American Tribalism: Look Out! It’s a Bear!

May 5, 2018
/ Author: Rick

One of the stories that crossed my field of view today involved the seeming resurgence of racism in America. In a minute or three, it may become clear why I used the word “seeming” there. But whatever the problem is, it is real. Not a day goes by any more when I don’t run across a story that would fit into the same category as the one that provoked this post. Then a troll gave me the extra push.

To end the tease, the story begins:

A pair of Native American brothers who had traveled seven hours to tour Colorado State University this week had their visit cut short after a parent on their tour reported them to the campus police.

Have you ever had that experience where you’re driving down the road, late a night, and you suddenly see a bear on the edge of the road? You look. You blink. You look harder. Because you’re thinking, “What the hell is a big-ass bear doing sitting alongside the road in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley?!”

But as you get closer, you realize it’s not a bear after all. It’s a bush.

Maybe you can’t connect with this experience. So for you, it wasn’t a bear. Or a bush. Maybe it was seeing a friend of yours walking ahead of you somewhere. You called out, “Hey! Serita!” Then the person you thought was your friend turned around. It wasn’t your friend. Now you feel embarrassed, maybe. You pretend to look past the person, like your friend is further on. Or, if you can’t get away with that, you sheepishly say, “Sorry. I thought you were a bear.”

Maybe you’re still having trouble identifying with what I’m saying. You don’t have a friend named “Serita.” In that case, I can’t help you. I can only feel sorry for you. Serita is a very fine person.

Anyway, these are obviously examples of “jumping to conclusions.” It can be the result of “one-shot learning,” which evolutionarily-minded people who study such things believe might have some survival value. If you have any familiarity with the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, you’ll see that it kinda-sorta fits in with his concept of System 1 thinking. [1]Based on what I’ve read so far, I don’t think the theories are identical. Different “systems” within the brain drive the way we think, differently. Kahneman’s book aims at helping us understand how these systems shape our judgments and decisions.

I don’t know if Kahnenman’s theory is right. I don’t know if the one-shot learning hypothesis is right. I do know that the human brain is a strange thing. We’re only beginning to understand how parts of it work, and we really don’t have much of a clue as to how the parts we think we understand interact with other parts. But we’re beginning to believe we understand, and that (too often) counts for everything.

One-shot learning and jumping to conclusions have a bit in common:

They say that the more uncertainty there is about the relationship, the more likely it is that one-shot learning will take place.

But, unless we redefine “uncertainty,” I don’t know that this fits every case. Your brain sees the bush in the dark by the side of the road. But in the dark, it looks more like a bear than a bush. To mix theories a bit, System 2 says, “Wait. What would a bear be doing here, where there haven’t been any bears for maybe a hundred years?” Now you’re uncertain. But your initial gut reaction had been, “OMG! BEAR!” To use Kahneman’s terminology again, System 1 wasn’t uncertain; System 1 knew what it knew, and that was that there was a bear standing too close to the road, and you were in danger.

Back in the day, your brain jumping to the conclusion that a bush looked like a bear in the dark saved lives. It took civilization to cause us to feel silly when it turned out not to be a bear. By then, it didn’t matter: the ones who decided to stick around to see if the bear was a bush just didn’t stick around. Not, anyway, when it turned out to really be a bear. Therefore, jumping to conclusions now comes naturally to all of us.

There’s another aspect of this that I think is important: conditioning.

When you’re driving down the road, in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley in Central California, running between, say, Hanford and Visalia, you almost certainly don’t even have to stop to think that there is a very high likelihood no bears are anywhere within at least a hundred miles of your location. So unlikely is the idea of encountering a bear on the side of Highway 198 at that point, that there’s not a chance you’re going to immediately slam on the brakes, or punch the gas, in an attempt to escape the bear.

At least, most of us aren’t going to do that.

Before you have time to act on the incongruity, the slower, rational part of your brain is going to kick in with “that can’t be a bear, so what is it?” And you’re going to look harder—you could call this a weak form of “investigation.” You’re not going to allow yourself to continue to think it’s a bear. Maybe a hundred years ago you would have been inclined to run first, and ask questions later, but not now. As the PLOS paper (which the one-shot learning article I linked was based on) put it:

In jumping to conclusions, humans are known to undergo a rapid inference process because of an overestimation of the cost of acquiring more information.

And the proper estimation of the cost of acquiring more information is yet another thing that we have to learn. In deciding that it’s okay to take more time to decide whether a bush that looks like a bear is really a bush, or actually a bear, in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley, most of us have it ingrained in us that bears are no longer indigenous to that area. We’ve become conditioned to immediately realize it’s probably not a bear. It’s safe to inquire further.

What does all this have to do with young Native Americans—descendants of the People who were here in the U.S. before the arrival of everyone else—touring a Colorado campus with a bunch of other students in 2018?

Well, their people may have been the earliest to settle the area, but they were late to the tour, you see. They were apparently quite shy, in addition. They wore funny clothes. And we non-Native-Americans don’t know much about History. Don’t know much Biology. It keeps us from thinking this is just part of a wonderful world. But I digress.

