‘Tiger Mom’ Amy Chua praises Latter-day Saint missions, offers solutions to America’s toxic tribalism
At BYU, Chua says, “I think we all need to be much more protective of American’s special national identity, and this is a lesson that both the left and right need to take to heart.”
Despite a dangerous torrent of toxic partisanship, America’s undergirding values remain exceptional and can be leveraged to overcome the tribalism threatening it, “Tiger Mom” and Yale law professor Amy Chua said Tuesday at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.
Chua staked out an independent, centrist and optimistic position while she scolded divisive voices on the American right and left. Her talk was the sixth and final BYU forum of the school year on “Creating the Beloved Community.”
She earned applause for her praise of the pluralistic benefits of the missionary program of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which sponsors BYU. The crowd of 1,834 in the Marriott Center also gave her a final standing ovation.
“America is changing,” she said. “There’s no going back. We are in a period of renegotiating and rediscovering our collective identity. We are struggling to arrive at a national identity that is capacious enough to resonate with and hold together as one people Americans of all sorts — old and young, immigrants and native born, urban and rural, descendants of slaves as well as descendants of slave owners.”
“I think,” she added, “we all need to be much more protective of American’s special national identity, and this is a lesson that both the left and right need to take to heart.”
Chua said the United States alone among world superpowers fits her definition of a supergroup. The term denotes a country with a strong, overarching national identity that simultaneously allows for strong, smaller subgroup identities based on ethnicity, religion, linguistics or race.
“The fact that as a constitutional matter, our national identity is ethnically and religiously neutral makes the United States as a country uniquely equipped to overcome the challenges of political tribalism,” she said. “Having said that, we are at a perilous moment.”
Still, she found room for optimism while she spoke in front of four screens depicting a blue sky with a U.S. flag backlit by a bright sun.
She said tribalism is hard-wired in human biology, that once people connect, they cling to and protect that connection. Tribalism can lead to unconscious bias and memory distortion and lends itself to schadenfreude — pleasure at the missteps or misfortune of others.
She outlined three reasons the United States is experiencing toxic division between its political tribes.
The first is a vast demographic transformation that will result in a nonwhite majority by 2050, according to U.S. census estimates.
“As a result in America today, every group feels threatened,” Chua said. “It’s not just the minorities anymore who feel threatened. Whites feel threatened. Over half of white Americans feel that they are now subject to more discrimination than minorities. And this is not just a Republican thing.”
“Studies show,” she added, “that it’s exactly when groups feel threatened, that’s when they retreat into tribalism. That’s when they close ranks, become more insular, more us-versus-them and more defensive. That’s why we are seeing a new kind of really explicit identity politics today on both sides of the political spectrum.”
On the right, she said, are openly xenophobic white nationalist movements. On the left are openly anti-white movements.
“There’s a growing number of bestselling books, and training programs right on the campus where I work, in which whites are demonized and asked to feel guilty and bad about themselves just for being white.
“The result is more and more resentment and distrust all around.”
The second and third reasons for increasing tribalism are the amplifying factor of social media and the divide between what Chua called coastal elites and working-class heartland Americans.
“Each side sees the other side as evil, un-American and not even worth talking to,” she said.
Those factors are putting tremendous strain on America’s status as a supergroup, Chua said.
“The good news is that we don’t have to choose between having a really strong, group-transcending, collective identity and multiculturalism. We can have both,” she said.
She offered what she called three concrete suggestions for America to overcome tribalism.
First, Americans on both ends of the political spectrum need to protect a strong national identity true to America’s constitutional ideals and historical values, she said.
She placed progressives on dangerous ground when they take a scorched-earth approach to American history and ideals, calling it a land of oppression founded on genocide, ideas she commonly hears at Yale.
Equally dangerous rhetoric exists on the right, she said.
“America cannot remain a supergroup if we start defining our national identity, for example, through our immigration policy in terms of whiteness, or Anglo-Protestant culture, or Christianity or any other term that is not inclusive of all colors and creeds,” Chua said. “To do so would be a movement in the direction of ethno-nationalism, away from what it is that makes us special as a nation whose identity is rooted in principles and ideas, not blood.”
Her second suggestion is to experiment with initiatives to help Americans see each other as fellow Americans, such as incentivizing American young people to spend a year serving other Americans in a different part of the country.
“We really need to do some work to bridge that deep chasm between the coasts and the heartland,” she said.
Chua held up the missionary program of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as an example she called inspiring.
“I understand, of course, that the Mormon mission is first and foremost an experience of religious consecration and sacred service,” she said. “But at the same time, it’s also a wonderful example and a successful example of an experience of civic engagement in which Mormons from one country, say the United States, live and interact with people from completely different ethnic, cultural and linguistic backgrounds in a way that opens one’s eyes and broadens one’s perspective.”
Her third suggestion is to improve American history and civics education.
“I think we need to think very hard about how we can teach our children U.S. history in a way that tells the truth while still conveying the idea of America as a special nation,” she said. “It is really important that we no longer teach our children a whitewashed version of American history, but I think it’s also important not to overcorrect, which I worry is what we are now doing.”
For example, she noted that hundreds of students and faculty at the University of Virginia signed a letter saying they were offended when the university’s president quoted Thomas Jefferson, the school’s founder.
“George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slave owners, but they were also political visionaries who helped give birth to what became the most inclusive form of governance in world history,” Chua said.
Chua is the author or co-author of several books, including the international bestseller “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” “The Triple Package” and “Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations.”
Chua’s talk can be viewed on demand at BYUtv.org.