The Interview

Tiger Mother talks tribalism: Amy Chua on why U.S. society is slipping into perilous territory

The 'Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother' author is also a foreign policy expert, and her latest book delves into the impact ethnic and cultural rivalries can have on international relations - and how America’s blindness to this has led to domestic turmoil and foreign policy blunders.

Tribalism leads to a state where 'facts start not to matter,' warns Yale professor

Yale law professor Amy Chua, best known for her 2011 book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, says when tribalism takes over a political system, 'that's dangerous, because then you start to see everything through the lens of your own tribe and facts start not to matter.' (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

If you've heard or uttered the words "Tiger Mom," then chances are you know who Amy Chua is.  

But unless you're someone who happens to read popular non-fiction about law and foreign policy, you might not know that among other things, Chua is also an expert on foreign policy.

While the firestorm ignited by Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother may have made her a household name in parenting circles, her latest title has nothing to do with controversial approaches to child-rearing.

Rather, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and The Fate of Nations is about ethnic and cultural rivalries, and the profound impact they have on people and nations.

The 55-year-old Yale law professor argues that if the U.S. wants to avoid making foreign policy blunders and getting embroiled in unwinnable wars, it must stop being blind to the realities of political tribalism abroad.

And, she adds, "if we want to save our nation, we need to come to grips with its growing power at home."

Chua says the U.S. is falling victim to a dangerous social phenomenon that has, until now, been more typical of developing and non-Western countries.   

She says the signs include "ethno-nationalist movements, backlash against both the establishment and outsider minorities — and above all, the transformation of democracy into an engine of zero-sum political tribalism."

When groups feel mistreated or disrespected, they close ranks and become more insular and defensive, Chua tells CBC's Rosemary Barton. 'In America today, every group feels this way to an extent.' (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

When facts 'start not to matter'

In an interview with The National's Rosemary Barton, Chua describes human beings as inherently "tribal" creatures.

"We need to belong to groups. And once we connect with a group, our tendency is to want to cling to it and to defend it, and to think it's better than every other group."

She adds that this isn't always a bad thing.

"Family can be very tribalistic, and sports is very tribal.

A Yale law professor and foreign-policy expert, Chua decided to return to her professional roots with her book Political Tribes. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)
"The problem is when tribalism takes over a political system. That's dangerous, because then you start to see everything through the lens of your own tribe and facts start not to matter."

Chua says society is going through an unprecedented period in America. Its demographics are changing, and white Americans face the prospect of becoming a minority.

When groups feel threatened, they retreat into tribalism.- Amy Chua

"When groups feel threatened, they retreat into tribalism," she writes in her book.  

"When groups feel mistreated or disrespected, they close ranks and become more insular, more defensive, more punitive, more us-versus-them. In America today, every group feels this way to an extent."

Losing the nuance

Chua says she experienced the impact of what she calls the "tribal mindset" in a different context when she wrote the book that made her infamous around the world.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Motherwas released in 2011, and it immediately polarized opinions on that most universal and primal of human functions: raising children.

Her descriptions of denying her daughters sleep-overs, making them practice piano or violin for hours a day, and threatening to set their stuffed toys on fire if her expectations weren't met provoked outrage and even death threats.

Chua says she intended Battle Hymn to be a semi-satirical memoir, but it came to be seen by some as a deliberately provocative how-to guide, and she says all the nuance in her book was lost. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)
When the Wall Street Journal released an excerpt with the headline "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," it fed into anxieties about both parenting and China itself.

However, Chua tells CBC News the book was deeply misunderstood.  

What she intended as a semi-satirical memoir about the costs and rewards of her arguably extreme parenting style instead came to be seen as a deliberately provocative how-to guide.  

She says all the nuance in her book was lost when both critics and fans seized on the parts that reflected their own experiences.

"More than half the people were like, 'this is a parenting manifesto … I'm so glad you did this," Chua says.  

'Tiger Mom' author Amy Chua reflects on her shock when she learned Donald Trump had her book on his reading list (although she has her doubts he actually read it...). 1:10
"I would write back and say, 'I'm not saying it's better! I am saying that I'm proud I did it this way, and I certainly am a high-expectations person. But I didn't write it as a way to persuade other people to do this.'"

Others, meanwhile, were enraged at Chua for promoting parenting tactics that fed into damaging stereotypical views of Asian Americans.

Betty Ming Liu, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, was one of those who railed at Chua's ideas. On her blog, Liu described Chua as representing "lunatic, prestige-whoring Chinese parents." And she told the New York Times, "I'm horrified that she's American-born and hanging on to this when most us are trying to escape it."  

Blinded to basic humanity

Chua says the aftermath of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother made her more cautious about expressing opinions. But she decided it was time to go back to her foreign policy roots in a new book after an appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher back in 2014, where she talked about Ukrainian nationalism.  

The seeds of what would become Political Tribes were sown when Chua was faced with a barrage of tweets questioning why the "Tiger Mom" was qualified to talk about topics like the Crimean crisis.

After Chua appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher in 2014 to talk about Ukrainian nationalism, she was appalled by a barrage of tweets attacking her. (Janet Van Ham/Associated Press)
"I was getting sick of everywhere I was going, being referred to as 'Tiger Mom,'" the Yale professor says.

Still, looking back now, Chua says those reactions gave her unique insight into what it's like when tribal thinking blinds people to the basic humanity of others they disagree with.  

"At a very gut level, that experience I think alerted me to the dangers of that tribal mindset, because it was really intense."

Whether it's Sunnis or Shias , or pro-Trump or anti-Trump, once tribalism takes over the political system it's easy to demonize or dehumanize the other side.- Amy Chua

Chua says she wants to be clear that she didn't write Political Tribes as a conscious response to what she faced in the aftermath of Battle Hymn of The Tiger Mother. But the experience did inform her understanding of how dangerous the tribal mindset can be.

"I think a key part of it is that I experienced the destructiveness of tribalism. It was a harrowing, really difficult period," she says.

"I do write about that in the political context. Whether it's Sunnis or Shias, or pro-Trump or anti-Trump, once tribalism takes over the political system it's easy to demonize or dehumanize the other side. And that's exactly what happened to me."


Watch Rosemary Barton's interview with Amy Chua from The National:

Amy Chua, best known as the Tiger Mom, has a new book about what happens when tribalism takes over a political system. 11:56

About the Author

Tarannum Kamlani

Tarannum Kamlani is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared on the fifth estate and The National. She has also worked on a spectrum of shows on CBC Radio and Television, including Q and Power and Politics, and holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

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