RUNNING ON TRIBAL: David Brooks made an obvious point!


After that, the comments: In last Friday's column, David Brooks made a certain type of fairly obvious point.

On balance, he made a perfectly decent point. Or at least, he made a perfectly decent point as far as his column went.

Opinion columns in the New York Times run roughly 800 words. A columnist can't necessarily say it all in 800 words, though he can sometimes make a generally sensible point.

In general, Brooks suggested in his column that we should avoid sweeping generalizations about large groups of people. In his headline, he seemed to say that the impulse toward such generalizations is "the mind-set that's tearing us apart."

Below, we'll note an obvious weakness in Brooks' presentation. But here's the way his column began, intriguing headline included:

BROOKS (10/8/21): Here’s the Mind-Set That’s Tearing Us Apart

The world is complicated, and our minds have limited capacity, so we create categories to help us make sense of things. We divide, say, the social world into types—hipster, evangelical, nerd, white or Black—and associate traits or characteristics with each.

These judgments involve simplifications and generalizations. But we couldn’t make sense of the blizzard of sensory data each day if we couldn’t put things, situations and people into some form of conceptual boxes...

It becomes a serious problem when people begin to believe that these mental constructs reflect underlying realities. This is called essentialism. It is the belief that each of the groups we identify with our labels actually has an “essential” and immutable nature, rooted in biology or in the nature of reality. In the worst kind of case, it’s the belief that Hutus are essentially different from Tutsis, that Christian Germans are innately superior to Jews.

"This [belief] is called essentialism?" As best we can tell, the belief in question isn't called that very often. 

Meanwhile, in paragraph 2, we've edited out a pointless reference to "our old friend Immanuel Kant." That said, Brooks has already made a very important point. 

It's true! In the worst cases, sweeping (hostile) generalizations, deeply believed to be true, have led to genocidal events. This has happened all over the world—in Germany (six million dead), and also in Rwanda (one million dead), but in other locations as well.

One group may even start calling The Others "cockroaches." This sort of thing has happened all over the world, even within our own nation.

For our money, Brooks is making a very important, almost obvious point. That said, he may have possibly stumbled a bit as he fleshed out his point:

BROOKS: When essentialist groups go at each other, sweeping generalizations have a tendency to fill the air. You run across workshops on topics like “What’s Up With White Women?” as if all the white women in the world were somehow one category. You get a Trump-endorsed gubernatorial candidate in Arizona pledging to take a sledgehammer to a category of people called the “corrupt media,” and charging the “corporate media establishment” with employing methods “right out of a communist playbook.” Politics is no longer about argument; it’s just jamming together a bunch of scary categories about people who are allegedly rotten to the core.

Worse, you find yourself in a society with rampant dehumanization, where people are barraged with crude stereotypes that are increasingly detached from the complexities of reality and make them feel unseen as individuals.

In that passage, Brooks adds in a key point:

When "essentialist groups" start generalizing about other groups, they may engage in "rampant dehumanization" as their "crude stereotypes" fill the air. They may even engage in rampant dehumanization of the "cockroaches" kind!

It may be all downhill from there. As noted, this sort of thing has happened all over the world, including within the brutal history of our own nation. 

Brooks is making an excellent point about "otherization"—about the way we humans may be inclined to form sweeping negative impressions concerning groups to which we feel we don't belong. The Others Are All Alike, we may say (and believe). The Others are just cockroaches. 

Brooks is making a strong point about this deeply destructive tendency—but at the same time, please! It's dumber to engage in sweeping generalization about people based on their "race," their ethnicity or their gender than on their voluntary membership in a certain profession, such as "corporate media."

Brooks later refers to sweeping generalizations about lawyers. That said, a person chooses to belong to a certain profession or to a certain branch of a certain profession. A person also chooses to belong to a certain political party, or to a certain wing of some political party.

For that reason, it may make more sense to form generalizations on the basis of such voluntary associations. But it remains a deeply dangerous tendency, a tendency which is wired into our highly fallible human brains.

The impulse to form hostile generalizations is dangerous all the way down. That said, is this (dangerous) tendency really "the mind-set that’s tearing us apart" at the present time, a claim Brooks makes in his headline? 

That, of course, is a matter of judgment. For ourselves, we don't think the claim in that headline is a crazy claim. We don't think it's crazy at all!

In our view, our flailing nation, such as it is, is dividing into warring tribes in the way our species tends to do on its way to one of its wars. Example:

At the start of Gone With The Wind, the silly Southern boys wooing Miss Scarlett can't wait to get at "the Yankees." An hour or so later, the camera draws back to show us acres of their coffins in the streets of their ruined Atlanta.

Our species has always been inclined to play it that way, all around the world. It seems to us that our species is playing that way, within our gruesome public discourse, here in our own failing nation at the present time.

For our money, Brooks was making an excellent point about our current circumstance. That said, is this ugly "essentialism" something the Red Tribe is doing on its own? Or is it possible that our deeply self-impressed Blue Tribe is engaged in this conduct too? 

Human nature will always insist that It's Only The Others! But after reading Brooks' column on Friday, we proceeded to read the first handful of comments offered by New York Times readers in response to what he had said.

We'll start tomorrow with a few of those comments. For today, we'll leave it with this:

The desire to loathe the cockroaches is a form of "own goal" which has run all through all human tribes since the dawn of time.

