.

That said, I do think that what I felt last weekend was a more ironic kind of tribalism than people who sang that same alma mater 50, 100, 150 years ago felt. And I suspect that there are other realms in which tribalism has gotten more ironic over the decades.

I hope so—I hope there’s a trend there that we can explore and sustain. And I’d think that spreading awareness of the psychology of tribalism—awareness of the way our innate groupishness can distort our vision—would be one way to sustain the trend.

Tribalism in one sense or another will always be with us. And sometimes it’s a great thing. It can be a way to mobilize people toward a worthy cause, and it can give them a deeply rewarding sense of community—in the process offering them little exercises in transcending the self. The trick—no, not just the trick, but the planetary challenge of existential proportions—is to preserve what’s good about tribalism and subdue what’s bad.

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