This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Saturday, 13 October 2012

A Discussion On Tribalism

I’ve read plenty of times uncomprehending questions that go something like this: why do some Afghans still support the Taliban? Don’t they know it’s wrong? Or, why do Africans behave so barbarically with each other? Why do they treat their women so appallingly/ teach their young males to hate others?

There are plenty of similar questions, all of which have at their root two basic problems: first, the fact that the societies or peoples involved are tribal; and, secondly, the inability of the questioner to understand the world-view of a tribal society, which is quite different from others.

I’ve lived virtually all my life in a tribal society or as a non-tribal person in close proximity of tribesmen and women, and while I’m probably not right in generalising, I’m going to go ahead and stick my neck out a little anyway.

1.    A tribal society is inherently xenophobic, to a far greater extent than any other. Even where a tribe interacts regularly and peacefully with another or to the non-tribal world, a tribal person will never accept, at least to himself, that the Other is an equal in any fashion. The Other will always, to his mind, be apart, even if he lives among the midst of it, and a potential threat if not an actual one. Whatever the Other does to gain his trust, this fundamental truth will remain; he will never accept himself as part of the Other, no matter how much he is accepted by it (and he seldom is to any extent, either, but that’s another story).

2.    A tribal society, being xenophobic, always feels itself under threat. Like any society that feels itself threatened by the outside world, it ultimately turns in on itself in a paroxysm of “self-preservation”. Therefore the customs of the tribe become almost holy, and must be followed at all costs, even when such customs are inimical to the tribe’s long-term interests anyway.

For example, the tribes here in this state mostly follow a matrilineal system where men have neither property rights nor even any rights over their children (not even the right to scold/discipline them or give them the father’s family name). Obviously, males in this society have no stake at all in a marriage and freely abandon their wives and children to fend for themselves when the pressures get too much (and this is made easier by the fact that the same tribal society opposes compulsory registration of marriages). Obviously, also, the system needs drastic reform if not complete junking; but, instead, it’s reinforced, made almost into a fetish, and any tribe member who suggests reform or change in the system finds himself in serious trouble, with everyone from “progressive thinkers” to fascist youth organisations condemning him or her.

If any tribe’s core social customs are forcibly changed, usually at gunpoint, those new social impositions then become the tribe’s core belief and after that the tribe will adhere to those even when they, with time, have become obsolete, harmful, and counterproductive in their turn.

Therefore, there’s no point saying a tribe “must stop” killing boys and girls who fall in love; or must stop hunting heads; or whatever. It won’t stop as long as it feels it’s under threat, and it will feel under threat because that’s the nature of a tribe, however large and prosperous it is. The local tribes I mentioned above are rich, well-educated, and many members of it are settled all over the world; yet they all love to claim they are endangered and helpless in the face of the modern world unless they preserve the worst and most retrogressive of their social customs.

It’s the trappings of tribalism that are most easily discarded – the feathers and war-paint and so on – because it’s all so impractical and because it’s so superficial. Nobody really gives a damn when these go. Next to go are the good values of the society, for example, nature worship, the protection of forests and so on. These give way easily to the search for individual short-term profit. What’s left, then, of the tribal society’s mores are the worst and most regressive practices, which are selectively preserved, maintained, and promoted.

In his remarkable book (co-written with Donald Barnett), Mau Mau From Within, Karari Njama, a rebel general in the Kenyan revolutionary war, says that part of the oath sworn by the Mau Mau recruit was that he would never leave a daughter uncircumcised - not because this had any particular relevance to the revolution but because this was one of the regressive social practices of the Kikuyu tribe, which the tribe (the only one to revolt) felt to be under threat along with the rest of its existence. The fact that the tribe had genuine grievances, of course, got somewhat buried in the crude animal sacrifices, oaths of blood, and so on - including that of female genital mutilation, which was in any case theoretical for the average recruit who had neither a wife nor a daughter to mutilate.

3.    The members of a tribal society will stick together no matter what, even when they are clearly – even to themselves – in the wrong. If tribesman X steals a chicken from tribesman Y, he is a thief and must be punished. However, if he steals a chicken from Z, who is not a tribe member, then the tribe will stand at his side no matter what happens. This holds true no matter how well-educated or socially advanced the tribe is. Any disagreement between a part of the tribe and the outside world, on whatever level, becomes the Tribe versus the Other, and because the tribe is under threat, of course it becomes the (unthinking) duty of every tribe member to stand by the malefactor.

4.    The typical tribal society takes its cues from village heads, tribal elders, religious shamans and the like. Even when the individual tribesman can see for himself that the proper way to do something is at variance from the orders of the witch doctor or the local headman, he’s constrained to follow their orders or see himself ostracised or worse. And, naturally, the village head, shaman, or whatever always looks to his own interests, which lie in propagating regressive practices because that’s how he maintains his power.

5.    Tribal societies, being insular and closed worlds, have long memories and bear grudges for extraordinarily long periods, something of the nature of hereditary blood feuds. Since there is no significant intermarriage with the non-tribal world – any non-tribal person who marries into the tribal world is expected to merge into the tribe and subsume himself/herself entirely within the tribe’s culture – there’s none of the moderating effect that intermingling of genes brings. A society where everyone has to rigidly conform to a fixed code is liable to be intolerant of anyone who doesn’t follow that code, and to carefully preserve and nurture enmities with peoples who don’t follow those codes. This is why tribes find it so easy to go into savage conflicts with each other.

6.    Tribes usually react extremely poorly to genuine existential threats like habitat loss and disease or environmental degradation. Instead, they overreact to things that aren’t really threats at all or at the most minor threats. So you will find (again a personal observation) a tribe ignoring deforestation and the drying up of water-bodies and the vanishing of employment prospects, but railing against the wearing of “alien” clothing by women of the tribe (in this case, Western attire wasn’t thought alien though – only North Indian salwar kameez was condemned).

7.    For the tribal, the tribe is his entire social matrix. His worldview has no meaning in the absence of the tribe, because since birth he’s been conditioned to the customs of the tribe. Therefore, what the tribe decides, he will do, whether he wishes to or not – the alternative is expulsion from the tribe (or at least part of its social fabric) at the minimum, something he dreads worse than almost anything else. Therefore, “winning over” individual tribe members by building barns or providing fodder for livestock or a food packet won’t win you his heart or his mind – when the crunch comes he’s going to have no alternative but to back the tribe against you. If you want to change or win over a tribe, you have to begin at the top.

Therefore, it absolutely does not matter that the Taliban are among the most regressive movements the world has ever seen. It’s a movement based on the Pashtun/Pathan tribe, and to the tribal mind, he who attacks the Taliban attacks the tribe, and so the tribe must stand by the Taliban. (The extreme clumsiness and incompetence of the US and other imperialist occupation forces in Afghanistan are of course another factor but one that has no direct relevance to this article).

When I was in dental college in Lucknow, we had an association (which rapidly became defunct) of students from this part of the country. I remember an occasion when there was a dispute between students from Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh on certain issues; it came to a general vote. Now, the Arunachal Pradesh lot were clearly in the right; so much so that there were even some of the Nagas (who were all members of various tribes) who said they were in the right. However, when it came to the vote, those same Nagas voted for the Nagaland viewpoint, which they had just declared in the open forum was wrong.

I’m not in the least suggesting that tribes are lost causes and should be bombed to nonexistence or allowed to die of benign neglect. What I’m saying is that there’s absolutely no point treating a tribe as though it’s a non-tribal society, because you’re going to end up with the questions with which I began this article, and you won’t find any answers, either.

Disclaimer: I’m no anthropologist, so you can safely ignore everything here.

(From 2009)

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