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The new tribalism

Op-ed: no one ever said that free speech had to be free of ignorance and stupidity.

The United Nations is fond of designating "international days" to encourage the observation or celebration of some event or thing of ostensible interest to humanity. Some are clearly more important than others. For example, there are days dedicated to yoga, jazz, cooperatives, migratory birds, soil and television, to name but a few. And then there's April 7th, which marks one of the 20th century's great tragedies: the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

Having spent most of my professional life in Africa, I know something about tribalism. I experienced it firsthand during the Liberian civil war, when late at night in the port city of Buchanan I heard the screams of Gio and Mano civilians being dragged from their homes by the forces of beleaguered President Doe. I've seen it driving through the crowded streets of Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire, where mobs of wild-eyed young Christian men halted cars frantically searching for Muslims. I've seen it in Burundi where I watched a Hutu man melt into the tarmac under the intense heat of a burning tire placed around his body.

And then there was the master class in Rwanda 22 years ago, where the Tutsi dead lay in the doorways and windows and little flowered gardens of their homes, and where the smell of putrefaction lingered in the air for months. By the time it was over, a country known for its green-gray hills and shy, soft-spoken people was littered with 800,000 bodies.

In America, we make much of our multiculturalism, as if to say that while the rest of the world may still be subject to ugly blood feuds, our exceptionalism will keep us safe. Tribalism is something that other, lesser peoples do. But in fact, our overtly tribalistic past is relatively recent. As a boy growing up in 1960s Maryland, racial and ethnic slurs that today would be considered appalling were an important part of our lingua franca, and we used them freely among ourselves. During a college break, I recall hitchhiking down Interstate 95 into the South and being greeted by an immense billboard picturing a sword-wielding hooded knight on a charger with the message "The Ku Klux Klan welcomes you to North Carolina." Later, when my African-born wife and I walked the streets of our Baltimore neighborhood we sometimes became the target of insults from black men practicing their own sad brand of racism.

My lovely patient daughter, a recent college graduate, has friends of every race and religion, and the ease and harmony with which they interact seemed to me an indication that tomorrow's America could be a better place than the one I knew. Maybe, I thought, we really were on the verge of becoming "one nation indivisible."

Then along came Donald Trump with his Klan endorsements, his legion of furious fist-clenching supporters and his ready references to Mexican rapists and criminals and plans for banning Muslims. Mr. Trump's brand of hate may be spectacular, but it's not the least bit unique. He didn't open this Pandora's box of intolerance; it's become the go-to toolbox for divisionists of all stripes in this age of social media. On any given day, I read Facebook posts from right-wing zealots filled with blind rage, from illiberal liberals who castigate the very white privilege that produced so many of them, from self-designated representatives of racial groups — minority and majority — who see the world in zero-sum terms, from women who blame the patriarchy for all the world's woes, and from men who see women as playthings to be exploited.

Perhaps this babble of bigotry is simply the price one pays for living in a democracy; after all, no one ever said that free speech had to be free of ignorance and stupidity. On the other hand, having seen the real life consequences of hate speech, I get nervous, especially on April 7th.

Chris Hennemeyer is an international consultant who has lived and worked in Africa for over 30 years. His email is

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