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Campus Now

October

A WASEDA Miscellany

Brent de Chene

This theme:
Beyond Tribalism:On Becoming a Martian(*1)

Brent de Chene
Professor
Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences

Imagine a Martian of human form and human lineage, but with a mixture of physical characteristics making it impossible to identify him or her with any human ethnic or racial group. Imagine further that this Martian has a superhuman variant of the human language faculty that enables him to communicate in any natural language, and an understanding of the unity of the universe that obviates any particular religious belief. Now assume that this Martian visits earth and observes the behavior of his human relatives. Everywhere he will find people disparaging or threatening each other on the basis of ethnic, racial, linguistic, national, or religious differences, in more extreme cases inciting their fellows to violence against members of some other such group, and in far too many instances actually engaging in such violence. The Martian will be pained by this spectacle, and because he has no earthly sub-group allegiances, no loyalty to any set of beings smaller than the human race as a whole, he will be pained equally regardless of the identity of the victims. And for the same reason, he will find it difficult to understand the attitude of human beings toward such conflicts, which is virtually always that victims from one's own group are viewed as martyrs to a noble cause, whereas victims on the other side are barely noticed.

This phenomenon is a constant of human history, and many readers will have no trouble supplying examples of it from their own experience or reading. In the interests of concreteness, however, let us consider a particular case. Starting in the late 1950s and extending through the early 1970s, the United States engaged in a war in Southeast Asia that eventually claimed over 58,000 American lives. Over the same period, the number of Southeast Asian victims of the war was approximately two orders of magnitude higher--in the vicinity of 5,000,000, although all such figures are estimates.(*2) In the United States, the American dead are memorialized individually by name at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., while the Southeast Asian dead, roughly one hundred human individuals for every American, barely register in public consciousness. Today, of course, we see precisely the same phenomenon unfolding before us with respect to the American war in Iraq.

The term "tribe" is typically used to designate a human group that displays a kinship-based mode of social organization that predates the modern nation-state. But to our Martian observer, all sorts of groups that serve as the basis for exclusion, discrimination, denigration, and violence would seem tribal, and those practices themselves would seem tribalistic. The vast majority of wars, in particular, would seem like tribal wars, and those who instigate them, support them, or view them through the prism of tribal interests would have to be judged tribalists. With increased competition for natural resources, climate change and its effects on the environment, and the gradual proliferation of nuclear weapons, these tribal conflicts threaten to become ever more frequent, intense and dangerous over the course of the present century. As a result, it seems clear that one of the things the world needs most in the years ahead is people who are able to transcend tribalism and react like our hypothetical Martian--people, that is, who identify first with the species as a whole and secondarily, if at all, with one or more tribal subgroups of it (moving beyond speciesism is of course a yet more distant goal). Tribalism is more or less deeply rooted in all of us, and temptations to tribal thinking are ubiquitous. As Orwell(*3) told us, however, it is morally incumbent upon us to resist those temptations and to avoid acting on tribal impulses even if we cannot always avoid having them. To a large extent, our future may depend on the degree to which we find it possible to do that--to adopt, that is, what might be called a Martian perspective on human affairs.

*1 : I borrow the image of the Martian as a neutral observer of human affairs from Noam Chomsky; the phrase "beyond tribalism" has also been used numerous times.
*2 : See http://www.bookrags.com/ wiki/Vietnam_War#Casualties
*3 : "Notes on Nationalism" (Polemic, October 1945),
http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/ nationalism/english/e_nat/