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    Tribal Knowledge

    Fox News's hostile interview with Reza Aslan has lit up the internet. (See Michael Maiello and Historiann for two of the smarter takes.) Obviously, interviewer Lauren Green's insistence that something must be very wrong for a Muslim to write a book about Jesus, and that such a book must be wrong, is a problem. But Green (and her producers) are simply peddling a toxic version of an idea that lots of us entertain in various forms. The idea that a non-believer cannot understand (or worse, should not be allowed to speak about) a belief is only a more aggressive outgrowth of the common conviction that being a believer, or identifying with some specific group, gives you a special insight or understanding denied to outsiders. The conviction that no Muslim could write a "fair" book about Jesus grows from the belief that Christians, by virtue of being Christians, understand Jesus better than anyone else possibly could. That sense of privileged understanding comes from one's social identity, not from actual knowledge, and can be actively hostile to such knowledge. In the Reza Aslan example, faith in Jesus Christ might be construed as more important than, for example, the ability to read Biblical Greek. To a certain kind of Christian, a Muslim who can read New Testament Greek represents not one but two problems. Aslan's scholarly accomplishment is perceived as a threat to "knowledge" derived by other means.

    This is by no means limited to Christians, or to religious believers. I happened to read Janet Malcolm's In the Freud Archives the week before the Aslan interview. In that book, Malcolm deals, fairly indulgently, with the common claim among Freudians that only someone who has undergone Freudian analysis is entitled to an opinion about Freud. Only insiders, only properly initiated believers, can be authorities on the subject. (Replace "Freud" here with "scientology" and "Freudian analysis" with "dianetics counseling" and see how that sounds.) And this insistence that outsiders could not possibly understand led important Freudians to restrict access to factual evidence. (Malcolm also weirdly treats this as not-unreasonable.) The custodians of the Freud Archive refused to allow scholars to see biographical evidence about Freud, including letters in his own hand, unless they were sure that the scholar was a true believer who would stick to the current Freudian orthodoxies. The facts are a threat to  belief.

    A less toxic but more annoying version of this behavior that I run into a lot is some people's conviction that they have a special insight into certain literature because of their ethnic background. There are, unfortunately, Irish-American students who are profoundly convinced that they have special insight into James Joyce or W. B. Yeats because of their "Irishness." This is observably untrue. Being named O'Shaughnessy doesn't give you any special insight into Ulysses, or guarantee that you'll understand any of it. Likewise, you occasionally run into Brits who are convinced that anyone who is not English or (if the person in question is Scottish or Welsh) not British could ever properly understand Shakespeare. There's much more I would like to know about Shakespeare's works, but I am willing to match my current knowledge of the subject against David Beckham's at any time. He can bring along Posh Spice for help.

    But followed to its conclusion, this identification with the literature of one's tribe can shade into racism; the presumption of privileged understanding is, after all, a presumption of privilege. An English racist gives himself credit for Shakespeare's works, despite not having been much help writing them, and presumes that this gives him one-up on, say, a Pakistani immigrant who got at least as much Shakespeare in school as the Englishman did. The English racist may not understand a quarter of Henry V, but he takes credit for it because it was produced by "his people." Indeed, literary scholarship once actively promoted this racialist approach. You can still find old anthologies with titles like "Poems of the English race." Similarly, the Irish-American undergraduate who gives himself credit for Joyce, Yeats, and Heaney is in danger of slipping into the belief that his ethnic group possesses certain kinds of innate superiority. The more seriously he takes that belief, the uglier it has the potential to get.
    There's nothing wrong with taking a particular interest in something because of your tribal affiliations. (I've got my Yeats and Heaney on the bookshelf.) But believing that you have special access to understanding it is a problem, not least because it keeps you from doing the work required to actually know about something.

    I'm a practicing Christian and Reza Aslan is not. But Reza Aslan can read the Christian Gospels in the original and I cannot. That means he has a lot of things to say that I'm interested to hear. I'm going to make my own decisions about my beliefs at the end of the day. (I also know a translator of the New Testament and I acknowledge his superior learning, but I don't go to the same church he does on Sundays.) I'm perfectly happy to admit that Reza Aslan knows things about my religion that I do not know myself. If I refused to admit that, I would cut myself off from learning more.

