Identity Politics: Just Another Name for Tribalism

The word ‘tribalism’ conjurs up nasty images for the general public. Whether it be prison gang dynamics, warring native tribes in movies, or perhaps a Lord of the Flies memory. While these negative connotations of the word are likely justifiable, and any overt support of tribalism is rightfully met with disdain, perhaps we should reassess ourselves honestly before condemning a concept strictly due to its aesthetic or historical baggage. As much as we condemn the thought and political implications, I argue that if we genuinely assess ourselves we would see tribalism still permeates throughout our social discourse and system. Not as a social illness we work against, rather it is often reaffirmed and reenforced by our deliberate categorization, and is likely to be praised than not. Whether the fact tribalism continues to permeates throughout human society is a good thing or not is your own discretion, but it would benefit us to acknowledge its persistent presence.

It is safe to say that identity politics has by and large replaced class politics in public discourse. What began as politics regarding civil rights or suffrage movement has divided over the decades like a cell undergoes a rapid mitosis. In the present one could confidently bet that if an identity or rather a label of some kind exists, it likely has an ‘identity politic’ to go along with it, or shall in time. Groups of like minded individuals, sharing a particular identity, sharing particular values concerning that identity, form together to pursue what is in their best self-interest as a collective organism. Whether it be based on sexual orientation, on gender, on race, on religion, on ethnicity, on a physical difference, on non-conformity to a norm; identity politics has become rabid, ceaselessly multiplying, and often transgressing against one another in its pursuit of power. This is not necessarily a bad thing, if anything it could be called natural. Whether a constructed entity on a global scale, such as a nation in the international realm, or a constructed entity in the national domestic realm, a self-interested political group defined by shared identity (race, gender, orientation, ethnic, religious, etc), both are self-interested and are ever seeking to maintain what power it has and increase that power. In a crude analogy, it is much like gangs in a prison yard, each gang defined by racial identity, each gang self-interested in keeping and increasing its power. Clearly this is a frank analogy, but beneath the veneer of righteous rhetoric and politically correct discussion is barbed power relations, one against the next.

It will be glossed over that identity politics is how a minority can fight for equality within an unjust system, that this is an essential element for equality and liberty, and uphold this approach as the most prominent social justice activism.. While some of this is true, and history may or may not confirm it, that does not negate its inherently tribalist nature. Rarely do we like to see how things are without our meticulously worded rhetoric which places a clean and sanitized veneer across an otherwise unappealing reality. This is not new. Whether it be called postmodern or modern society, it has effectively sanitized many topics with an emphasis on censoring and sterilization that makes reality easier to swallow. Tribalism as identity politics is simply another subject laminated. One can easily witness the anger of an identity group as it defines an ‘us/them’, will lash out at members who leave the identity group, or lash out at those who are of the same identity but do not join the ‘identity tribe’. Typically this bid and struggle for power in social discourse is wrapped in ‘victim rhetoric’ and other similar ‘slavish’ morality utilizing shame and bleeding heart sentiment. Rarely is the struggle for power overtly expressed for what it is, nor is it too overtly Machiavellian in tactic, rather it adopts a secularized Christian morality that emphasizes self-righteousness of the downtrodden and demonizing of the strong or ‘the oppressor’. This is certainly a significant part from tribalism as it is usually known, and is a tribalism that refuses to even acknowledge itself as such. Identity politics is a tribalism in denial.

It is general consensus that only minorities may organize into identity groups. It is argued that the majority, or the default system, does not need to organize into such an identity group because the system already privileges them. I do not have an argument to make regarding this, but I will say that if identity politics is here to stay and continues to ascertain power, then it is only in accordance to power relations that any identity (majority or minority) be able to form such an organized entity and pursue what is in the best self-interest of their own. What is applied to one can be applied to the other, and it is only arbitrary preference that this inclusion is not allowed. This will inevitably occur. If multiple tribes are defending and expanding in power, the tribe which idles will eventually become threatened, and when it becomes threatened it will become active and struggle against the others in attempts to maintain and preserve its own power. It is only in its best self-interest to do so, and would be suicidal to pursue decreasing its own power. This is not a personal preference nor am I advocating any particular position, I am only describing what is observed and predicting what will occur.

The tribalism inherent in identity politics has become more apparent over the years, and recently has began to show its truer aggressive nature. The camps which were once strictly defined have also began to blend and intersect. We see more LGBT individuals who are inclined to rightist politics, women become increasingly racially aware, LGB separate themselves from the T, or ‘black focused’ identity go against LGBT identity. As thesis and antithesis continue to conflict, tribe tripping over tribe, there will be continued synthesis has what was once a strictly defined identity becomes multifaceted or fragments off entirely. It is a matter of constant flux. Nonetheless tribes exist, the rallying around a collective identity containing collective values, and aggressively attacking those external or those of like nature whom reject the tribe. I propose that we acknowledge and accept this for what it is. Regressing into rabid mob rule is not what I suggest, rather we honestly reexamine identity politics as persistent tribalism and the inevitability of tribalism within ‘human nature’. One can better control and magnify what is directly acknowledged. Why must be wrap it in colorful foil and adorn it with bows? Why not acknowledge that humans are terribly tribalist in nature, whether it be ethnicity or religiosity or sexual orientation or gender, let us acknowledge it outright rather than pretend we are a universalist monotopia.

It is a rejection of diversity to claim humanity is one homogenous brotherhood. It is also a rejection of diversity to only accept its superficial attributes while rejecting its deeper attributes which cause incessant conflict. With diversity comes conflict, with diversity comes diversity in the most superificial as well as the most intimate existential, and this results in both extreme conflicts such as violence and war, as well as mutually beneficial coexistence. One cannot pick and choose from the whole. And while the West, particularly the US, has successfully achieved a pluralist society in which diverse demographics agree upon a shared secular law to be governed, this does not negate nor deter the tribalist instinct. If it can be confidently called an instinct, which can certainly be debated, though I am certain it would be confirmed. Perhaps it is our increasing intolerance of anything crass or explicit which lends to our ‘glossing over’ of identity politics being synonymous with tribalism. Society prefers to sanitize, categorize, rationalize, and castrate that which is deemed too unruly. Frankly I say acknowledge it for what it is, and stop with the childproofing. It benefits no one and only neuters our comprehension in the long view. It separates us from the real and places us in a ‘all too comfortable’ symbolic safe space.

It seems political leaders are too fearful to name an enemy, have turned terrorist attacks into tragedies requiring therapy, are hesitant to declare national sovereignty, and continually trim language to better suit temperamental sentiments. Identity politics being what it is, a refined and slightly more civilized tribalism, is again another ‘softening’ of the less appealing ‘realist’ details. Tact is vital in language and discourse, but can be debilitating if a people if taken too far.

N.M. Phoenix