By Farooq A. Kperogi
I read Mr. Idang Alibi’s response to my article entitled “What’s my Tribe? None” with both amusement and bemusement. I was amused by what seems to me Alibi’s now all-too-predictable predilection to invoke new alibis (no pun intended) to think the worst of Africans and bemused by his cherry-picking and distortion of my arguments to make his case.
Yet I know Mr. Alibi well enough to know that he is a good-natured, well-intentioned and clear-headed reservoir of great intellectual strength who would not deliberately set out to misrepresent my views. So what happened? Well, he was probably undergoing that familiar instinctive reaction that people evince when their settled certainties have been rudely ruptured. They go from disbelief, to denial, to anger, to introspection and possibly to acceptance.
For the benefit of people who have not had the benefit to read my original essay, my basic arguments are these: the word “tribe” is a pejorative label that Europeans reserve to describe non-Western ethnicities. The word is never used to describe Europeans and their descendants, except to advert to their dim and distant past. I argued that the subliminal import of this is: the past of the West is the present of the rest.
I therefore made the case, which has been made for several decades by countless scholars, that we should abandon the use of the word “tribe” to describe our cultural and linguistic formations in preference for more dignifying alternatives like “ethnic group,” “community,” “ethnic nationality,” “nation,” etc.
Now, although my argument encompasses the vast gamut of non-Western peoples who are held prisoner by this odious “naming practice,” Mr. Alibi chose to understand my argument as being limited to Africa. He then proceeded on the basis of this faulty premise to theatrically avow his pride in belonging to some “tribe” in southern Nigeria, although I never argued anywhere in my piece that we should not be proud of who we are. Nor did I argue that we should erase our primordial identities.
So, in a grotesque simplification, he conflated my denunciation of the racist underpinnings of the word “tribe” with a lack of pride in our primordial identities. He failed to realize that it is the word I am rejecting, not the identity that the word incompetently describes at best and denigrates at worst.
If Alibi had read my article carefully, he would have realized that I made my case by first defining my terms. It was the French philosopher Francois Voltaire who once said, “If you want to converse with me, first define your terms.”
I pointed out that even the Oxford dictionary admits that the word “tribe” is “sometimes offensive” and that it is used exclusively to describe peoples of “developing countries.” I also pointed out that other English dictionaries define a “tribe” as a “social division of preliterate people.”
So, even the English who “own” their language and codified it in their dictionaries concede that “tribe” is pejorative and discriminatory. Again, I cited one of several (white) scholars who take issue with the use of the word “tribe” to describe the people of Africa, Latin America, American Indians, etc.
Alibi didn’t contest the accuracy of the dictionary definitions of “tribe,” or engage with my interpretations of the dictionary definitions, or even confront the arguments of scholars who said the word should be trashed.
All Alibi did was to proceed, on the basis of the predetermined self-hating frames of reference he has sadly internalized, to commit what people who make a living by esoteric erudition call “vulgar empiricism” or “naïve pragmatism.” These phrases are often used to describe the predisposition by some people to mistake symptoms for causes, or to “unproblematically” inaugurate surface impressions as substitutes for or representations of the deep structures that underlie these surface impressions.
For instance, when you dip a pen in a bucket of water, it usually looks bent. That is the impression that our sense of sight registers. But the pen is not really bent; its contorted appearance is an optical illusion, in much the same way as the mirage creates an illusion in which atmospheric refraction by a layer of hot air distorts or inverts reflections of distant objects. A vulgar empiricist or a naïve pragmatist would argue that the pen is a bent object or that because he can see a mirage, it must truly exist.
How did Mr. Alibi apply these notions in his analysis? In a variety of ways. He said, for instance, that if we are ashamed of the word “tribe,” we should change our ways. This argument is faulty on many levels. First, it’s not a question of shame or pride. It’s simply a question of laying bare the power dimensions in a “naming practice” that unfairly ridicules a broad swath of humanity.
