The demand that we transcend tribalism in public debate sits on the schism line of today’s culture wars over speech, scholarship and art. On one side (loosely, if inexactly, called “the left”), there exists a deep conviction that the social justice sins of the past (and present) make an escape from tribalism impossible—and so the only solution is to carve out well-guarded silos of speech and cultural representation for disadvantaged groups. On the other side (loosely, if inexactly, called “the right”) are those who view those silos as a tool of censorship, as well as an affront to the idea that we all can speak for ourselves as individuals, regardless of skin color, sexual orientation, gender and faith.
This conflict took center stage during a recent high-profile Munk Debate in Toronto, which had been billed as a debate about the dangers of political correctness. Two of the biggest reactions from the 3,000-strong audience came in response to Georgetown University’s Michael Eric Dyson (representing “the left”) referring to psychologist Jordan Peterson as a “mean, mad white man,” and then Peterson subsequent pointing to Dyson’s comment as an “example of what’s wrong with the politically correct left.” A primary source of conflict between the two best-selling authors was the extent of white privilege, and the question of how it should be accounted for in public debate, if at all.
On that Munk Debate stage in Toronto, Peterson wanted to have a debate among individuals sharing ideas as individuals, not as representatives of their race. Dyson disagreed again and again. The other participants—journalist Michelle Goldberg and performer Stephen Fry—watched on as this increasingly toxic exchange dominated the night.
This same schism—over how, and whether, we might be permitted to stand apart from our identity when we converse—dominated another recent clash of popular writers. In April, neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris devoted an episode of his Waking Up podcast to a debate with Vox editor Ezra Klein on the subject of “identity and honesty.” It was a fiery conversation that still is being widely discussed.
Harris rose to popular fame with the success of his 2004 bestseller The End of Faith, which ensconced him among a vocal group of atheists known as the “Four Horsemen”—the others being the late Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins. During a famous 2014 appearance on HBO’s Real Time, Harris had a spirited argument with actor Ben Affleck about Islam, in which Affleck accused Harris of being “gross” and “racist.” Harris reminded him he was trying to discuss ideas, not people. Four years later, at the Munk Debates, one found echoes of that reminder in Peterson’s admonitions to Dyson.
On episode #45 of Waking Up, recorded in 2016, Harris explained why he believes escaping identity politics is important. “If you’re reasoning honestly about facts, then the color of your skin is irrelevant,” he said. “The religion of your parents is irrelevant. Whether you’re gay or straight is irrelevant. Your identity is irrelevant. In fact, if you’re talking about reality, its character can’t be predicated on who you happen to be. That’s what it means to be talking about reality.”
The recent Harris-Klein exchange covered some of this same ground, but also tackled an especially controversial case study. Their discussion began with reference to Harris’ 2017 conversation with The Bell Curve author Charles Murray about race and IQ. Specifically, Harris and Klein debated how such conversations should be had—and even whether they should be had at all. As two wealthy, liberal Californians of Jewish background, the two were cognizant of the optics at play. On everything else, they seemed to disagree.
“I have all kinds of identities that you can call forward,” Klein said, seeking to broaden the idea of identity politics in a way that effectively dilutes it to nothing. “All of them can bias me…I think that your [own] core identity in this is as someone who feels you get treated unfairly by politically correct mobs.”
To which Harris replied, in part: “That is not identity politics. That is my experience as a public intellectual trying to talk about ideas.”
Klein then reiterated the idea, now commonly embraced by many who identify with the political left, that people from different groups have experiences and beliefs that are impenetrable to members of other groups: “That is what folks from the dominant group get to do. They get to say, ‘My thing isn’t identity politics. Only yours is.’ I will tell you, Sam, when people who do not look like you hear you telling them that is just identity politics, they don’t think, ‘God he’s right. That is just identity politics.’ They think ‘This is my experience and you don’t understand it.’ “
Harris ends the podcast with something of a warning: “We are going to be ambushed by data that will have a political charge,” which, in context, might be taken to signal his anticipation of the arrival of new scientific discoveries about group differences. “And we have to be in a position to talk about it without demonizing people. That’s not my identity politics talking, that is just a human being who is worried about the future talking.”
Harris clearly believes he is the one seeking common ground: He is articulating a problem that will affect everyone, and seems to want Klein to commit as a constructive partner in dealing with it. But he can’t bring Klein into common cause because that would require Klein to accept the idea that they can even have this kind of conversation outside of the stifling confines of identity politics—a premise that Klein refuses to accept.
Although the idea that humans inhabit mutually impenetrable milieus now is associated with avant-garde academics and activists, the left does not have a monopoly on this view. Nativists and far-right extremists—including some of Donald Trump’s most fervent followers—also emphasize the permanence of group difference, albeit with a far more toxic tone.
In her recently published book, Political Tribes, Yale Law School’s Amy Chua argues that people everywhere seek out tribal affiliation. “The great Enlightenment principles of modernity—liberalism, secularism, rationality, equality, free markets,” Chua writes, “do not provide the kind of tribal group identity that human beings crave and have always craved.” If tribal thinking is part of how we’re hardwired as people, as research suggests (to varying degrees), Harris and his allies could be said to be fighting a losing battle—members of the small minority that Brookings Institution’s Shadi Hamid calls “smart people” whose “mix of intelligence and meritocratic sensibility nearly requires them to believe that tribalism isn’t to be managed or harnessed but, rather, overcome.”
