The Nature of Groups

May 9, 2011

In the aftermath of It's Great To Be an American Because We Killed Osama bin Laden Week, I'm obliged to confess that I had nothing to do with it. I did not assist in any way. This may be enough to take away my status as a real American, and if it does I don't know that I have any grounds for complaint. Though I am the descendant of a family that has been on these shores since the 17th Century, and though I was once a soldier in the armed forces of the United States, and even though I received an honorable discharge, these things are as nothing compared to my failure to celebrate great national achievements the way most of my fellow citizens do. You see, there's an even darker shadow on my Americanism. There is not a single person on the face of the earth that I wish to kill or wish to see killed. I'd say that just about clinches the case.

Here's another confession: I make these spoofy remarks as an entry to a subject I am serious about, and that is the individual person's relationship to groups. Though how we interact with groups doesn't get a lot of attention in public debate, I expect it to be the most important issue over the next century. And I hope our thoughts about how to relate to groups will be transformed by the end of that period.

At the moment, there are two main ways we define our connection to groups. One of them is far less powerful than the other, and it is the relative force of these two ways I would like to see reversed.

Sometimes we join groups because we know that numbers of persons acting together can achieve purposes which lie beyond the grasp of individuals. For example, we sign on to a campaign to clean up our community and on a given day we go out with gloves and garbage sacks to remove trash from the roadsides, parks, and other public areas. From my point of view this is a good thing. Not only are there accomplishments but participants feel good and get a boost by working with like-minded people. These forms of solidarity I think of as "cooperative groups" and I'm all for them. In fact, I think we need more of them in this country.

There is, however, a far more potent pattern of group membership, one I have become increasingly skeptical about. I'm speaking of the groups we think of as giving us our identity, as telling us who we are. These are nations, religions, professional associations, ideological cohorts, any sort of gathering that causes a person to feel that his own existence or even the existence of those he loves is of less significance than the goals of the association. These I think of as "identity groups."

Almost every night on TV I see a clip of John F. Kennedy declaiming, "Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country." I'm sick of that remark.

I can't see how it's consistent with human freedom to be so captive to a group identity that a person is restrained from constructing a distinctive life based on his or her own thoughts, discoveries and values. I know the arguments against that sort of conclusion. I've read and thought about them all my life. But I no longer think they hold up.

The basic stance of group identity is that it's important -- and more than important, essential -- to be a part of something greater than the self. This is viewed as a check on rampant egotism, which if it weren't reined in by group control would run amok and become sociopathic. We have plenty of examples of that happening, reported everyday in the newspapers. So, the notion goes, we certainly don't need any more.

That's true. We don't need any more. But it's also true that we have no evidence that loosening the grip of identity groups would produce any more. If you take religion, for example, and relate it to crime, there is no indication that persons not affiliated with religions are any more likely to be criminals than those who are.

We do know this, however. Every single identity group ends up with a power elite, and it is these power elites who, throughout history, have sent hordes of humans smashing against other hordes with murder in their hearts. You would think the time would finally come when we would want to try something else. It might be worth experimenting with relations among free-minded persons, as contrasted with those between and among group-minded persons, i.e., those dedicated to asking what they can do for their country, et cetera.

My own personal experience tells me it's much easier to have amiable interactions with persons who think for themselves than it is with those whose groups think for them. Men and women who have struggled to develop their own thoughts tend to have respect for those who are struggling in the same way. Even when disagreements occur, they are mitigated by the overarching understanding that each person needs to work to build himself, and that this is a long and arduous process, inevitably producing some wrong turns. People who argue with one another out of free minds seldom resort to murder. In fact, they tend to enjoy the argument. It adds spice to their lives.

I realize that asking people to step at least a little away from their identity groups is a shocking proposal, one that some will see as evil. But I can't perceive much transformation of humanity for the better until people try to do it. There are some, of course -- several of my good friends among them -- who think that the idea of significant human transformation is childish and absurd. I am happy to talk with them about it, without any desire to do them harm.

I recognize, obviously, that associations have influence in forming a person. That I grew up as a Christian, Protestant American makes me different from what I would have been had I grown up as a Muslim in Pakistan. But I am no longer willing to have either Christianity or the American nation, or any other identity group define who I am. I am a person with a distinct history, distinct thoughts, distinct longings, and that's the only way I want to see myself. The result may not be particularly grand. But it is factual.

Identity groups have controlled us for too long. As far as I can tell, they have made the world into a madhouse. I want to break their grip.

©John R. Turner

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