Friday 3 November 2017

The danger of toxic political tribalism

One of the most infuriating things about writing about politics is the way that so many people don't even bother trying to understand what I've written these days, and just crudely caricature my views instead of actually considering what I actually said. 

People tend to do this because they're political tribalists who want everything to fit into simple and arbitrary "black vs white", "us vs them" type classifications, when things are rarely ever that simple in reality.


Probably the most common politically partisan assumption that gets made about me is that I'm blindly pro-Labour. In fact I'm highly critical of many of the things Labour did and didn't do between 1997-2010, their unspeakably inept "austerity-lite" positioning for the 2015 General Election, and the fact that the upper echelons of the Labour Party are still riddled with active opponents of the kind of democratic socialism that the majority of Labour members and voters actually want.

Just because I think Jeremy Corbyn is a principled guy and the best Labour leader in decades, doesn't mean that I've completely forgotten about the toxic legacies of the New Labour experiment. Nor does it mean that I blithely imagine that the Labour Party isn't in need of massive structural reform before it could possibly become the kind of organisation that genuinely represents the will of it's members.

The Brexit debate

Another of the most common tribalist accusations that's hurled at me is that I'm blindly "pro-EU", but anyone who thinks I argued against Brexit in 2016 simply because I love the EU so much clearly wasn't paying any attention to anything I was actually saying.

It's clear that the tribalism cut both ways, with plenty of Remainers forming toxic tribalistic "us and them" mentalities too (look at the charts). However the overwhelming bulk of the insults and abuse I suffered during the EU referendum debate was hurled by Brexiters, so I can't help focusing on them.

I didn't argue against Brexit because I imagined the EU to be faultless (far from it), I argued against it because the leading Brexiteers were clearly willing to lie through their teeth to get their way, because they obviously had no plan for how to actually manage Brexit if they did get their way, and because it hardly took a visionary seer to predict that a "make it up as we go along" Brexit administered by the Tory party would turn out to be a disaster for pretty much everyone in the UK apart from the mega-rich with sufficient capital stashed in tax havens to insulate themselves from the chaos.

But as far as a lot of Brexit tribalists were concerned, that kind of analysis was enough to caricature me as a rabidly pro-EU, anti-British traitor so they could ignore what I was actually saying and instantly dismiss it as the crazed ranting of someone from the enemy tribal ideology.


More recently people have begun hurling accusations that I'm a supporter of Carles Puigdemont and his centre-right pro-Independence party in Catalonia, simply because I've been highly critical of the way the much-more-right-wing Spanish government and the Spanish nationalist establishment in Madrid have been handling the Catalan crisis.

It's as if people can only conceive two possible positions in this political debate too. You either support the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and the Spanish nationalist establishment in Madrid, or you support Puigdemont and his party. 

There is no middle ground, and just like with Brexit, if you criticise the behaviour of one side, you're immediately characterised by supporters of that side as a promoter of the enemy ideology to be hated, ridiculed and despised.

In my view the Catalan independence movement is actually much more like Brexit than the Scottish independence movement was, because unlike in Scotland in 2014 there isn't really anything resembling a detailed plan for how to manage transition from the union to independence, which makes supporting the Catalan independence movement very problematic for anyone who recognises that economic chaos tends to impact more seriously on the poor and vulnerable than the capital rich.

But Spanish nationalist tribalists don't give a shit about what I actually think about Puigdemont or the actual case for independence, because they're far too busy trying to shout me down as a despicable enemy to listen to what I was actually saying.


Despite my reservations about the unpreparedness of the Catalan government for the transition to independence they've been trying to achieve, I strongly believe in the right to self determination as a matter of principle.

I absolutely reject the idea that the right to self determination can be eradicated in perpetuity by a rushed 1978 constitution that was drawn up in the shadow of a brutal fascist dictatorship, under the very real and terrifying threat of more military rule if the constitution wasn't agreed.

Even if people interpret the Spanish constitution to say that the natural right to self-determination is permanently extinguished as "illegal", it's important to remember that a significant number of national independence declarations were made illegally. The United States, Belgium, Philippines, Albania, Ireland, Egypt, Bangladesh, Croatia and Slovenia are some of the high profile examples. 