    In the end, tribal knowledge isn't about knowing. It's about believing one knows. That is a very different thing.  And at a certain point, actual information starts to feel like a threat to one's tribal certitude. Nothing is more dangerous to the illusion of knowledge than facts. There's more than one reason that Lauren Green didn't let Reza Aslan talk about his book. She might have learned something about the historical Jesus, and that would have been intolerable.


    Excellent point.  Thank you for taking the time to make this point.

    Awhile back on Gawker, Hamilton Nolan, who used to write a really funny fitness column, posted a bunch of pictures of really successful trainers.  His point was, of course, that knowledgeable trainers do not all have perfect bodies or even good ones.  There are boxing trainers who have never had a match, Olympic trainers who have never competed at anything close to that level, if at all.  So, said Nolan, hiring the part time model because he has a great body doesn't mean you've hired a great trainer.  He might not even be able to teach you how to improve your physique.  The skills of a trainer, a model and an athlete are all different.  By the same token, your creative writing teacher might be a best selling novelist like you want to be, but they might not be a good teacher or able to teach.

    So, this tribalism can lead to all sorts of bad decisions when we seek out instruction or leadership.  It's one of the reasons I always laugh off arguments about qualifications for the presidency.  "He was never a governor!" they said about Obama. Well... the President is a singular job.  It's the one thing that you can't insist, on first election, that the candidate has "been there" or "done it before."

    And, the truth is, life is complicated in almost all matters.  There are very good, devout biblical scholars our there.  There are also devout scholars who, despite intentions are blinded to certain facts by their faith.  There are, no doubt, outsiders writing polemics.  There are also, no doubt, outsiders doing real religious scholarship that is purely fact based.


    There's much more I would like to know about Shakespeare's works, but I am willing to match my current knowledge of the subject against David Beckham's at any time. He can bring along Posh Spice for help.

    What about Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson?


    I know you meant that as a joke, Emma, but ...

    sure. Of course.

    Branagh and Thompson do know a good deal about acting Shakespeare, and they're generally well read about him. But just about anyone who does what I do for a living needs to know a whole bunch of things that even classically-trained actors don't. It's a completely different training.

    And sure, I have heard Branagh make a factual mistake in an interview. Not a stupid one; just a mistake.

    The real question would be, is Branagh more of an authority on Shakespeare than a classically trained American actor? Should you always take his word over, say, Al Pacino's? No. Do the Royal Shakespeare Company's actors know something that the New York Public Theater's actors, or the Stratford Festival's actors, don't? Nope.

    Or, to take the other end of the question: should you automatically trust the word of a British Shakespeare scholar over that of an American, or a Canadian, or a Jamaican Shakespeare scholar? Of course not. The best Oxford and Cambridge dons are not smarter than the best professors at Columbia, Chicago, or Berkeley. And there are very few native English speakers who know as much about Shakespeare as Francois Laroque at the Sorbonne does.

    There are people, including lots of students, who are especially impressed by a professor with a British accent. But that's just a sign of not paying attention to actual content.


    I'd even heard for years that the accent used in original Shakespeare was more like an east coast American's than the contemporary British accent.  Any insight on that, Doc?

    It's like neither. It's a different accent all its own, which no longer exists.

    I'm not an expert on original pronunciation. David Crystal is currently the leading authority on that. (I just bought a CD he produced demonstrating original accents.) But if someone tells you that accent is "more like" American than British speech, they mean a tiny bit closer to one than the other. It definitely doesn't sound like you're in Baltimore.

    But the important thing is that NONE of the accents in use today existed during Shakespeare's lifetime. All of the various British, Australian, and North American accents evolved later, through normal linguistic change. So that BBC accent (today's preferred upper-class accent for people from south-east England) isn't any more "authentically" Shakespearean than an accent from Mississippi, New Zealand, or Long Island.

    Thanks, Doc!

    My pleasure.

    Just curious. How in the world could they possible know what the accent sounded like back then?

