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.
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.