It's also important to remember that within living memory it was illegal for black people to travel on the same bus or use the same washroom as white people in countries like the United States and South Africa. It was illegal for consenting gay men to have sex with each other in the United Kingdom (and many other countries). And it was illegal for Catalan people to speak their own language, or to give Catalan names to their children in Catalonia.

When it comes to imperialists and powerful political elites making and interpreting the rules in their own favour, and against minorities, there's often a hugely significant distinction between what is illegal and what is actually wrong.

Justifying violence and repression

The problem with the Catalan crisis of course is that the Spanish nationalists in Madrid have handled the situation about as badly as it's possible to imagine. They sent thousands of police into Catalonia from other parts of Spain to steal ballot boxes, attack non-violent civilians, shoot people with rubber bullets, and drag women out of buildings by their hair. Then the king of Spain deliberately made a bitterly partisan Spanish nationalist speech in front of a portrait of a brutal tyrant famous for repressing Catalonia and banning the Catalan language. Then Mariano Rajoy allowed one of his ministers to make a death threat against the Catalan President without the slightest censure. Then the corrupt and highly partisan Spanish judiciary set about rounding up Catalan political prisoners. Then the right-wing Spanish government overthrew democracy in Catalonia and seized control of the local broadcast media and police force for themselves. Then the Spanish nationalists announced an election for December 21st and set about arresting Catalan nationalist politicians and holding them without bail so that they can't actually stand in the sham election.
The really sad thing is that a lot of people who oppose Catalan independence seem willing to justify, excuse or deflect attention away from the grotesque things Mariano Rajoy and the Spanish establishment have been doing to try to stop it from happening. 

Even when it comes to violence, death threats, government take-over of broadcast media, political censorship, the taking of political prisoners, and the holding of rigged sham elections, the reaction is to excuse such repressive measures with spurious appeals to legality, to condone them with victim-blaming tactics, or to distract from them with blatant displays of whataboutery.

Furthermore Spanish nationalist tribalists tend to immediately condemn anyone who criticises the divisive, belligerent and repressive approach of the Spanish nationalist establishment as a Puigdemont supporting separatist.

It's as if they're so invested in the anti-independence vibe that they refuse to see that it's 
a staggeringly counter-productive approach to opposing a non-violent political movement to brutally repress non-violent civilians, take prisoners of conscience, and bring back horrific memories of Franco era repression while gleeful Nazi saluting Falangists are simultaneously celebrating in the streets.

Misrepresentation of the enemy

Despite what tribalists try to claim about my views, there's actually a huge difference between blindly supporting everything that the secessionist leaders say and do, and 
believing that people have a natural and non-extinguishable right to self-determination.  

And there's also a huge difference between 
uncritically supporting all of the actions of all of the Catalan independence politicians, and simply pointing out that the violent, belligerent, divisive, oppressive and anti-democratic actions of the Spanish political establishment are creating a huge rift between Catalonia and Spain that is actually increasing the popularity of the Catalan independence movement. 

In fact the absurdly counter-productive attitude of the Spanish nationalist establishment should actually be something that every rational opponent of Catalan independence should be deeply concerned about. But because they've bought into the binary tribalist allegiances game, they'll actually defend (or attempt to distract attention from) what their side is doing, rather than think about the damage it's causing to their own position, and bitterly misrepresent anyone who raises such concerns as a Puigdemont-loving separatist from the enemy ideology who needs to be shouted down, criticised, and insulted.

They simply refuse to compute that someone could believe that the repressive actions of the Spanish nationalists are making the Catalan independence movement ever more likely to succeed, while the less belligerent and divisive approach of just allowing Puigdemont to hold his referendum with a 50% of the total electorate requirement, then calmly and peacefully pointing out that he didn't actually have a coherent plan for independence, would likely have seen the Catalan independence movement beaten at the ballot box.

Victimhood tactics

One of the classic tactics political tribalists use is to pick one of the most insulting things someone from the enemy ideology has said, and then cry victim by claiming that absolutely everyone from the enemy ideology uses insults and abuse like that. 