    Like I said, not my expertise. But:

    1) They don't absolutely know for certain. Scholars have made hypothetical reconstruction, based on the best knowledge available.

    By the same token, we have a pretty good hypothetical reconstruction of what Chaucer's English sounded like 200 years earlier.

    2) You can track some sound changes through the written language, especially when the spelling isn't standardized. Since most people in Shakespeare's era will spell the same word several different ways when writing, you can get clues about how those words sounded.

    (For example, almost no silent letters started out being silent; in the Middle Ages, almost all of those started out as letters you pronounced. And the two or three exceptions are too weird to get into.)

    Poetry is a big help with this, because it has sound patterns that give you clues: rhymes, puns, standard numbers of syllables per rhyme, patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables. If you know someone is writing lines with a certain number of syllables, you get clues about how many syllables a word had in spoken English. If they rhyme two words together than no longer rhyme, or pun on two words that no longer sound alike, often they're not just screwing up. They're demonstrating a different set of pronunciations.

    3) Linguists (of whom I am not one), have built enough data to establish known patterns for the way languages change over time, and knowing those patterns helps make sense of the many tiny clues we have about how pronunciation changed during a certain period of time. We know, for example, that English was winding up the Great Vowel shift (in which the sounds of all the long vowels changed). And we know that the London dialect was changing as more Northerners were immigrating to the big city and bringing their Northern dialect with them. (We can see what had once been regional Northern words moving into London English.)

    Seth Lerer's The Invention of English is a good short introduction to the history of the English language.

    Interesting, I'll check out those links. I appreciate you taking the time to address this side issue/question.

    No problem.

    Though, on the spelling thing, I suppose you have to use handwriting and not typeset to approximate pronunciations because typesetters very ften ran out of letters and made big substitutes like, for example, spelling "love" and "loue" when they had a u but had used up all of their Vs making Ws as VV...

    True, but you can see the same kinds of spellings in handwritten manuscripts. U and V aren't distinct yet, or I and J, and W is often still literally a "double U," a uu or a vv. (We've added some letters to the Roman alphabet.)

    But it's easy enough to separate out those orthographical and typographic changes from actual changes in pronunciation, because it's usually pretty clear whether I/J or U/V is being used as a consonant or a vowel.

    As usual, doc, your main point is convincingly made. But I also enjoyed the digression into linguistics. I read Mario Pei's Story of the English Language decades ago, but not much since. So thanks for linking to Lerer's book and citing David Crystal (he's a blogger!). It's time I dabbled again.

    I liked your point about current English spelling being a museum of ancient pronunciation, as in the word "knight." That seems to work in other languages, too. I've read that the French word "beauté" (bohTAY) is spelled that way because originally each of those vowels was fully pronounced. Easy to see why that word had to evolve.

    For those interested, here is Crystal's Pronouncing Shakespeare website, with a few Original Pronunciation recordings.

    Just for the reference, find Crystal great on linguistics.

      I think pride in your nation's literature is harmless. Racists usually don't cite literature as the reason for the inferiority of the ethnic group they dislike.

    I think pride in your nation's literature CAN be harmless.

    And if you haven't heard racists appeal to literature, well, I have. And back before explicitly racist literary criticism fell out of fashion, they wrote those appeals down, proudly and repeatedly. I didn't make up the title "Poems of the English Race." That book was designed to teach the young reader "the inherited wisdom of his race." It was edited by a professor at Stanford.

    Let me lay it out for you: the late great Janet Adelman, who had a long and distinguished career as a Renaissance literature scholar at Berkeley, had a senior colleague tell her that "Jews shouldn't be allowed to teach Renaissance literature." That senior scholar felt that Shakespeare belonged specifically to Christian Gentiles.



      I didn't know that. But I don't think that titling an anthology "Poems of the English Race" or speaking of the "inherited wisdom" of your people is racist. Now if they were talking about the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon over all others(for all I know they were) that could be problematic.

    Thanks for the link and the compliments--but my post was mostly derivative of the other commentary that's already out there.

    If you want to talk about defensive identity politics, try talking about parenthood (or more specifically, motherhood) without identifying yourself as a mother.  Never mind that n=1, 2, or 3 for most people, somehow motherhood must be understood as an authorizing experience that's transhistorical and transcultural in its power. 

