Bad stories: my tribe is better than your tribe

salishOne story that is a powerful presence in today’s schools might be called “my tribe is better than your tribe.” Like the story of the market economy, the ethnic pride story is larger than public schools and larger than America. Around the world people cluster around visions of themselves as ethnic warriors: skinheads, I.R.A. soldiers, Serbian militiamen, Palestinian terrorists, Zionist militarists, Hutu or Tutsi warriors and on and on.

These stories are strengthened by the spread of an unconstrained global economy that dislocates and dissolves traditional communities. Frightened people seek shelter in all manner of religious, ethnic and racial identities. People who are making lots of money tend to develop a loyalty to the machinery of wealth, but most people are not making lots of money. Instead, they see that the new economy does not need them, and they know what happens to people who are not needed. They are susceptible to the story of tribal zealotry, which is just as simple as that of market zealotry.

Of course, the tendency to rally together with others like ourselves and to distrust outsiders doesn’t really need to be taught. It comes to us easily, and there are always historical evidences to bolster it. One day I was walking down the hall in the school where I was principal and two scuffling boys didn’t notice me until they bumped into me. I put my hand on one of the boy’s shoulders as I passed and said, “Calm down.” It was a nonevent of the sort that people who work with young people handle without much thought every day.

But this day one of the boys whirled around and glared at me. “You’re just picking on me because you’re a racist,” he said.

I knew the boy’s family, so I knew that his family included Indians, but like many of the families on the Flathead Reservation, including my own, his had intermarried extensively and few people would identify him as Indian based on his physical characteristics. He had sandy hair, green eyes, and fair skin. His family was not poor, and I doubted he had experienced much prejudice because of his race.

Clearly though he had been taught to see white authorities through the lense of racial distrust, if not outright hostility. I think he had also been taught that it’s fun to challenge authority with power words.

I related this story to a school administrator, an African American, from Milwaukee and he shook his head and grinned. “Whooee!” he said, “I’m glad I’m not a white man!”

He was making a joke, of course, the humor of which lay in the role reversal. Role reversals are so common in history that they are one of the basic patterns of the human condition. They are part of how we learn. A good education would help people see the world through the eyes of both kings and beggars, victors and victims, oppressors and the oppressed, and all these experiences exist in the stories of most families, somewhere in their history. It is often the case that we learn the harm we do by the harm we suffer. If we are wise, we can learn this vicariously by reading history and literature, experiencing what our fellows, of all races and nationalities, have experienced. Stories easily cross racial and national boundaries, affirming the essential kinship of all of humanity.

Cultural pluralists believe that the heritage of all peoples can be accessible to all other peoples. One needn’t be Nez Perce to claim Chief Joseph as a cultural ancestor, or Jewish to include Isaiah among one’s spiritual fathers. Cultural pluralists believe that various cultures can work together in some ways to build a larger culture, of which all are a part. Pluralists work toward a future in which many cultures find ways to balance the preservation of what is unique and cherished in each with finding common ground with others on public issues. Cultural pluralists recognize that American culture is a tapestry of many cultures, and they understand that we are free to seek insight, nobility, clarity, wisdom, wit and beauty wherever it may be found, among all religious and ethnic traditions. One might think that America’s wide-ranging success at building a pluralistic society would be a source of tremendous encouragement.

This sort of cultural pluralism is poorly served by ethnic pride that sees history only as a contest between fixed categories of people: Catholic and Protestant, black and white, Muslim and Christian. What are we to make of American history? Many of us want America’s failures to be the important story. They want stories of slavery, of religious persecution and of forceful exclusions of Native Americans to be the main truth about our history.

Of course, such stories are not new. They come close to being business-as-usual in world history. It seems to me that the important story of America is that through all these troubles Americans have built cities where Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims and atheists go about their business without pogroms or identification badges or papers, though we need to remain forever vigilant. The hopeful story is that America abolished slavery, and that America extended full citizenship to Native Americans, and enforced at great cost treaty rights negotiated with their ancestors. Though cultural warriors like to focus on the failures of the government to honor treaties, that is far from the entire story. It would have been easy for the powerful to deconstruct the treaties, which were often poorly wrought agreements negotiated under tents in the wilderness between mid-level bureaucrats and small bands of powerless nomads. But the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld many treaty provisions. The only reason for doing so is a sense of honor and justice.