Thus the tide of victim-complex Brexiters who keep yelling at me that I've unfairly called all Brexiters racist (when I never have, and even actually published an article called "not all Brexiters were racist") and Spanish nationalists crying that I've called them all fascists (when I've done no such thing either).

People resort to this kind of fake victimhood tactic because it's very much easier to argue against a fabricated (straw man) misrepresentation of what the other person is saying, than to actually consider what they've said and find a real fault with it.

The danger of tribalism

Aside from people continually trying to stuff me into simplistic arbitrary positions that I don't actually hold (blindly pro-Labour, pro-EU, right-wing Puigdemont supporter) and totally misrepresenting what I've said to the point of outright lying about it (which annoys the hell out of me), there's something more sinister about this kind of hyper-partisan political tribalism.

We've all seen Brexiters performing bizarre acts of mental contortionism in order to defend the "£350 million for the NHS" lie (and making excuses for all kinds of indefensible stuff like their dodgy donations, their Twitter bot armies, their collusion with foreign interests, Nigel Farage's Nazi style anti-immigrant propaganda, and all of the other lies they told about the joys of the Brexit fantasy land). And now we're seeing plenty of Catalan independence opponents wilfully defending stuff like police brutality, the taking of political prisoners, massive acts of political censorship, and the holding of sham show elections where the leaders of opposition parties have been jailed without trial.

There are clearly a lot of people out there who decide a political position, then rapidly develop a tribal hatred of anyone they characterise (rightly or wrongly) as holding the opposite position, and a strong tribal affinity with others they identify as holding the same position, which is an affinity that stretches to defending the absolutely indefensible out of tribalistic loyalty.

Once people have got themselves into a position where they're actually defending the lies told by Brexiteers during the EU referendum, or the outright assault on democracy and civic freedom that the Spanish nationalist establishment has been conducting in Catalonia, it seems highly likely they'll defend literally anything, just as long as they identify the perpetrators as one of their tribalist allies, rather than a tribal enemy.

This is obviously an incredibly dangerous situation, because once we're willing to turn a blind eye when our tribal allies are doing things we'd scream blue murder at if it was our tribal enemies, we're not only utterly debasing ourselves, we're creating a rotten political environment where stuff like outright lies, corruption, state violence, repression, and political censorship become completely normalised.

for example if Britain somehow comes to its senses and stops (or at least pauses) the absolute farce that the Tories are making of Brexit, there's no doubt that there would be plenty of Brexiteers joining in with the riots when Nigel Farage and his ilk attempt to trigger a violent uprising in response, as they've openly threatened to do.

Similarly, even if Spain resorted to the re-imposition of military dictatorship in Catalonia, which seems to be getting closer by the day, how many of the anti-Independence people are going to suddenly admit that their fellow anti-independence tribalists have now gone too far, rather than blaming the whole thing on Catalans and saying "they brought military dictatorship upon themselves"?

More escalation

Just imagine how the Spanish nationalist establishment will react when the pro-independence parties win another majority in their sham election in December, despite having most of their high profile politicians taken as political prisoners and the regional means of communication either turned into Spanish nationalist propaganda or simply shut down?
The only reaction of the Spanish nationalist establishment to any event in Catalonia so far has been escalation and more repression, so why would they dramatically change position to a more democratic and conciliatory approach when their effort to rig the snap election ends up going all wrong, as it almost certainly will?

Expecting the Spanish nationalists to change tack away from spectacularly counter-productive belligerence is about as likely as expecting tribal opponents of Catalan independence to suddenly throw up their hands and say, "hang on a minute, maybe this guy I've been tribalistically smearing as a Puigdemont fanboy was right all along, and that resorting to violence, belligerence, censorship, and repression is actually a spectacularly counter-productive way of opposing a non-violent political movement".

They'll stick with their chosen tribe, no matter how disgusting and unjustifiable the violence and repression that they have to justify, excuse, or deflect attention from. And they'll keep labelling me as as a member of the enemy tribe and misrepresenting what I'm saying, because that's so much easier than listening to what I actually said.

The worrying thing is that political commentary seems to be ever more populated by tribalists like this.

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