Author Robert Wright, who once debated Harris on the topic of religion in 2010—and from whom I gratefully borrow the term “transcend tribalism”—lent support to Klein’s views on Harris’ tribalism in a recent Wired article arguing that Harris, despite his disavowals, cannot avoid the same sort of tribal thinking that others exhibit. Wright describes Harris as “a case study in the difficulty of transcending tribal psychology, the importance of trying to, and the folly of ever feeling sure we’ve succeeded.” In particular, Wright alleges tribally motivated distortions in Harris’ thinking, such as attribution error marring Harris’ discussions of jihadist terrorism, and confirmation bias in his discussion of race and IQ data with Klein.
Responding to Wright on Twitter, Harris defiantly asked Wright to identify what tribe Harris belongs to. He also shared a link to a 2007 blog post in which Harris presents a nontribal view of atheism: “Rather than declare ourselves ‘atheists’ in opposition to all religion,” Harris said 11 years ago, “I think we should do nothing more than advocate reason and intellectual honesty—and where this advocacy causes us to collide with religion, as it inevitably will, we should observe that the points of impact are always with specific religious beliefs.”
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Who’s right here? Can Harris truly overcome the tribalism he opposes? I don’t know. But what concerns me more than the answer to that question is the way it is being discussed. Harris’ critics are operating on the premise that his claim to speak on behalf of himself instead of a tribe reflects an ideological deceit that Harris is indulging at the expense of people of color and other disadvantaged groups. I strongly reject that premise: It is disadvantaged groups that have the most to lose if it turns out that Klein is right and Harris is wrong.
It is instructive, for instance, that Klein feels comfortable homogeneously summarizing the views of those “who do not look like” Harris. Klein purports to channel the views of this group when he describes their putative belief that “this is my experience and you don’t understand it.” Klein apparently knows what they think even without asking them. New voices from these communities that have entered the conversation in recent years—including me—have a role already prescribed for them in Klein’s boxed-in take on identity politics.
Harris’ approach is the one that leaves the door open for new voices from all communities to join the conversation with new ideas. Those new voices can argue about race and IQ, just like Harris, and maybe even prove him wrong. And one would hope that when they do so, the skin color of these people, or questions about where their parents come from, isn’t seen as relevant to how they’re heard or what they have to say.
By refusing to make his own identity centrally relevant in the conversation, Harris is also implicitly fighting for the right of others “who do not look like” him to be treated as individuals, not ambassadors from a group.
The constraining effect of tribalism in public debate was noted by Columbia University’s Mark Lilla in a 2017 New Yorker article. Lilla believes “there’s a kind of essentialism to identity politics, where it means going out into the democratic space, where you’re struggling for power and using identity as an appeal for other people to vote for your side.” The phenomenon can be anti-democratic in its effect, because it enables the most vocal members of an identity group—or those, such as Klein, who claim to be channeling a single viewpoint attributed to that identity group—to speak for others without democratic accountability.
An example in Canada, where I was born and raised, would be Kaveh Shahrooz, a Toronto-based free-speech advocate and former advisor to Global Affairs Canada, who’s experienced the downsides of tribalism when asserting himself in Canadian public life. Shahrooz has been critical of two recent Canadian initiatives: a Law Society of Ontario statement of principles requiring lawyers to declare in writing that they would commit to the promotion of diversity, and a Parliamentary motion formally condemning Islamophobia. Shahrooz is a lawyer and an Iranian-born immigrant—so he might expect that his views on Canadian anti-bigotry initiatives will be taken seriously by those on the political left. Yet that hasn’t been his experience.
“When I, as a non-white person, enter these debates, progressives have a harder time figuring out their line of attack,” Shahrooz writes. “The lines—’you’re a white man’ and ‘we should listen to people of color’—obviously don’t work against me. So, very quickly, the argument devolves into one where I’m called names (‘an apologist for white supremacy,’ a ‘neo-con,’ an ‘Islamophobe,’ etc.). I’ve been told to ‘stay in my lane’ or told that my interlocutor doesn’t have the responsibility of educating people like me.”
“I’m frustrated that I virtually never see a debate on the actual merits of these topics,” he adds. “Increasingly, fights are simply about who has the standing to talk about certain issues, and not about the issues themselves. You can’t develop better ideas without debate. And you can’t win anyone to your side, which is the core goal of democratic politics, if you keep dismissing as a heretic anyone who disagrees with you, even at the margins.”
Shahrooz’s experience highlights one of the biggest hurdles for new voices in public debate today: the dominant tribalized positions are often divorced from the actual beliefs of individuals in that “tribe.”
Quillette contributor Coleman Hughes powerfully made this point recently when summarizing the opinions of black Americans that fall outside of the dominant presentation of black American interests. Hughes cited polling data showing a significant diversity of opinions in black American communities concerning the relevance of racism to their own success or lack thereof, the influence of rap music on society, politically incorrect language and affirmative action. In the fallout of Kanye West’s widely discussed comments last month about “free thought,” Hughes wrote that he hopes West’s “outspokenness will help break the liberal taboos that have arisen around conversations about race and social policy.”