The impulse behind ethnic pride is to define one’s identity by one’s enemies. As Neil Postman points out, “To promote the understanding of diversity is, in fact, the opposite of promoting ethnic pride. Whereas ethnic pride wants one to turn inward, toward the talents and accomplishments of one’s own group, diversity wants one to turn outward, toward the talents and accomplishments of all groups.” Skinheads and white militiamen are strikingly similar in important ways to advocates of Afrocentrism and Native Pride. The impulse to circle the wagons is the same.

One can’t understand moves made by white supremists without understanding moves made by their opponents any more than one can make sense of a chess game if only the white pieces are visible. Extremists of the left and the right inhabit the same story and have become characters in each others’ nightmares. Their enemies are their reality.

Powerlessness and hardship and fear are not the exclusive possessions of any ethnic group. Poorly educated and financially strapped whites who are not powerful people, and there are many of them, are deeply threatened by the political success of groups organized around hostility to whites. In turn, people of color are threatened by skinheads and white militias. As either group advances, it frightens its opposition, leading them to gain recruits and to strengthen their commitments. This is one of the oldest patterns in human affairs, and the stories the different sides tell themselves guarantee the conflict between them will intensify. This plot has no ending except for one group to destroy the other.

We can learn to see a world teeming with varied cultural ways of taking advantage of nature’s offerings and of exploring possibilities for agriculture, government, cuisine, music, dance and worship. But when we focus on a narrow tale of raw power, we are easily intoxicated by self-righteousness and rage. We can believe that weak people are always oppressed by powerful people, which leaves us no choice between being oppressed or being the oppressor. We can study the many forms of oppression and begin to understand all narratives–indeed all discourse–as disguised power stratagems. We can think that everything is political. We can even believe that the collapse of existing power structures will empower the weak.

But this isn’t what happens. The collapse of governments empowers criminals. The plight of the weak gets even worse. Nonetheless, to militants rage is intoxicating, forgiveness is weak and forgetting is an act of disloyalty.

We can become quite emotionally attached to our anger, our most meaningful relationships with others premised on a shared sense of embattlement. We may say we want peace, and even believe it, without quite seeing how we have thought ourselves into a reality in which to lose our enemy or our hatred would be to lose the meaning of our lives along with membership in our community. People who meet for intense sessions to plot strategies against their enemies don’t doubt that their lives have meaning and purpose. To the ideologue, ordinary people are small-minded pawns who don’t see the grand scheme of things. In our desire for a better world, it’s easy to transform our resentment into a moral program, our self-hatred into nobility, our extremism into heroism, our quest for power into a zeal for utopian justice, and our emptiness into a new morality. True believers, Eric Hoffer called such victims of bad stories.

The best that can be hoped for is separatism, often described as “self-determination.”

The desire for separatism, however, is not sated by its victories. It isn’t a principle that leads to any sustainable state of affairs. Benjamin Barber in Jihad vs. McWorld makes the point by focusing on Canada. “If Quebec leaves Canada, why should not the Cree leave Quebec? And why then should not anglophone villages leave Quebec or opt out of a self-determining Cree nation if it is such that they find themselves inhabiting? And if a few francophones reside in the predominantly Cree region of a predominantly French Quebec, what about their status?” The separatist desire leads to Balkanization and strife.

There are several reasons the story of ethnic pride doesn’t motivate students to do well in school.

The main one is that this story teaches that the route to feeling good about oneself is a matter of being part of the “good” group. No authority outside the group, which will likely include not only teachers but most of the voices in a good library, is granted much authority. Militants on the left and on the right are both hostile to school authorities who, they feel, are hostile to their essential identity. Both are indifferent or hostile to what outsiders (such as scientists and historians) have to say. When these attitudes become habit, teaching authority is likely to be felt as dictatorial, as an act of dominance. But without authority there is no teaching.

All this undermines liberal education’s central tenet–that we should seek evidence and follow it–and the ethnic pride folks have little use for liberal education’s caveat to consider questions from many points of view and to ask rigorous questions. When the right answer is already known, or deeply felt, questions may be threats rather than tools. When the right answer is the one that makes us feel most proud, we can believe anything, and we parody the pursuit of knowledge. At the extremes of Afrocentrism, the claim is made that good and evil have biological roots, and that the more skin pigmentation a person has, the more goodness she has. Perhaps this illustrates a common historical pattern: oppressed people imitating their oppressors.

The ethnic pride story retreats from the historical difficulty we now face, abandoning the work of forming common ideals and principles from which we might yet build a world-wide civilization–a true family of all humanity.

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