Tag: political identity paradox
Any serious social movement needs a correspondingly serious group identity that encourages a core of members to contribute an exceptional level of commitment, sacrifice and heroics over the course of prolonged struggle. Strong group identity, however, is a double-edged sword. The stronger the identity and cohesion of the group, the more likely people are to become alienated from other groups, and from society. This is the political identity paradox.
The political identity paradox suggests that while political groups require a strong internal identity to foster the commitment needed for effective political struggle, this same cohesion tends to isolate the group. Isolated groups are hard-pressed to achieve political goals.
This is true of all groups, but tends to have particular consequences for a group involved in political struggle, which has not only to foster a strong internal identity: it also has to win allies.
The tendency toward isolation can escalate very quickly in political groups, as oppositional struggle can foster an oppositional psychology. Activists who meet the kind of brutal resistance that the civil rights movement endured, for example, have a tough row to hoe. On the one hand, participants need to turn to each other more than ever for strength and support. They feel a compelling cohesiveness to their group identity in these moments of escalated conflict. On the other hand, they need to keep outwardly oriented, to stay connected to a broad and growing base. This is difficult to do even when leaders are fully oriented to the task, let alone when they are unprepared, which is often the case.
Strong group identity is essential for social movements. There can be no serious social movement—the kind that challenges the powerful and privileged—without a correspondingly serious group identity that encourages a core of members to contribute an exceptional level of commitment, sacrifice and heroics over the course of prolonged struggle. This kind of group identity is clearly emerging right now among core participants in occupations across the country and around the world, and that’s a good thing.
However, strong group identity is also something of a double-edged sword. The stronger the identity and cohesion of the group, the more likely people are to become alienated from other groups, and from the broader society.
The Political Identity Paradox states that while social change groups require a strong internal identity in order to foster the level of commitment needed for protracted struggle, this same cohesion tends over time to isolate the group; and isolated groups are hard-pressed to build the kind of broad-based power needed to achieve the big changes they imagine.
This is the third post in a series.
Strong group identity is something of a double-edged sword for social justice movements. On the one hand—as discussed in part one of this series—it is absolutely essential. There can be no serious social movement—the kind that challenges the powerful and privileged—without a correspondingly serious group identity that encourages a strong core of members to contribute an exceptional level of commitment, sacrifice and heroics over the course of prolonged struggle.
On the other hand, a group’s identity tends to grow stronger and more cohesive at a cost of becoming more distinct from other group identities. The cost is the barrier that results from the distinction of said group from other groups. While this is true of all groups to some extent, it tends to have particular consequences for political/politicized groups. Take, for example, a sports team that defines its group identity partly in distinction from rival teams. The team is likely to play all the harder against their rivals as a result of the distinction. No problem there. A group engaged in political struggle, on the other hand, has not only to foster a strong within-group identity; it also has to win allies beyond the bounds of that identity — if it is to orchestrate and leverage the power it needs to accomplish its political goals. Add to this that oppositional struggle tends to trigger an oppositional psychology, which can inject “with steroids” the natural tendency of groups to differentiate themselves from outsiders.
I have called this tension (or double-bind) the Political Identity Paradox. Good leaders have to perform an extraordinary balancing act between the conflicting imperatives of building a strong within-group identity and connecting with allies and potential allies beyond the group.
Why do grassroots political organizations sometimes implode right at the peak of their success? This post examines the double-edged sword of highly cohesive political group identities and explores how to build vibrant campaigns while avoiding going (too) crazy…
natural born people pleasers
Imagine yourself a gazelle in a herd of gazelles. Aw snap, here comes a hungry lion out of nowhere – and that lion is fast! Is this the moment you want to be caught on the peripheral edges of the herd? Ok, now imagine yourself a lone wolf trying to catch your next meal. It’s freezing out and you’re not having much luck. You’re just sitting there, hungry and tired and cold, wondering what it was you said that got you kicked out of the pack.
What do we know about prehistoric life in human groups? While there’s a lot of mystery and conjecture, we do know that life was, indeed, in groups. We’re not gazelles or wolves, but, like gazelles and wolves, we like groups. We are highly social creatures. As evolutionist David Sloan Wilson suggests, “…our ancestors participated in family groups, gathering groups, hunting groups, raiding groups, and so on. Almost everything was done in a social context; to be alone was to be in grave danger.” [2004: The New Fable of Bees. my emphasis]
Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá also hit on this in their book Sex at Dawn: “If you ever doubt that human beings are, beyond everything, social animals, consider that short of outright execution or physical torture, the worst punishment in any society’s arsenal has always been exile.”
If the thought of being abandoned by the group that you identify with troubles you, congratulations; that’s probably a hard-wired adapted way to feel. Your cave-person ancestors probably survived in part because they liked, and were liked by, the group. Those who wandered off alone too far, as well as those who pissed everyone off until they got 86’ed, probably didn’t fare quite as well evolutionarily.
It makes evolutionary sense that we would want to move toward the center of the group, because those who developed this tendency would have a leg up on those who didn’t. This kind of selection may have helped our predecessors to evolve into a more social, more cooperative, kinder, gentler species.
Where does that leave us now? It likely equips us with a predisposition to try to get on the good side of the groups we’re part of. We want to feel safe in the center of the group, not threatened on the margins.
So, in some senses we’re a species of natural born people pleasers. (As long as those people are within our group – see War, xenophobia and other downsides to group selection.)
This helps explain our capacity for cooperation. In Part I of this series I argued that, under the right conditions, human beings have the capacity for behavior that serves the group, even at a cost to the individual. One “right condition” or prerequisite is a feeling of belonging within a mostly cooperative group. If an individual feels integrated within a group and feels like the group has her back – that she will benefit by casting her individual lot with the group – then she is more likely to display group-oriented behavior.
The degree to which a person identifies with the group will affect how much he is willing to give to the group. In other words, level of commitment to a group depends on the level of one’s investment and identity with that group. For example, an “online member” of an internet-based progressive organization may identify enough with “the group” to open every tenth email and occasionally call her member of Congress when asked; while a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) may identify strongly enough with “the group” to endure beatings, arrest, and worse.