If we might borrow from Jackson Browne, our deeply self-impressed Blue Tribe has been "running on tribal" for a good long time now. The resulting conduct helps define The Way We Appear to The Others.

Our tribe keeps defeating itself in these ways—and no, this self-defeating behavior isn't going to stop. 

Tomorrow: Blue readers go after the roaches


  1. So, please remind us, dear Bob, why you choose to belong to the race-essentializing liberal-hitlerian cult?

    1. This is an accusation, not a question.

    2. Yes, it is a question. Dear Bob keeps accusing His Team of being idiots and race-mongers, and yet it's still His Team.

      We want to know why. We wouldn't want to be in a team of idiots and race-mongers.

    3. The answer is fairly simple. We are often confronted with choices between two non-ideal options.

      How simple life would be if there were options with no faults or problems.

    4. Yeah, right. Everyone without a valid membership card of one of the two government-authorized teams is immediately sent to American Gulag.

    5. Gulag is not camp. Gulag is chief administration for camps.

  2. Bob, DB could have simply said: don't generalize. DUH!

    Change of subject: Surely you didn't miss Dowd's sophistry on Sunday where she mentions Bush senior for mocking Al Gore, while neglecting HER mocking.

    I nearly fell off my chair.

    1. Wow! Remember when Dowd said Gore was so feminized he was practically lactating because he was concerned about the environment?

      As for Brooks it seems to me his carping about “bobos” is a perfect example of a dehumanizing generalization.

  3. There are several related aspects to Brooks's column. One is treating a bunch of individuals as if they were a single entity. E.g., "The Trump voters are..."

    Here's an examples applied to organizations, rather than people. One reads comments like, "The insurance industry believes..." The insurance industry is not a single entity with identical views. Each insurance company has its own views.

    1. The same criticism applies to this blog when Somerby constantly says “we liberals are…’

  4. I am less sanguine than Bob that this practice is an "Own goal". Unfortunately, generalizations work, particularly negative generalizations.

    Republicans won elections in the 1950's based on the myth that Democrats were Communists or sympathizers. Democrats won elections during during recent decades based on the myth that all Republi8cans or all Trump voters are racists.

    1. The myth is that Republicans strongly believe in something other than bigotry.

    2. There's a belief that makes things simple and comfortable. No need to analyze further then, huh?

    3. Exactly. What about the Republican voters who didn't try to overthrow the country because black peoples votes counted in an election?

    4. Rationalist,
      Analyze away. You'll learn why they're against universal healthcare and a strong social safety net.

    5. Both sides are against universal health Care and a strong social safety net.

    6. 2;08,
      Sure. Republican voters are against Universal Healthcare because they depend on corporate money to be re-elected, and not because they don't want any of their tax money to benefit 'those people".

    7. We’d be better off if we were all Harold Ford.

    8. @2:08:
      There is a progressive faction within the Democratic Party that wants universal health care. It is incorrect to say the “Democrats” don’t want it. On the other hand, zero Republicans want it.

      The irony is that you criticize the Democratic side for not being progressive enough, and then Somerby links to Kevin Drum who rails against the “ridiculous” progressives for pushing too much progressive legislation and thereby pissing off the moderate voters that the Democrats supposedly need in order to win more Senate seats. Lovely how the Democrats get criticized from both sides, all from supposed “liberals.”

    9. I'm just stating facts. They said that Republicans were not for Universal Health Care and the fact is the ruling majority of Democrats are not either. Both sides (where it counts) are not for it.

      That's just a fact.

    10. Some Democrats, not all and not “ruling” majority (without Republicans voting too), since you want to be “accurate”.

  5. Americans not only divided, but baffled by what motivates their opponents

    Only one in four Republican voters felt that most or almost all Democratic voters sincerely believed they were voting in the best interests of the country. Rather, many Republicans told us that Democratic voters were “brainwashed by the propaganda of the mainstream media,” or voting solely in their self-interest to preserve undeserved welfare and food stamp benefits.

    The 429 Democratic voters in our sample returned the favor and raised many of the same themes. Democrats inferred that Republicans must be “VERY ill-informed,” or that “Fox news told me to vote for Republicans.” Or that Republicans are “uneducated and misguided people guided by what the media is feeding them.”

    1. Every Right-wing accusation is a confession.

    2. Both groups vote their self-interest.

      On one side, the white-collar educated segment benefits from cheap labor (foreign and illegal immigrant labor domestically), and the underclass is bribed by the so-called 'welfare'.

      And on the other side, the working class would (and did, during the Trump administration) benefit from economic protectionism (massive tariffs) and preventing illegal immigration.

      These are the fundamentals, political economy.

      All the bullshit produced by the media would swing a few percent this or that way.

    3. "self-interest"
      "preventing illegal immigration. "
      The same problems have existed on the border for 100 years.
      What changed is that the far right saw greater political value in racism than in allowing people in to the country to do the backbreaking work of feeding us.
      Republicans chose racism over nourishment.
      "Both groups vote their self-interest."

    4. Yes. For a good faith argument from a Right-winger.

    5. The Fortune 1000 is a liberal cult.
      I assume they saw a Republican struggle to do basic mathematics, and said "No thanks."

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