MICHAEL LIFFMAN. Tribalism, anti-racism, and over-reach

Mar 31, 2018

Living, as the world does, with slavery, colonialism, brutal civil conflicts, and the Holocaust still casting the blackest of clouds over us, the principle of ‘anti-racism’ has – rightly – been developed to become an incontestable foundation of our ethics and morality. This is as it should be, and arguably can be seen as one of the major advances in humanity’s faltering progress towards a more ethical global order.

Is it possible, however, that the concept of ‘racism’ is insufficiently nuanced to be as useful as it should be, and is too blunt to be a sufficient guide to personal conduct and social policy? Does the accusation of ‘racist’ have unintended and negative consequences through its use to criticise what many regard as normal behaviour, and its failure to acknowledge attitudes many believe to be intuitive, innocuous, and socially functional? Is  ‘anti-racism’ causing a backlash and is its inherent moral force at risk of being dishonoured by those who see the charge of ‘racism’ as overreach – as perhaps indicated by the growing tendency for the term ‘political correctness’ to be used to rebut the anti-racist exhortation.

Consider the following attitudes and policies:

  • Australia’s refugee policy
  • Minister Dutton’s reported suggestion that dispossessed white African farmers ought to be regarded as refugees whose admission to Australia should be favoured.
  • My personal enjoyment of the Klezmer music of Eastern Europe
  • The preference of many people for marrying within their own ethnic or racial group.
  • The belief that Africans are good athletes and Chinese very industrious.
  • Police vigilance with regard to African youths in Melbourne’s suburbs.
  • The Commonwealth government’s policy of controlling the spending of commonwealth benefits by indigenous people.
  • Profiling of people from some Middle Eastern countries or communities.
  • Government funding of ethically based cultural festivals and schools
  • Language requirements for citizenship.
  • Banning the hijab, or outlawing female circumcision and polygamy.
  • Celebrating Christmas, but not Ramadan, in the workplace.
  • Which of these attitudes or policies is it fair to criticize as racist, and which ought we be relaxed about as the natural interplay of complex, diverse, multi-ethnic communities?

The influential American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, a liberal Democrat who is concerned about the USA’s growing polarization has a somewhat unorthodox view about the celebration of ethic identity and the priority given to the cause of anti-racism. Haidt draws our attention to what could be described as a tension between universalism or cosmopolitanism, and tribalism, or group loyalty. He articulates a belief – one which it seems is widely and intuitively held in the general community – that tribalism is in many ways a natural, positive and humanising social force, creating solidarity and cohesion in communities and giving expression to fundamental human needs. At the same time he recognises that societies need to allow ethnic diversity – multiculturalism – if the diversity of tribal needs, and the resolution of tensions between them in the interest of wider social harmony, is to prevail.

It is in this tension that the need for nuance and caution in the use of the description ‘racist’ lies.

So when does the tribal impulse (or as some would describe it, ‘racial self-interest’) – which is, of itself, not necessarily to be condemned – become racist? And, equally importantly, when is it not? Perhaps some guidelines can be suggested:

  1. when an inappropriate, unfounded or hostile generalisation is made about an ethnic group, and especially when that generalisation is assumed to apply to all members of that group racism may well be at play. For example, even if it might be somewhat true that Africans are better athletes than, say, Chinese, it does not follow that a particular African is a good athlete or a particular Chinese industrious. Individuals remain individuals and must be seen for who they are, not for what is believed to be true of their group. Stereotypes about groups are always risky but where the generalization is sensitive and evidence-based they are not necessarily racist (and can even be a force for community-building, as shown in the long history of ethnic humour in Australia); however to subsume the individual into what is believed of the whole group is the very essence of racism.
  2. a preference for, or feeling of affinity or familiarity with, a particular group, or some of the traditions or tastes of that group, need not be racist. Tribal affinities are intensely subjective, emotional, visceral and derived from experiences – often primal or early childhood ones – and are in no sense objectively true, ethically derived or empirically supported. What is true, and important, is that Klezmer music is not superior to the music of India simply because I prefer it. To prefer one to another is not racist; however to claim the superiority of one probably is. It is true that some traditions, attitudes or practices do entail real issues which may justify serious judgement: female circumcision, for instance. But the greatest caution, and the strongest possible evidence and personal reflection, must always be exercised in allowing ethnic preferences any greater status than just that – subjective personal preference.
  3. it must remain a fundamental human rights principle (as well as following from the previous principles) that beliefs and preferences about or attitudes to groups must never be allowed to intend or have the consequence of unjustly disadvantaging or discriminating against those groups or individuals from those groups, or to advantage or privilege other groups.
  4. it follows, too, that social policies responding to ethnic, racial, religious or linguistic diversity (whether as a result of immigration or local historic and demographic  patterns), must always respect the principles derived from the above, and seek to reduce disadvantage and affirm equal human rights. This is especially so where policy makers believe that distinctions need to be made between groups, or specific policies directed at them.

Social harmony is a problematic and multi-facetted phenomenon. Even  in the most diverse societies there is likely to be a majority or host culture. The civilised negotiation of its right to feel comfortable, and those of smaller or newer communities to be protected, is always going to be difficult. While we like to believe that in a multicultural society difference is always seen as positive, the reality is therefore more complex. The challenge for the anti-racist ethic is to find a balance between the tensions that may be generated by difference, and the dangers of seeking to suppress them. Perhaps the four principles suggested here may assist.

(For a extended challenge to the current use of the term ‘racist’ see ‘Racial Self-Interest is not Racism’ by Professor Eric Kaufman, of the University of London, in ‘Policy Exchange’, March 2017.)

Dr Michael Liffman is an Adjunct Associate Professor at Swinburne University











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