    I would say that in my experience on blogs & the world wide non-peer reviewed interenets, the one that gets readers and writers more upset than anything else is when I write about motherhood and children from the perspective of a women's historian (and defend my right to write about these subjects as a scholar) but I don't clarify my own position as either a mother or a child-free person.

    I'm a practicing Christian…

    Aha! Now I finally understood why you were never able to cut it as a scientist, and chose the easier path of liberal arts! (Two unfounded insults in one!) laugh

    I checked Dag this morning just before leaving the house for some remodel work. Not much I did today required paying close attention and I ended up thinking about Tribal Knowledge off and on quite a bit as I worked. Maybe that is partly because I have mentioned tribalism a number of times as a significant factor in some controversial exchanges here.
     If we had been in a live conversation there are a number of places where I would interrupt and say,"But,  but,   but ...".
      I can see how a piece of literature can be studied, its setting can be studied, and the author can be studied. What you say about your knowledge of Shakespeare makes sense to me and I can easily believe you know a hell of a lot about him. I also don't doubt that you can appreciate the experience of his works as much as someone growing up in the same area that Shakespeare lived and worked in.  But, Shakespeare lived and wrote a long time ago. Knowledge of him and his works and analysis of both must be somewhat homogenized by now.
     More contemporary literature is much different. Years ago I read a few short stories by Bernard Malamud. I just now glanced at Wikipedia and learned a bit about him and if I wanted I suppose I could learn a lot about him and read everything he ever wrote. The thing is, what I recall is that I just could not relate to his stories that I read in the same way that I could others involving people with backgrounds or situations I was at least somewhat familiar with. I realized even then, I think, that I just did not have the adequate background to understand and relate to and appreciate stories about about being Jewish in New York City. I just didn't get it.
     I grew up in Texas and Oklahoma and as different as that is from Chicago in the depression, as a teenager I could better relate to Studs Lonigan and his story was much more meaningful to me. I knew people in various stages of life living life as it played out for him. More recently, I think I probably have cultural experiences that make it quite likely that my reading Dear Hunting With Jesus by Joe Bageant, which describes people I have known and stupid redneck attitudes I have been around, rang true and insightful in ways it probably couldn't to a born and bred New York Jew, for instance. Dispatches, a journalists description of his experiences in Vietnam written by Michael Herr, reads like page after page of flashbacks where so many other stories about the same subject seem like contrived bullshit, even the academic studies. Especially the academic studies. No offense intended and I hope not taken, but academic studies just do not, can not, get to the heart of that experience and therefore, IMO, can never be as valuable in offering special insight. Michael Herr did offer special insight.  
     One more anecdote. Traveling in Brazil some years ago I hooked up for a couple weeks with a couple English guys who had worked in Australia for a few years and were taking the long way home. One day in a bar we ran into some other English travelers and we all had a good afternoon drinking beer and talking about various things. Later my two buddies were a bit surprised that I hadn't been aware of what to them was an obvious class difference between them and the other two English guys. Nothing was said that I picked up on, that I recognized, and I didn't realize that their accents told so much of a story and marked them as being in the upper class. My buddies said that if they were to run into the same two in London that they would be polite but quickly on their way, there would never be any socializing because of that class difference.  I have to believe that those different class distinctions underlie so many stories set in jolly old England and so someone growing up there would have, or at least might have, some special insight that I would completely miss.
     So, where you say:

    A less toxic but more annoying version of this behavior that I run into a lot is some people's conviction that they have a special insight into certain literature because of their ethnic background.

    I would say that people very often do have a special experience of a piece of literature, and sometimes insight derived from it, because of their ethnic, or geographical, or class, or career, ...etc, etc, background.

    And when you say:

    That sense of privileged understanding comes from one's social identity, not from actual knowledge, and can be actively hostile to such knowledge.

    I would say that a person can have actual experiential knowledge about their social identity and about their fellow tribalists which other do not which they can bring to a story involving their tribe and the result can be a special experience or insight.

