Tribalism. Makes you stupid?

Mark Shuttleworth is in a defensive position, according to Linux Journal. His Ubuntu has come under fire yet again for contributing far fewer patches to Linux than Red Hat and Novell SuSE.

Canonical’s contribution from the 2.6.15 kernel to 2.6.27-rc6, was 100 patches.

This was against a total of 99.324 patches; Canonical’s share was 0.1 percent. Red Hat was the top contributor from among distributions, with 11,846 patches. Novell had 7222 patches.

Debian and Gentoo, both non-profits, contributed 288 and 241 patches respectively. Canonical, owned by a multi-millionaire, contributed 100 patches.

This might seem to be an odd measure of contribution, as Linux Journal points out. Marketing Linux and making it more user friendly obviously has value. The issue would then just be one of attribution, as Red Hat loyalists explain

Canonical was little more than “marketing organization masquerading as an engineering organization” taking “credit for code that Red Hat engineers wrote.”

Instead of discussing this problem of attribution and how to best fit within the different distributions, however, last week Shuttleworth came out swinging.

Tribalism is when one group of people start to think people from another group are “wrong by default”. It’s the great-granddaddy of racism and sexism. And the most dangerous kind of tribalism is completely invisible: it has nothing to do with someone’s ‘birth tribe’ and everything to do with their affiliations: where they work, which sports team they support, which linux distribution they love.

This is an interesting concept, but philosophically and historically I think he misses the mark.

First the creation of a distinct identity, even for a tribe, can have a positive effort and does not necessarily place others in the wrong. Martin Buber’s book Ich and Du gives many examples of how this might work. Differences with respect can have a more beneficial outcome than trying to form inclusions that are meant to be predictable.

Buber characterizes “I-Thou” relations as “dialogical” and “I-It” relations as “monological.” In his 1929 essay “Dialogue,” Buber explains that monologue is not just a turning away from the other but also a turning back on oneself (R’ckbiegung). To perceive the other as an It is to take them as a classified and hence predictable and manipulable object that exists only as a part of one’s own experiences. In contrast, in an “I-Thou” relation both participants exist as polarities of relation, whose center lies in the between (Zwischen).

The creation of Ubuntu, in other words, formed an identity distinct from Red Hat and SuSE — it created a new distribution with a following that some might call a tribe. Shuttleworth could have instead joined the existing groups, but he struck out on his own in an “I-Thou” effort.

Shuttleworth has an opportunity here to say that groups and tribes should celebrate their differences. The gulf between them is what makes their relationship more beneficial. Instead, he falls prey to a logical fallacy. His blog says that all absolutes are bad. He cites an example from his critics that says “The other guys have never done anything useful”. I would have just called that untrue at face value, but Shuttleworth first calls it tribalism and then equates it to racism:

So if you see someone saying ‘Microsoft is totally evil’, that’s a big red flag for tribal thinking. It’s just like someone saying ‘All black people are [name your prejudice]’. It’s offensive nonsense, and you would be advised to distance yourself from it, even if it feels like it would be fun to wave that pitchfork for a while.

It is offensive because of its content, but more importantly it is a logical fallacy. It has nothing to do with tribalism except for the fact that the I-Thou is being replaced with an I-It. Dislike or disrespect for someone, whether it be from a single person or a whole group, is the same thing.

Unfortunately, Shuttleworth, after making his giant first point about offensive nonsense that comes from generalities, gives us some offensive nonsense that comes from a generality.

Let’s be clear: tribalism makes you stupid. Just like it would be stupid not to hire someone super-smart and qualified because they’re purple, or because they are female, it would be stupid to refuse to hear and credit someone with great work just because they happen to be associated with another tribe.

He has labeled someone as tribal. He then calls tribal stupid. Therefore he wants us to believe that this other person is stupid? How is this different from what he asks everyone not to do? What if he had labeled them American, or labeled them as purple? He falls victim to the very thing he warns against.

