There’s a direct line from tribal epistemology to dehumanization and genocide. This morning former governor of Arkansas and avid Trump supporter Mike Huckabee tweeted a picture of gang members and dubbed them Nancy Pelosi’s team “for the take back of the House [of Representatives].”
As many on social media pointed out, this is a classic dehumanization strategy—take a blameworthy sub-group like MS-13 and conflate them with a larger group, such as migrants coming from Mexico and other parts of Central and South America.
This is part of a larger degeneration of our public sphere into tribal epistemology, as David Roberts outlined at Vox in a column last month.
“Information is evaluated based not on conformity to common standards of evidence or correspondence to a common understanding of the world, but on whether it supports the tribe’s values and goals and is vouchsafed by tribal leaders. ‘Good for our side’ and ‘true’ begin to blur into one.”
As a scholar of religion, I am interested in how humans create in-groups and out-groups through language, ritual, symbols, and group practice.
During the 2016 election season, tribal epistemology manifested itself on social media and news outlets. We witnessed in real time the space for dialogue and debate based on evidence, logic, and history collapse as false information, fake news, and most of all, an us-versus-them attitude infected our public sphere. In-groups formed online and IRL as various symbols and labels came to define various political tribes.
Donald Trump harnessed the instinctual force of tribal epistemology more than any other candidate. His call for a border wall, his promise (and attempts) to ban Muslims from the country, and his overall willingness to reduce the world to real Americans (i.e. those with Trump, who said “I alone can fix it”) and anyone else (whether they be Democrats, Hillary supporters, NeverTrumpers, immigrants, non-whites, non-Christians, the list goes on). Moreover, like many before him, he equated Christianity with both America and whiteness.
None of this is new. But what I want to point out in the wake of the utter inhumanity of the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents is that there is a direct line from tribal epistemology to dehumanization that can blind even those religious people who claim that “God is love.”
In recent weeks, the Trump administration has practiced a zero-tolerance policy that means separating migrant children from their parents, regardless of whether or not those parents are seeking asylum—a human right and something legal in this country. In a morning tweet on June 19th, Trump used the word “infest” to describe immigrants entering the country.
Like a good tribalist, Trump has no use for nuance such as the right to asylum. It’s either “us” or “them”; there can be no middle ground, no third category, no space for discussion, debate, or dialogue.
The dangers of this way of thinking are obvious. I want to focus on one: tribal epistemology uses dehumanizing tactics in order to sustain tribal enthusiasm. In other words, the more the other tribe is vilified, the more enthusiastic and cohesive my tribe will be.
Dehumanization is the fourth step toward genocide as defined by Genocide Watch:
“One group denies the humanity of the other group. Members of it are equated with animals, vermin, insects or diseases. Dehumanization overcomes the normal human revulsion against murder. At this stage, hate propaganda in print and on hate radios is used to vilify the victim group. The majority group is taught to regard the other group as less than human, and even alien to their society. They are indoctrinated to believe that ‘We are better off without them.’”
When the president of the United States is a master of tribal epistemology whose go-to political tactic is to pit his tribe’s values and goals against all others without regard for truth, dignity, morality, or history, we are in danger as a country of repeating the atrocities many of us promised would never happen again. This week’s tragedy is proof that it’s already happening.