     I do not doubt that Aslam has written a good study of the historical Jesus  but your thesis extended to fiction too and that is where I disagree with a lot of what you say.

    Well, Lulu, I deliberately chose two examples where the kind of experiential knowledge you're discussing is pretty much a moot point, because nobody has any more experiential knowledge than anyone else. But people will still insist on their special tribal claim anyway.

    An Irish-American who grew up in (let's say) the Boston area doesn't have any special insight into Irish literature that anyone else doesn't have. They don't have any direct experience of Yeats's or Joyce's world. They don't know anything the rest of us don't, unless they put in the work of learning it. (I say this as an Irish-American from the Boston area. I might have been more *motivated* to read those writers, but I didn't have any privileged understanding of them.) It's even more the case with Shakespeare, since no one's had any experience of the world he inhabited for centuries. The world he lived in is gone. The dialect of English he spoke (and I'm talking about more than the accent) is gone. No one grows up speaking Shakespeare's English. And at this point growing up in Warwickshire doesn't give you any clues to his work that people growing up in Sydney or Delhi or Lagos don't have. In terms of actual knowledge, everyone starts off in the same place there.

    (And it should go without saying that no one's life experience is much of a guide to the historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth 2000 years ago.)

    Now, there IS literature where your life experience is a help, and I wouldn't deny that. (I just left out those examples to keep my original post a few paragraphs shorter.) But there's still a distinction between knowing more about the context a story is set in from your own experience and the kind of tribal possessiveness I'm talking about.

    Now, if you're from Mississippi, there are going to be things about Faulkner's writing that are more familiar to you than they'd be if you were, say, an Irish-American Yankee from around Boston. That's definitely true. Experiential knowledge can be a real help there. But being from Mississippi, and having those little bits of experiential knowledge, doesn't mean you should give yourself credit for understanding everything about Faulkner. Those aren't easy books, and it takes a lot of work and patience to get your head around them. If you want to skip that work, and just wear the Faulkner T-shirt out of local pride, that's cool. But you shouldn't fool yourself into thinking you've got nothing to figure out, or decide that people from say, Seattle, *aren't allowed* to have an opinion about Faulkner. (Gabriel Garcia Marques, who really really really ain't from Mississippi, is one of Faulkner's greatest and most thoughtful readers.)

    A friend of mine was TA-ing an African-American literature class in graduate school. (She's African-American herself, and was specializing in African-American literature as a Ph.D. student.) And she used to joke about the way some undergraduates would approach her when they didn't do as well as they expected. Basically she translated them as asking, "Wait ... about this grade ... I'm, y'know ... black." (Of course, they surely didn't say that in so many words.) Now, does a black student have helpful experiential knowledge that white kids don't have when they read Toni Morrison? You better believe it. But on the other hand, it's not enough. Morrison isn't an easy writer. Nobody's life experience makes every single thing about The Bluest Eye clear on the first reading. Those students, from my friend's perspective, were trying to coast on their identities, presuming they deserved a good grade because they had some special claim on the work. From my perspective, they should have been thinking about the work's claim on THEM and worked harder.

    Doc, I posted a reply last night but hadn't remembered to log in and so the spam filter got me. This is a slightly edited version of that comment.
    If a moderator notices they could please delete the first one[s] rather than posting them. Apologies to all concerned if multiples show up.

     I deliberately chose two examples where the kind of experiential knowledge you're discussing is pretty much a moot point, because nobody has any more experiential knowledge than anyone else. But people will still insist on their special tribal claim anyway.

    But the important point regarding what I have said is that they have different experiential knowledge which is often knowledge shared with their tribe and maybe with the creator of the art.

    I see your point though. It does make a more aggressive attack on the attitude or belief by the tribalists than I was noticing before. Or maybe you are exaggerating now to stress your point. You did say it was about something annoying.

     I, though,  was thinking, for example, not of having special knowledge of either Faulkner the man or Faulkner as a body of work, but about the experience of engaging with a work of art as the engagement was taking place. It could be your first and only read of a new author, an author you know nothing about. Everybody that ever read Faulkner had to do it for a first time. Not knowing anything about Faulkner beforehand need not diminish the experience which may have been enhanced by bla bla bla . Not going on to study Faulkner after reading him for the first time does not diminish that first experience, whatever it was.   

