What do we owe our tribes? On identity beyond ethnicity

I’m a big fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson, and hardly need an excuse to post about him on this blog. Here he is, talking to students at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Maryland and revisiting some of his favorite topics: what happens when you fall into a black hole, why Pluto was demoted, what damage the approaching asteroid Apophis might do, etc. As always, it’s an enlightening and entertaining hour and a half, and I recommend watching the whole thing.

But I did put up this specific video for a reason — and it’s because Tyson also talks about something that, to my knowledge, he rarely discusses: how he reconciled his personal interests with what he felt were his duties to “the black community.” That conversation starts at around 30 minutes in, and runs about 12 minutes:

I find his story enormously compelling — in no small part because I feel I’ve been grappling with similar issues for years. I’m not a native-born American, and I’m an ethnic minority; these are facts that I don’t often mention here, partly because they’re not often relevant to what I want to talk about, and partly because I suppose I’m rebelling against the expectation that I have to talk about them — that my experience of the world must be filtered and expressed through the lens of my ethnicity and cultural origins.

Which is why I found it tremendously moving and liberating when Tyson described the first time he saw himself on TV explaining the universe: here’s a black man who wasn’t talking about being black; who wasn’t being asked how “his people” feel about certain astronomical events; who wasn’t being made out to be a spokesman for his “tribe.” Instead, he was holding forth on something he felt passionate about: something that he had expertise in, that he was good at — and that didn’t necessarily have anything directly to do with addressing the concerns or improving the welfare of his particular “group.” He was, in short, just being himself.

And the brilliant paradox of all this is that by being himself, by choosing for himself the areas in which he would pursue excellence without explicitly honoring his perceived obligations to “community,” he wound up uplifting that community anyway — by defying (and redefining) cultural expectations of what black people can or can’t do. He rejected the notion that certain people should only speak about or act on certain concerns; he set himself free from such artificial constraints, and in the process encouraged others to allow themselves to pursue their own passions without guilt as well. In other words: without rejecting or dishonoring his ethnicity, he chose to define himself beyond ethnicity. And I find that truly inspiring.

Of course, the question of identity and allegiance is nuanced and endlessly fascinating; and it seems to be cropping up a lot lately in my viewing, listening, and reading. On WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show, for instance, Michael Goldfarb recently discussed the history of European Jews and how, among other things, they probably invented our modern preoccupation with “identity” and the notion of “identity crisis” — the problem of conflicting allegiances between overlapping groups.

And Michael Sandel, in his book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, seems to disagree with the idea of “modern individualism” that Tyson embodies. He approvingly describes the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s notion (which I admittedly also find appealing) that humans are “storytelling beings”:

We live our lives as narrative quests. “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?'”

And he goes on to quote MacIntyre in full:

We all approach our own circumstances as bearers of a particular social identity. I am someone’s son or daughter, someone’s cousin or uncle; I am a citizen of this or that city, a member of this or that guild or profession; I belong to this clan, that tribe, this nation. Hence what is good for me has to be good for one who inhabits these roles. As such, I inherit from the past of my family, my city, my tribe, my nation, a variety of debts, inheritances, rightful expectations and obligations. These constitute the given of my life, my moral starting point. This is in part what gives my own life its moral particularity.

Well, yes. This is all true; and yet if our tribal allegiances constitute the starting point for morality, they cannot be its end. Tribalism is, I think, one of the big reasons for the mess the world finds itself in right now — the conflicts in the Middle East being just among the most prominent examples. At some point we have to break free of the demands of tribe and the dictatorship of history. We have to transcend the circles of our limited circumstances, if we are to survive. If it’s true that we find ourselves in the middle of certain stories, it’s also necessary that we find a way to rewrite them — to find a bigger story, one that has room for all of us.

In short, we have to constantly rethink and reexamine our allegiances. And to do that is to redefine who we are.


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