MONDAY, JANUARY 9, 2023
Anatomy of a tribe: Long ago and far away, the candidate we voted for made an unfortunate statement.
The hopeful in question was Hillary Clinton. The statement in question was this:
CLINTON (9/9/16): You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?
The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it. And unfortunately, there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people—now how 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive, hateful, mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks—they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America...
To read the transcript of the fuller statement, you can just click here.
The unfortunate statement by Candidate Clinton became extremely well known. It's possible that Clinton's unfortunate statement explains the fact that Donald J. Trump actually got to the White House.
Importantly, let's be fair! Under current arrangements, nominees for the White House will campaign nonstop for years. Eventually, every candidate will make a careless, ill-considered remark—a comment she shouldn't have made.
That said, Clinton's unfortunate statement was deeply consequential. Using the most unflattering terms our impoverished public discourse provides, she said that half of Trump['s supporters—tens of millions of people—were in "the basket of deplorables."
It even seemed that they might be "irredeemable!" But one thing was perfectly clear—it was clear that they were racists.
Needless to say, they were also "homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic." You name it, the candidate self-parodically said.
We voted for that particular candidate, but that was a grossly unfortunate statement. The statement was politically disastrous, but it was also unsustainable on any conceivable merits.
There was no imaginable "evidence" which could support such a sweeping denunciation of tens of millions of people. Sadly, the statement said more about those of us in our own blue tribe than it actually said about Them—about the irredeemable Others the candidate had unwisely condemned.
Unfortunately, that unfortunate statement said a lot about the culture of our own blue tribe. Over the course of the past ten years, our tribe has become deeply wed to a culture of aggressive name-calling—to a culture in which we drop our society's most toxic insults on the heads of those who don't agree with every stance we would permit them to take.
Most specifically, we love to say that The Others are racists. Also, we've developed a wide array of euphemistic formulations which, as everyone knows, mean the exact same thing.
Anthropologists insist that this type behavior in deeply bred the bone. Dating deep into prehistory, we human beings are wired to behave in this way:
We're wired to divide the world into tribes, then to declare that The Others are less than fully human. Our lizard tells us to do such things, and we're strongly inclined to obey.
A few years ago, a University of Washington professor—a professor who's a good, decent person—crafted a somewhat similar statement. As we've noted in our ongoing Case Study, that statement went like this, dual headlines included:
How we fail black patients in pain
Half of white medical trainees believe such myths as black people have thicker skin or less sensitive nerve endings than white people. An expert looks at how false notions and hidden biases fuel inadequate treatment of minorities’ pain.
“Black people’s nerve endings are less sensitive than white people’s.” “Black people’s skin is thicker than white people’s.” “Black people’s blood coagulates more quickly than white people’s.”
These disturbing beliefs are not long-forgotten 19th-century relics. They are notions harbored by far too many medical students and residents as recently as 2016. In fact, half of trainees surveyed held one or more such false beliefs, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science. I find it shocking that 40% of first- and second-year medical students endorsed the belief that “black people’s skin is thicker than white people’s.”
As with Clinton, so too here. The professor was discussing an important topic. In the course of doing so, she was also denouncing one half of a particular group.
In this instance, the group was a bunch of medical trainees—first- through third-year medical students, plus a relative handful of (fourth-year) medical residents.
According to Professor Sabin, exactly half of these (white) trainees had voiced agreement, as part of a research study, with one or more "false beliefs" about biological differences between blacks and whites.
Also, alas! According to the professor, the (white) students' false beliefs weren't simply false. The false beliefs of these (white) trainees were also "shocking," "disturbing."
Indeed, the medical trainees' false beliefs were so absurd that they seemed like relics from the (racist) 19th century! Did we mention the fact that it was white medical students who held these shocking beliefs?
Everybody understands the impression such statements convey. The professor was dropping our tribe's most powerful bomb on yet another group of Others—and in this case, the Others were all white.
In fact, the UVa study in question had also surveyed a group of nonwhite medical trainees. The responses of those nonwhite trainees were virtually identical to the responses of the larger group of white trainees—but the study disappeared that fact, and so did the shocked professor.
This is deeply unfortunate conduct. In this case, the conduct is especially unfortunate because, just as a basic matter of fact, very few of those medical trainees—white and black and Hispanic and Asian together!—had actually endorsed any "false beliefs" at all, a point we'll turn to tomorrow.
Our deeply unimpressive tribe loves to call Others racist! More and more, then more and more, this seems to be one of the only moves our tribe knows how to make.
The UVa study in question provides a remarkable Case Study of the way our tribe advances the treasured Storyline in which The Others turn out to be racist. We seem to love that Storyline. It sometimes seems that we'll go to any length to produce that treasured product.
At present, we Americans all inhabit a failing democracy. It's also a "diverse democracy," and our nation is very large.
As almost everyone knows, it's relatively hard to maintain a diverse democracy in a very large nation. In our view, the cavalier way our tribe tosses our various bombs around helps explain the way we lose elections, and with it our hopes for the future.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but our vastly self-impressed tribe is also enormously flawed. That UVa study was designed by good and decent people, but some of their academic procedures almost defy belief.
Their procedures also draw back the curtain on the most unhelpful instinct of our own failing tribe. We have a very strong impulse to denounce The Others as racist, whether the evidence supports that claim or not.
Increasingly, the red tribe traffics in crazy belief. Our blue tribe traffics in the dropping of our tribe's favorite bombs.
The Others are racists, we love to say. In our desire to advance that claim, little nonsense gets left behind.
WE voted for Candidate Clinton, but her statement was deeply unfortunate. Professor Sabin's statement is impossible to square with the actual data produced by the UVa study.
Despite that fact, the UVa study is often described in ways which resemble the Sabin critique. At such times, everyone knows what secret claim is secretly being made.
How did it ever get this far? We'll end our discussion of this deeply instructive UVa study over the next few days.
In truth, those (white and nonwhite) medical trainees did absolutely nothing wrong. It seems to us that our tribe's elite academics and journalists can often mount no such defense of their own unfortunate conduct.
Tomorrow: (Nonwhite) trainees disappeared!