We Are Still Tribal

Robin Hanson writes,

People quite often find it prohibitively hard to talk merely because different groups have gotten into the habit of talking differently, even though their concepts could be translated without great difficulty. And members of these groups often go out of their way to signal group loyalty by choosing to talk differently than outsiders.

He refers to what seems like a fascinating article, which is behind a paywall. If I could put this in Hansonian terms, I would say that language is not about clear communication. It is about signaling tribal identity. Often, it is important for the signals not to be easily picked up by another tribe. And, yes, of course, this applies to jargon used in various academic disciplines.

Incidentally, one of the ways I describe the three-axis model is that progressives, conservatives, and libertarians speak different languages. Each responds to disagreement by, in effect, shouting louder in a language that the other party does not understand.

UPDATE: thanks to a reader, a quote from the article

we have acquired a suite of traits that help our own particular group to outcompete the others. Two traits that stand out are “groupishness” — affiliating with people with whom you share a distinct identity — and xenophobia, demonising those outside your group and holding parochial views towards them. In this context, languages act as powerful social anchors of our tribal identity.How we speak is a continual auditory reminder of who we are and, equally as important, who we are not. Anyone who can speak your particular dialect is a walking, talking advertisement for the values and cultural history you share. What’s more, where different groups live in close proximity, distinct languages are an effective way to prevent eavesdropping or the loss of important information to a competitor.

The author, Mark Pagel, has a book called Wired for Culture, which I will want to look into. On the Amazon page for the book, Herbert Gintis has a fascinating review.

2 thoughts on “We Are Still Tribal

  1. It seems to me, the closer one looks at the issue fundamentally in question, language as such has little to do with it, or only in a very indirect manner. The underlying problematic is behavioural disposition, of which the underlying problematic is perhaps social …

    I tend to look at language as the differentia specifica of the human animal ( — human language betraying functional levels unattained by the expressive means of other animals).

    Language is (one of?) our most fundamental tools for exchange; at least, it allows us to break out of the prison of subjectivity in which all other animals are haplessly trapped; together with the other tool of exchange (trade) it kick-started and maintains cultural evolution.

    As an all-purpose instrument, language lends itself exquisitely to the formation of social cohesion amongst any number of people (two friends, a family, a small group, several hundred million Americans – let’s not forget how uniform and tribal millions of people can be).

    Language is also the means by which we practice our ability to achieve reconciliation, mutual understanding and appreciation, to live in harmony, to cooperate and coordinate pacifically, to think critically and conduct science and other genuinely enlightening research.

    As far as good and evil goes, language is perfectly ambidextrous, as it were. Ignorance, strife and xenophobia have deeper roots.

    I’d rather pursue the lead contained in the post’s title: Tribalism.

  2. When one of my kids asks me why they have to learn to read and write a certain way (Standard Written English), my standard explanation is signalling. I acknowledge that there are other ways to communicate just as effectively. But being able to precisely follow SWE rules, nay, being able to intelligently debate gray areas like the Oxford Comma, tells people several things: (a) you are “properly” educated in a traditional sense, (b) you understand that a particular interaction is “serious”, and (c) you are willing to expend the effort to conform in such situations.

    Of course, I also acknowledge that there other situations where you do not want to use SWE for signalling reasons, like when you’re chatting with players in an online game. Then you want to use the relevant slang for similar signalling reasons.