The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates had a markedly different take on West’s “free thinking.” Coates argued that West is interested in the “freedom of ‘I,’” and that the musician seeks “liberation of the dictates of that we” whom West identifies with when it comes time to rapping about racial profiling. Coates compared this “thin definition of freedom” to the kind of self-centeredness that makes it “easier to choose the path of self-destruction when you don’t consider who you are taking along for the ride.” In short, West’s error, to Coates, is in his not being responsible to his tribe.
This critique is more thoughtful than that of Klein, who simply assumes an orthodoxy into existence before expounding it. Coates, by contrast, questions the morality of transcending tribalism, suggesting it to be an exercise in selfishness, at least for some segments of society.
Which, in turn, brings us back to Sam Harris.
Like Jordan Peterson, Harris emphasizes the idea of personal responsibility (although they use different language in doing so). Specifically, Harris urges us to fulfill our responsibility to engage in dialogue, learn from others and be open to new ideas. A person can choose to be responsible to his or her tribe, as that tribe is imagined to be constituted. But Harris also gives participants licence to enter public debate as individuals without any tribal identity whatsoever. The emphasis is on personal choice.
Harris makes mistakes. For instance, he has wrongly argued in favor of the profiling of Muslims by airport security as an appropriate response to the threat of terrorism. “We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it,” he wrote in 2012. He argued that this is simply the most efficient way to deploy finite security resources, giving the example of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as a group that shouldn’t receive the same level of scrutiny.
This argument seems tribal because it invites concerns about stereotyping and prejudice. Yet the least that can be said for Harris here is that he makes his argument without claiming to have special standing because of his identity (say, as a Jew who might consider himself at special risk of jihadist violence, or as an atheist who might consider himself objective when labeling Islam as dangerous). He doesn’t claim to be speaking on behalf of anyone other than himself. By focusing on the idea of profiling, he opens the door to others to share their own opinions and explain why he’s wrong.
He even lends his own megaphone to his opponents. For example, Harris posted to his website a refutation of his own argument by security expert Bruce Schneier, who wrote, “This is a bad idea. It doesn’t make us any safer—and it actually puts us all at risk.” The debate between the two men was about substance, not a toxic exchange about who is allowed to say what.
Harris also debated the merits of profiling Muslims with political activist Maryam Namazie, who argued “it is their political stance that determines that they are jihadis and terrorists, and it comes down to their behavior, rather than the fact that they’re brown, or that they’re Muslim, or that they come from Iran, Iraq or what have you.” Namazie’s racial identity came up incidentally in the exchange. But neither she nor Harris made reference to the subject in any way that suggested advantage or disadvantage to one side of their debate. The difference between them was not presented as white atheist versus ex-Muslim, or American man versus British-Iranian woman. Either construction would take away from the notion that ideas and information can pass unhindered between people from different groups, who can change their minds as a result.
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Over the past two years, as American democracy has become increasingly polarized, one moment stands out as a time when people from across the political spectrum were aligned to transcend tribalism. In June 2016, Donald Trump cited U.S. District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel’s “Mexican heritage” (Curiel is American) as an “inherent conflict of interest” that would taint his oversight of a lawsuit against Trump University—because Trump had promised to build a wall between Mexico and the United States. In the days thereafter, as one would hope, everyone from Ben Shapiro to Jorge Ramos and Paul Ryan to Hillary Clinton channeled their inner Sam Harris, condemning Trump’s tribal suggestion that a person’s bloodline is relevant to whether he or she can do what any fair judge must do.
The quest to transcend tribalism at such moments puts on display the best in us—and we should follow the same instinct in every conversation that presents a similar opportunity to push back against such thinking. For the sake of opening our public debate to new voices with new ideas, especially, it’s the right thing to do.
I count my own voice among those entering the public marketplace of ideas, where I have had to contend with the tribalism that Harris resists. Ezra Klein’s assertion that identity dictates belief, easily leads to the kind of tokenism I’ve combated within my own life as a thirty-year-old, black man who also happens to be a lawyer, professor and writer.
My efforts to be heard are made more difficult by people and institutions that welcome a single perspective or ideology on behalf of an entire identity group, and then pat themselves on the back for being satisfactorily inclusive. Like many others, I must break through this tokenism to be understood as distinct from others who may look like me but don’t share my morals or politics. At the same time, I always must be vigilant to ensure that others do not perceive or cast me as a spokesperson for my race or gender. I’m not competing for a job that I don’t think should exist in the first place.
Given my theme, careful readers will note that my decision to reference my own identity in these last few paragraphs presents a certain (unavoidable) irony. But then again, I’m not arguing that transcending tribalism means we have to turn a blind eye to the way identity works in our lives. Rather, transcending tribalism means striving for those valuable moments when each of us is “just a human being who is worried about the future talking.” Even if those moments prove elusive, it is the effort to reach them that shows our good faith, and open mind, in engaging with the world around us.
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