Discrimination and hatred is what can make you stupid. An I-Thou relationship does not have to include these factors, it can be a place of reflection on ones self and respect for differences. It can lead to attribution, which is perhaps something Shuttleworth is not prepared to discuss.

More to the point a comment on his article by John Bowman gives a perfect example of someone who now wants to join the Canonical tribe. Note the emphasis on joining a tribal environment:

You make Canonical sound like a place I would enjoy working at. When can I start?

While reading this and thinking about how nice a quality that is of a company to have, about the only thing that came to mind was wonder at how the actual employees are regarding the work that they do. Is it all about the individuals works contributing to the overall product or is it a “we’re all in this together” type of an environment. If its the latter, then sign me up!

Is this person also a stupid tribalist? He responds to Shuttleworth’s rant against “in this together” tribalism by asking to join Ubuntu, if it is an “in this together” environment.

Second, humans clearly have an evolutionary need to socialize. Anthropologists suggest this is from a need for survival, a strength-in-numbers strategy. Discord will push individuals away from each other but a common bond may enable them to overcome the differences and reduce their risk of defending themselves. Moreover, controlled discord can lead to innovation that also will reduce risk. Working together thus has numerous benefits and tribalism could actually make you not only more intelligent but more safe as well. Marshall Sahlins called this the original affluent society.

The position Shuttleworth settles into at the end of his blog post, wildly inconsistent with the beginning, supports this notion. He calls on his followers to chose the right path, follow good values, and things should work out.

I would like to say this to everyone who feels associated with Ubuntu: hold fast to what you know to be true. You know your values. You know how hard you work. You know what an incredible difference your work has made. You know that you do it for a complex mix of love and money, some more the former, others the more latter, but fundamentally you are all part of Ubuntu because you think it’s the most profound and best way to spend your time. Be proud of that.

Aside from the tautological nature of that advice it reminds me of the new tribalists, as found in Daniel Quinn’s novel Ishmael:

There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with people. Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world. But given a story to enact that puts them at odds with the world, as yours does, they will live at odds with the world. Given a story to enact in which they are the lords of the world, they will act like lords of the world. And, given a story to enact in which the world is a foe to be conquered, they will conquer it like a foe, and one day, inevitably, their foe will lie bleeding to death at their feet, as the world is now.

How does one find the right story, or the right path? In conclusion, Shuttleworth is illogical at first but shows strong leadership values in the end. He must know that humans seek social networks to form a sense of value and pride, which is why he calls upon “everyone who feels associated with Ubuntu”. Shuttleworth says his organization actively tries to eliminate tribal thinking, but hopefully I have explained above how this is hypocritical as well as detrimental. Malcolm Gladwell also makes a very compelling argument why this is a bad idea in his book Tipping Point. It is far better that Shuttleworth also says his organization holds respect for others as a core value. This is a great position and as a leader he should practice the same — develop the positive aspects of an I-Thou relationship with SuSE and Red Hat — and the Linux community overall will be enhanced by more security. Then again, I am hoping for respect to come from the same person who apparently has refused to apologize for saying “Linux is hard to explain to girls” in a Linux conference keynote speech.

One thought on “Tribalism. Makes you stupid?”

  1. “Differences with respect can have a more beneficial outcome than trying to form inclusions that are meant to be predictable.”

    Indeed – having a strong sense of your *own* identity, and how that is different to another groups, can be valuable. But as you say, the critical ingredient is respect. Respect elevates differences from “wrong” to “different”.

    The behaviour I am concerned with is when differences on specific issues turn into the complete inability to recognise value in another tribe. So for example, we deeply regret cases (which do happen) when a fan of Ubuntu says something like “Red Hat doesn’t care about the desktop”, because obviously there are people who do there, even if it’s not part of the corporate mission. Similarly, blanket statements like “Canonical doesn’t contribute anything” are just hurtful, wrong, prejudiced, and nasty.

    So I very well do see that differences are important, and useful, but we have to work to keep them respectful, or we tend towards vicious and unproductive correspondence.


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