Courtesy Reuters

Tribalism through Corrective Lenses

Well in evidence in Herodotus and Thucydides, the idea that peoples have an aggregate moral character and political temperament is one of the foundations of Western statecraft. It appears in a modern version in Machiavelli, who asserts that prediction of human events, for the purpose of making foreign policy, is facilitated if one observes that "nations preserve for a long time the same character, ever exhibiting the same disposition to avarice, or bad faith, or to some other special vice or virtue." At its worst, the "national character" approach consists of a litany of ethnocentric stereotypes which tells us more about the prejudices of the observer than about the characteristics of the observed. At its best, as in Tocqueville's analysis of the character of Americans, it seeks to derive from historical experience and observable cultural patterns features which are likely to have a lasting effect on the formation of habits and beliefs in the political realm.

Knowledge of this sort is often the foundation for the organization of "civilization" courses in institutions of higher education and is incorporated into the general education of future decision-makers. For better or for worse, whether they are treated as explicit working hypotheses or remain unspoken assumptions, whether they are triggered off by journalistic images or learned from scholarly accounts, such general notions are almost always a major starting point for the analysis of societies other than our own. The impressions formed on first contact, the initial discovery of the others, generally have a long life. They act as the durable lenses through which distant realities are perceived.

What are the lenses through which we perceive Black Africa, a region of great diversity, whose 300 million people are allocated by anthropologists into a multitude of ethnographic units, and whose states occupy nearly one- fourth of the seats in the General Assembly? It is significant that there are few statements concerning African culture or civilization which can be used as the sort of starting point for general understanding

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