      But being from Mississippi, and having those little bits of experiential knowledge, doesn't mean you should give yourself credit for understanding everything about Faulkner.  

    Ya see, it would never have occurred to me that anyone would really think like that. About as far as I would go, if I felt some relation to that idea, is to say that I think I know where he's coming from.

    But you shouldn't fool yourself into thinking you've got nothing to figure out, or decide that people from say, Seattle, *aren't allowed* to have an opinion about Faulkner.

    I agree 100% with that. I promise you I don't think I have it all figured out, but I certainly agree that people from, say Seattle, should absolutely have the right to an opinion on the writings of someone even if they write from a long distance and from a somewhat different culture. smiley 
     Thanks for the response. This has been interesting.

    I just stumbled onto this quote and decided to throw it into the mix.

    “Nothing in education is so astonishing as the amount of ignorance it accumulates in the form of inert facts.” — Henry Adams


    Lulu, I know you weren't saying that no one else

    But my post started with people taking the attitude that only Christians are allowed to have an opinion about

    No, I am not talking about having experiential knowledge give you a few clues to picture the story better. Never have been.

    I'm talking about people saying that no one outside their group can understand a writer the way people inside the group can, that nobody but the members of the group can ever "get it." And that morphs pretty quickly into both unearned back-patting ("I am from England, so I get credit for Shakespeare"), and aggressive turf-policing ("Why should people who aren't from the South get to talk about Faulkner.")

    Look, let me repeat something I quoted upthread. Back at Berkeley in the 1960s, a new young English professor, who happened to be Jewish, had one of her senior colleagues tell her:

    Jews should not be allowed to teach Renaissance literature, because Renaissance literature is a Christian literature.

    If you happen to live in Nantucket, and that makes it easier for you to picture some scenes in Moby Dick, that's great. If you decide that having a house on Nantucket means you know more about Melville than anyone else, that makes you, at best, an enormous jerk.

    That is the kind of thing I am talking about.

    Like Lulu, I've found myself thinking about this yesterday. First, I wish you'd write more about Shakespeare and history and the language but maybe since that's your day job, you're not so interested. 

    Second, I agree with Lulu in that I think that there can be particular situations that have special resonance with some people because of their tribe but I think your point is that you can't assume that because an individual doesn't belong that the same thing won't be understood in a similar way. 

    But it goes the other way too. While I usually would argue that study and thoughtful consideration of things is better than a gut response, I think it can go too far. I used to work with an anthropology professor when I was a fundraiser. We used to sometimes have lunch with various officials from consulates and cultural organizations. At this times, I wished the floor would open and swallow me as he would begin to lecture the officials about their own culture in that way some of you professors have. 

    As with most things, there's surely a happy medium. 

    Reading this nuanced, thoughtful thread, a bizarre video image popped into my brain: "Next up, a Fox News special report: Tribal Knowledge -- do ethnicity and/or religious upbringing enhance or impede understanding of complicated issues? Followed by our panel featuring Charles Krauthammer and Ann Coulter, moderated by Reza Aslan." Not only would I make an exception and tune in for that, I'd pop some corn.

    Robert Wright interviews Reza Aslan about the interview and about his book.

    Thanks. I managed to watch the whole thing. Okay, my mind did wander away a couple of times.


    during the past year, I had the chance to view the BBS documentary ... The Story of India ... and one of the episodes highlighted a city/town in eastern Pakistani in the Indus valley. The inscription on the city walls as you entered was a quote from Jesus ... The Earth is a bridge to heaven. Build no house upon it.  However, christians interpret it as ... God ruled that people must use the bridge Jesus built to get to heaven.


    odd thing is, Islam acknowledges their God and the christian God are one in the same ... they just disagree Jesus is the Son of God ... he's a prophet of God in their view ... but Mohammed was the true prophet of God who added final corrections. They're just waiting for christians to realize it.


    theres' quite a bit of posturing for the same God ...  Jew, Islam and Christian ... and none wishes to admit their only difference is tribal.

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