The Corner

Education

Americans Are Sliding into Tribalism

Americans have always had plenty of disagreements among themselves, but of late we’re seeing the ugly phenomenon of tribalism. If you’re in the wrong tribe (e.g., a believer in free enterprise and private property), you are so utterly evil to someone in the Social Justice Warrior tribe that all civility must be discarded. Members of the SJW tribe don’t bother to make rational arguments with members of bad tribes; they just call names, resort to petty vandalism, or worse.

In today’s Martin Center article, psychology professor Clay Routledge ruminates on this woeful development. In particular, he focuses on the idea that leftists are the pro-science tribe while right-wingers are anti-science.

“Because humans are highly self-aware organisms capable of abstract and symbolic thought,” Routledge observes, “these groups are often based on or closely tied to shared ideologies. This is all well and good but the motivation to be a good member of the tribe can mean forming opinions based on perceived group consensus as opposed to rational thought and empirical data. Thus, if a particular scientific topic becomes or is perceived as political, many will adopt the position of their political tribe, as opposed to conducting their own investigation.”

If you keep in mind that socialists and progressives think that their plans for social control are based on science and therefore any opponent must be anti-science, you’ll understand the point.

In the past, academia helped to damp down our tribal impulses by developing a healthy skepticism toward claims that any position is so incontrovertibly true that only evil people could question it. Things are different today, however. (I recall reading an essay several years ago by Professor Alan Kors, who made the point that when he was a grad student, a leftist professor assigned the class to read The Road to Serfdom and then make the most persuasive case they could for Hayek’s argument, just so they’d get out of the bad habit of saying what they thought he wanted them to say. You’d be hard pressed to find a professor today who’d do that.)

“Academia, which is increasingly dominated by faculty on the political left, is not immune to tribal loyalty and groupthink. As a result, it is easy for academics to identify and criticize conservatives who reject scientific findings or engage in biased reasoning but to not see their own biases and some of the pseudoscientific and even anti-science scholarship that is happening at liberal universities,” writes Routledge. Sadly, an increasing percentage of American faculty members see themselves as change agents to foster “progressivism.” Imparting a tribal mentality in their students is a key part of their mission. We see that most clearly, I think, in the way those who want vastly increased state power to deal with climate change respond to anyone who dissents.

We would all be better off if we could stop thinking tribally and start (or resume) thinking scientifically, Routledge argues. He’s certainly right, but strong academic tides are taking us in the opposite direction.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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