During the 911 call on Monday, the woman who called said the brothers were “definitely not” a part of the tour, describing their behavior as “odd” and their clothing as bearing “dark stuff.” She accused them of lying by not giving their names or honestly answering when she asked what they wanted to study.

Many people would probably say this woman is a racist. Indeed, the mother of the boys said,

“My immediate thought was they’re being profiled because they’re different,” she said on “Native America Calling,” a live call-in show. “They’re not safe there.”

The racist profiler called 911 because these kids were different; they were clearly “minorities.” [2]I don’t actually like this word. I can’t yet explain why. In her mind, just like bears along the side of Highway 198 in the San Joaquin Valley, they didn’t belong. But they clearly weren’t bushes. She jumped to the conclusion that they were something to be feared. So, obviously, she’s a racist.

But here’s the thing that jumps out at me—and it’s not a bear, either—when we automatically jump to the conclusion that someone who does something like this is a racist, we’re actually doing exactly the same thing they did. Maybe for a minute we’re not sure if it’s a bush, a bear, or a racist. But it does fit better into the category of racist than either of the former two object categories. And so it must be a racist.

And yet…

Later, [the woman who called 911] appeared to express some doubt, saying that “it’s probably nothing” and that she felt “ridiculous.” But she could not shake her suspicion, she said.

“If it’s nothing, I’m sorry, but it actually made me like feel sick and I’ve never felt like that,” she said.

There is so much going on here. The women—and I’m saying women because I’m including the woman who called 911 and the woman whose immediate thought was her sons were being profiled, not because, like so many others these days, I don’t recognize the difference between the singular and plural forms of “woman”—suffered from a paucity of knowledge, of categories, and of understanding. In trying to make sense of things, they’re going off their immediate reactions. The 911 caller’s robot is screaming “Danger, Will Robinson!” and the immediate reaction of the boys’ mother is “they’re being profiled because they’re different.”

I should probably say that I think the boys’ mother was right. I would use exactly those same words. I’m just not thinking of the words “they’re being profiled because they’re different” in the same way. Because, actually, they’re being profiled regardless. Deciding they were “the same” and not “different,” is a profiling decision, as well. But, of course, “profiling” is in the middle of taking on a social, or political, connotation that I’m not using. The 911 woman was trying to make sense of something that bothered her. It wasn’t a bush that looked like a bear; it was two humans who looked not only different from what she was used to seeing, but like something she’s been learning to fear.

Therein lies a major problem. Americans, for whatever reason, have taken a step backward. We’ve gone from being a nation once conceived of as a Melting Pot to a nation of people constantly in the midst of melt-downs. I’m neither placing blame, nor am I suggesting that those who don’t abandon their heritage, or those who embrace their ancestors’ culture, or however else you want to view or word this, are wrong. Actually, I think of it as a difference between being a nation that welcomed differences, if sometimes grudgingly, and understood that it strengthened us all to do so, and a nation that has embraced all the ugly parts of tribalism.

Ironically, the increase in tribes in America has led to a decrease in categories available for profiling—in my sense of the word (see above)—our fellow Americans. In this ultra-tribalized New America, some of us believe that racism is resurgent. Believing this has caused us to begin to see racists everywhere. The reality is that while public displays of racism, decried, discouraged, and disapproved in Older America are being seen more, this doesn’t necessarily equate with a resurgence of racism. It does seem to equate with a growing ignorance.

And ignorance feeds ignorance. Having broken up into smaller tribes, we carefully guard the boundaries of those tribes. We deny others a “platform” to speak their thoughts, depriving us of the ability to learn how people “from other tribes” think.

Besides, wouldn’t learning from others be cultural appropriation?

We thus begin to stunt our own abilities to think, and further splinter even the tribe we thought we belonged to. As we work to shore up the boundaries that delineate the tribe, we eat our own. This can lead to such absurdities as white people telling a black man that he’s wrong for wanting to listen to someone who they have deemed racist. After all, white people always know what’s best for black people.

It’s worth noting that tribalism is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. In fact, as I’ve noted above, it’s the natural outgrowth of how our brains work: we’re forever trying to spot the difference between the bear and the bush, between the dangerous and the benign. As Andrew Sullivan notes,

Tribalism only destabilizes a democracy when it calcifies into something bigger and more intense than our smaller, multiple loyalties; when it rivals our attachment to the nation as a whole; and when it turns rival tribes into enemies.

And that’s just what it’s done. Martin Luther King once had a dream,

I have a dream that one day little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls.

It was a dream with a purpose: to perfect what the architects of our nation could only promise.

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men—yes, black men as well as white men—would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Rather than banding together, we’ve splintered. Not recognizing that a bush is just a bush and not a bear, we’ve fallen prey to the bugbear.

Until we get past that, until we stop plugging one another into categories we can hate instead of categories within which we can work, the problem is only going to get worse.

And my troll, by the way? In the end, I might be wrong. He might not be a troll. He might just be a member of another tribe.


1Based on what I’ve read so far, I don’t think the theories are identical.
2I don’t actually like this word. I can’t yet explain why.

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