Second, the deployment of the word “tribe” to describe non-Western peoples is not a function of their state of development; it’s a function of the notion of their “difference.” (The normative descriptors Westerners use to encapsulate notions of slow or inferior “development” are “Third World,” “developing countries,” etc with which I have no problems whatsoever).
That is precisely why the word “detribalize” (or its inflection “detribalization”), which Nigerians misuse to denote freedom from compulsive or irrational ethnic loyalties, means “the act of causing tribal people to abandon their customs and adopt urban ways of living.” In other words, it means Westernization or cultural annihilation.
Third, it’s not only Africans who are pigeonholed as “tribes” by the Western media. Other non-Western peoples who feel violated by the nomenclatural despotism of the word are also resisting it. For instance, it has become customary these days for the Western media to refer to community leaders in Pakistan and the Arab word as “tribal leaders.” Middle East intellectuals now protest these labels too. Similarly, the Native American populations whom white Americans habitually call “tribes,” refer to themselves as “nations.”
But if we go by Mr. Alibi’s logic, more than half of the human family who are invidiously stereotyped as “tribes” by the white power structure should just go and examine themselves and change their ways so that they may some day “evolve” to “nations” or “ethnic groups” like Westerners.
Well, given Mr. Alibi’s well-known fondness for racial self-hatred (recall his notoriously offensive support for James Watson who said Africans are intellectually inferior?), he would probably argue that since Africans occupy the lowest point in the “civilizational” totem pole, only they deserve to be stereotyped as “tribes.” Until we put our house in order, Alibi says, we should learn to be content with being condemned to the worst forms of denigration. It amounts to inferiority complex for us to complain, he says. Hmm. Some logic!
Alibi rightly bemoans the endemic violence in our polity but wrongly invokes it as a reason we deserve to be called “tribes.” Violence is not exclusive to Africa. Yugoslavia was gripped by a long-drawn fratricidal murdering spree. Northern Ireland is also still held hostage by episodic fits of communal violence. They were/are not called “tribes” on account of these facts. Belgium is still torn by the kind of primordial animosities that the West associates with African polities. Yet they are not called “tribes.” Conversely, many parts of the developing world that are catching up “developmentally” with the West and that are not wracked by ethnic violence are still stereotyped as “tribal” societies. How does Alibi reconcile these facts?
This is a fight against the linguistic manifestation of or justification for oppression— and nothing more. By accepting the label “tribe” we legitimize the Western hegemonic consensus that reproduces narratives of our alterity and we therefore unwittingly participate in our own marginalization. As the Italian scholar Alberto Melucci argues, the real domination in contemporary society is the “exclusion from the power of naming.”
My pleasure is that my intervention has already yielded modest results. A week after my intitial article was posted on the Internet I got an email from the Chief Copy Editor of CNN International informing me that he would ban the use of the word “tribe” from CNN scripts. I am reproducing the full email below:
“Hi Farooq: I've been meaning to write-- I really enjoyed your piece on the word "tribe." We've actually puzzled about that with regard to Kenya and were assured by our people there that tribe was the appropriate word. But based on your piece, I'm going to ban the word and have our scripts talk about ethnic groups and not tribes.
By the way, it may interest you to know that Jews, when speaking among themselves, use the word in the same way American blacks use the "N" word. As in, you run into somebody and ask "Are you a member of the tribe?" It would be highly offensive for a non-Jew to say that to a Jew. Language is funny, huh?”
So there you have it. While an African is straining very hard to defend and authorize his lingual denigration and dehumanization, a white American has already been persuaded by my modest efforts to draw attention to the semiotic oppression that inheres in the word “tribe.”
But people who are familiar with Alibi’s antecedents are not the least bit surprised. This is a man who once wrote that he is “so ashamed of” of his blackness that he “sometimes” feels that “I ought to have belonged to another race.” Yet he talks about his pride in his “tribe.” Some pride indeed!