Tuesday, August 08, 2006

"Tribes" and Moral Criticism

I would like to recommend to readers who write or speak about political matters to consider simply ending the practice of using 'tribal' terms. I am borrowing the term 'tribal' from Les over at "Stupid Evil Bastard". Here, it will represent a set of terms that a group of people might come to identify with -- dividing the world up into a group of 'us' who belong to the tribe and 'them' who do not. Examples of tribal flags include terms such as, 'liberal', 'conservative', 'Christian right', 'Secular left', and the like in their writings.

The problem with the use of these terms is that they are too often used to make false assertions and for purposes of hate-mongering and bigotry. In debate, I see them seldom being used in any way to advance intelligent discussion of any important social issue.

When tribal names are used in condemnation, the context in which they are used often commits the informal fallacy of 'hasty generalization.' People use these terms to brand every member of a tribe of crimes that actually apply to only a subset of its members. The rest are presumed guilty by association and made the objects of hatred and condemnation for actions that they do not commit.

Tribes are held accountable for its members, yet individual tribe members have little or no control over who may be counted as a member. It is like being told that you are morally responsible for the welfare of a child then told that you can only speak to the child in a whisper and only once every 30 minutes. It is hardly a fair and just account of moral responsibility.

We also have a surplus of examples of people promoting membership in their tribe (particularly political tribes) deception, fear-mongering, and hate-mongering. Tribal hucksters tear membership by spreading lies and innuendo about the competition. This inherent injustice of the way these disputes are handled can easily lead to either violent conflict or oppression as the weaker group submits to the power of the stronger group.

These points apply to Mel Gibson's rant when he stated the Jews are responsible for all wars when he was arrested for drunk driving. No sober person can take that as an intellectually honest statement. It is an instance of tribal hate-mongering. One implication is that, "If we get rid of all of the Jews we could have peace." A milder implication is that, "If you know any Jew, then you know somebody who is responsible for all of the wars, and you should treat him or her accordingly."

Gibson later apologized and said that these are not his true opinions -- that it was the alcohol talking. There are some who have claimed that alcohol releases one's true opinions -- but this is not necessarily the case. Alcohol releases inhibitions, which includes the inhibition against inflicting pain on others, and harsh words can cut deeply. I am not going to speculate on Gibson's actual beliefs. It is sufficient for my purposes that this is a recognized form of tribal comment of the type that people should not include in their writing.

Ann Colter has figured out how to make a great deal of money by marketing hate to an eager set of customers. She puts it in her books and is repeatedly invited onto television to assert her tribal claims and to sew discontent and, at times, advocate violent conflict between her tribe and others. Her most recent book, Godless: The Church of Liberalism targets atheists and liberals as if they are the same group.

The title of her book itself is a lie. Marketing professionals are well aware of the fact that they can sell a product by associating it with something that their audience values (e.g., sex, acceptance, status). You can also create public dislike of a product by associating it with something that people dislike (e.g., rejection). Atheists are the most disliked group in the country. Therefore, any marketing professional worth their salt will tell you that an effective way to sew public disapproval with anything in politics is to associate it with atheism in the public mind.

This is what Coulter is doing with the ‘liberal’ tribe and atheism. By linking the concept of ‘liberal’ with the concept of ‘atheist,’ she can sew hatred of liberals – in the same way that Hitler was able to sew dislike of communist by linking them in the public mind with an even more widely disliked group – Jews.

In Coulter’s case, she is lying to the people. Most liberals are not ‘godless’ and, even if they were, using public dislike of atheists to promote the Republican party is on the same moral level as using the public dislike of Jews in Germany to promote the Nazi party. The form of argument being used itself is morally objectionable, yet it is a form of argument made that much easier by the use of ‘tribal’ concepts in political discussion.

I would like to propose that, instead of rallying around or attacking tribal flags, that individuals avoid the fallacies contained within this line of reasoning by doing the following:

Instead of targeting a tribal flag, target individuals. Name names (Mel Gibson, Ann Coulter), provide a reference to the specific actions being condemned (comments when being arrested, book), explain the moral transgression involved, and then state, "Any who engages in this type of action -- regardless of what 'tribe' they belong to -- is guilty of a moral transgression."

If there is any association between a particular ‘tribe’ and this moral objection, let that association be coincidental rather than making the (typically false) assertion that the association is one of logical necessity.

I must add before I close that this discussion of ‘tribal’ terms in political discussion does not apply to the criticism of particular ‘isms’. For example, I have raised repeated objections against 'common moral relativism ', 'act utilitarianism', and 'Ayn Rand Objectivism.' Clearly, it makes no sense to raise an objection against these types of views.

An ‘ism’ is a set of propositions that make up a theory or system of belief. A legitimate criticism of an ‘ism’ simply involves identifying some proposition that is an essential part of that ‘ism’ and explaining why it is false, or a relationship between two or more propositions within that ‘ism’ and explaining why it is invalid. It can be done without even mentioning a person, except perhaps to quote some article or writing in order to demonstrate that the proposition proved false or the relationship proved invalid is a part of that ‘ism.’

Other than that, if the intent is to level a moral criticism against a person, then name the person, provide evidence, demonstrate wrongdoing, and draw the assumption that ‘any who would perform the same act or endorse it are likewise guilty of wrongdoing,’ and leave it up to chance how many perpetrators belong to any given ‘tribe.’

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on your ideals and on your quest. ... Regarding tribes: the unfortunate reality is that we actually are tribal territorial animals ... with the unique feature of treating beliefs as if they were territory and consequently fighting over them as fiercely and unyieldingly. ... Now doesn’t that explain a lot!? ... My own quest is to spread knowledge of what brain research has discovered about why we (humans) behave the way we do. ... Why we consistently behave irrationally (like warring with one another) but believe we have rational reasons for our irrational behavior. The political behavior you’ve observed and described so well is but one example of our tribal behavior. Hopefully I will have a book (“Man, by Nature: The Hidden Programming Controlling Human Behavior”) published by early November so I can get on with my own quest. ... Peace.