The Learning Curve
By Mark Safranski—aka “Zenpundit”
Steven Pressfield invited me to do a guest post here at “Tribes” and give my assessment of the vigorous debate that greeted the entry of “It’s the Tribes, Stupid: War & Reality in Afghanistan” into the blogosphere. Or, at least the corner of the blogosphere that is concerned with COIN, military affairs, foreign policy, terrorism, Afghanistan and Iraq. The following opinion is my own and does not necessarily reflect that of Mr. Pressfield.
This “Tribes” blog attracted an unusual amount of attention for a new blog primarily for three reasons:
The blogger, Steven Pressfield, is a celebrity, with an established audience who enjoy his novels.
The blog enunciates a general theme or meta-concept—“Tribalism”—and applies it to a complex and politically controversial war. Moreover, Pressfield applied the concept of “tribalism” in a way that contradicts academic usage as articulated by many subject matter experts.
The blog, in a technical sense, is very well done with the video blogging episodes constituting a powerful, psychological “hook” in terms of attention economy incentives.
Unsurprisingly, fireworks ensued.
With any activity, there is a “learning curve” and while bloggers usually make their maiden efforts in virtual anonymity, Steve jumped in to the deep end of the pool and consequently, took some lumps with criticism that, fair or foul, was entirely in keeping with the rough and tumble nature of blogging. As with every blogger before him who raised a ruckus, Steve reflected in the aftermath and moved up the learning curve.
That was process, but there is also an issue of substance: the question of “Tribalism” itself.
There was enthusiastic praise for ‘Tribes”, naturally, but the criticism was equally as strong because Pressfield’s theme of tribalism as a general explanatory model is a powerfully attractive one. Too attractive, in the view of subject matter experts (SME) who drill down to a very granular level of detail and see all of the particularistic caveats or limitations of tribalism that exist in a given society. Tribalism among the ancient Gauls was not a carbon copy of 21st century Afghanistan, the artificial kinship network of the Yakuza or Shaka Zulu’s Impi formations. Yet, some similarities or congruencies remain even among such historically diverse examples because a tribe is a durable social network. In terms of resilience, a tribe may be the most adaptive and secure social structure of all.
Social Science SME’s are, in my experience, far more uncomfortable with explanations that cut across their disciplinary boundaries than are their counterparts in the hard sciences. Furthermore, arguments that are predicated on psychosocial-cultural premises, like Ruth Benedict’s Chrysanthemum and the Sword or Raphael Patai’s The Arab Mind are especially suspect in today’s politically correct academic culture, not for their flaws (both works have serious flaws) but for their approach of constructing generalizations, which inevitably come laden with implied or explicit value-judgments. Because generalizations apply best at a panoramic level and become increasingly less relevant as you get down to the gritty details where other variables conflict or interact, SME seize on these caveats to justify throwing the baby out with the bathwater to avoid having to deal with the politically messy aspects that can easily derail academic careers.
Well, that’s not right, analytically speaking. The limitations, conflicts and contradictions are not usually categorical refutations of the proposed generalization, in this instance tribalism, but rather critically important feedback to understanding the complexity of the phenomena as it applies or fails to apply to a specific scenario. To reject either the exceptions and limitations or the generalization itself out of hand is to stop thinking about ideas and to begin chanting an ideology. Weighing the factors with as much intellectual honesty and analytical objectivity as you can muster, reorienting your views in light of empirical evidence and constructing a synthesis, is how you move up the learning curve.
Blogging is not a journal article or a book, formal and frozen in time. It should be a dynamic conversation, a learning curve for all involved with the understanding that all the participants engage and leave the conversation at different levels of understanding and views should change. One of Steve’s more controversial original points was the supremacy of the tribal mindset over Islamist radicalism or jihadist theology. There’s a serious conflict between the two, as the works of Olivier Roy and Gilles Kepel have detailed, but there is also, both in societies and in individuals, degrees of coexistence. Very seldom is something as complex as a social system reducible to an either-or equation. Steve went on to address the juxtaposition of tribalism and radicalism in his recent post, an example of how the blogosphere can move as a conversation instead of as an echo chamber.
Therefore, I welcome Steven Pressfield and “Tribes” to the conversation without end that is the blogosphere, and look forward to watching his blog evolve over time. I don’t expect to agree with him all of the time or him with me, but I know that I will learn something from the give-and-take as we all try to move up the learning curve