Last month, the Journal of Hospital Medicine published an article titled, “Tribalism: The Good, the Bad, and the Future.” It proposed strategies for medical professionals to overcome some of the natural group clustering that occurs in any large workspace: launch interdepartmental projects, socialize outside of the office, etc.
Blandly inoffensive, right? Wrong.
The article’s authors issued an apology last week for using insensitive language and thus committing a microaggression against marginalized people. “Despite pre- and post-acceptance manuscript review and discussion by a diverse and thoughtful team of editors, we did not appreciate how particular language in this article would be hurtful to some communities,” they wrote in a statement.
The problem, evidently, was the use of the words tribe and tribalism. While no one who reviewed or edited the piece within the Journal itself had any objection to this terminology—which is widely used in the media, particularly political journalism—a few people on Twitter complained about it. In response, the writers unpublished the article, purged the offensive words, and republished it with silos and siloing in place of tribes and tribalism.
The authors explain:
From this experience, we learned that the words “tribe” and “tribalism” have no consistent meaning, are associated with negative historical and cultural assumptions, and can promote misleading stereotypes.4 The term “tribe” became popular as a colonial construct to describe forms of social organization considered “uncivilized” or “primitive.” In using the term “tribe” to describe members of medical communities, we ignored the complex and dynamic identities of Native American, African, and other Indigenous Peoples and the history of their oppression.
Their statement links to a Learning for Justice article on “The Trouble With Tribe.” But this piece doesn’t make a very strong argument that tribe fails as an apt metaphor: It really just objects to the Western practice of associating African peoples with the word. Tribe may be an imprecise way to refer to groups of Africans, Native Americans, or other Indigenous people who suffered colonization—it may not fit their actual culture or living arrangements—but that’s really a different matter from saying the word itself is offensive.
Another article consulted by the Journal—an op-ed in The Washington Post—says that tribalism fails as proper terminology because it’s historically inaccurate:
But there’s a significant problem with using the words “tribal” and “tribalism” to describe this trend: The usage is historically inaccurate when you consider the actual behavior of indigenous peoples, whether African, Native American or Asian. The current use of “tribal” is based on a racist stereotype about how groups of such peoples have interacted historically, and even today.
I know something about “tribalism,” since I was born and raised in Kenya, a country made up of 44 different ethnic groups. My parents are Kikuyu, but they raised my siblings and me in a cosmopolitan, urban environment. My experience with tribes, and my historical knowledge of them, do not resemble what I read about in the writings of political pundits.
It’s probably worth pointing out that some European people are also referenced as belonging to tribes in mainstream discourse, including the Franks, Gauls, Saxons, and Celts, who were the medieval inhabitants of France, Great Britain, and Northern Europe. (The word tribe makes me think, first and foremost, of the Roman Empire’s Germanic invaders.)
None of these historical peoples were exactly tribal in the sense that we tend to mean the word today: clique-ish, or intensely loyal to some ideology or affiliation. But that’s how metaphors work. When you say that you are letting the cat of the bag, there is no actual cat and no actual bag. It’s fine to point out that actually-occurring tribalism was more complicated than we might now think—that doesn’t mean we need to stop using the word in its modern sense, though.
And yet a handful of social media users were able to convince the Journal authors that they should scrub their article of this decidedly unoffensive language. They confessed to committing a microaggression—an unscientific concept—and thanked their critics for “teaching us how to choose better words so all people feel respected and valued.” They also promised to make amends:
4/4 Thank you for helping us learn
➡️Apology via Twitter
➡️Retracted & republished article w/ appropriate language
➡️Shared lessons learned
➡️Systematic process to identify racist, sexist, ableist or otherwise harmful language in accepted papers pic.twitter.com/m7DAhAWzxl
— Samir S. Shah (@SamirShahMD) May 30, 2021
It’s hard not to see this as an absurd overreaction. Reasonable people should not be particularly bothered by this usage of tribalism. The precise meanings of words can change over time, and it isn’t really progressive to pretend otherwise.
This content was originally published here.